Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Communication lessons from Ali v Frazier

Muhammad Ali has led the tributes to former world heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier who has died after a short illness. Ali, regarded by many as the greatest fighter ever and the BBC's Sports Personality of the Century, was gracious in his tribute to Frazier. It was Ali's treatment of Frazier in the early 1970s which is of interest from a communication perspective.

Ali, as well as being an unorthodox fighter, was the master of pre-match hype when he would 'trash-talk' his opponents. Ali was often funny and caustic in his comments, he could also be deeply hurtful in his bid to undermine those he was fighting. With Frazier he was intense in his characterisation which created a bitter rivalry.

Ali consistently portrayed Frazier as an inelegant, almost brainless, 'gorilla' which was in stark contrast to how Ali was perceived; full of wit and bonhomie to the media pack. Despite a magnificent performance in the epic 'Thrilla in Manila' Frazier lost the fight but he had lost the communication battle long before this.

What Ali did in the pre-fight build-up was define who he was and, most importantly,who his opponent was. If Frazier had of won then it is likely people would have concluded that Ali had been beaten by some 'wild animal', rather than a skilled and elegant fighter.

Obviously this is an extreme example, but all too often those in the public eye allow themselves and their reputation to be defined by others through spin or clever media management. Once this has happened then you are well on your way to losing the fight.   

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