Since the earliest days of boxing, an athlete's chances of success were calculated almost exclusively by the “tales of the tape" — a series of physical measurements including the fighter’s fist, reach, chest expansion, and weight. This process was considered the most accurate predictor of which boxers would dominate in the ring, and which would fall short.
One of the fighters marked as "low potential" by his measurements was Muhammad Ali. He failed across the board. As Dr. Carol Dweck explains in her phenomenal book, Mindset, Muhammad Ali “was not a natural.” Not by a long shot — at least according to the only measurements anyone cared about.
So what made Ali one of the greatest boxers of all time? How’d he end up beating Sonny Liston, who outclassed Ali across every conceivable physical metric, and was also a "naturally talented" fighter?
The great secret behind Ali’s success wasn’t brawn, it was brains — he possessed what Dweck refers to as a growth mindset. Muhammad Ali’s success had much more to do with a psychological, not physical advantage.
“[Muhammad Ali] was not a natural. He had great speed but he didn’t have the physique of a great fighter, he didn’t have the strength, and he didn’t have the classical moves. In fact, he boxed all wrong. He didn’t block punches with his arms and elbows. He punched in rallies like an amateur. He kept his jaw exposed. He pulled back his torso to evade the impact of oncoming punches, which Jose Torres [former colleague of Ali] said was ‘like someone in the middle of a train track trying to avoid being hit by an oncoming train, not by moving to one or the other side of the track, but by running backwards.’”
“Sonny Liston, Ali’s adversary... had it all: the size, the strength, and the experience. His power was legendary. It was unimaginable that Ali could beat Sonny Liston. The matchup was so ludicrous that the arena was only half full for the fight.… Ali’s brilliance was [how he] sized up his opponent and went for his mental jugular."
When he was asked about his preparation for the fight, Ali said:
"I read everything I could. I talked with people who had been around [Liston] or had talked with him. I would lay in bed and put all of the things together and think about them, and try to get a picture of how his mind worked.”
He used everything he learned to wage psychological warfare against his opponent. (Side note: Arnold Schwarzenegger used to do the same thing.)
So, "why did Ali appear to ‘go crazy’ before each fight? Because […] he knew that a knockout punch is the one they don’t see coming. Ali said, ‘Liston had to believe that I was crazy. That I was capable of doing anything. He couldn’t see nothing to me at all but mouth and that’s all I wanted him to see!’"
Float like a butterfly,
Sting like a bee,
Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.
Ali’s win over Liston made boxing history. The public's interest was captivated by Ali in large part because he was such a paradox. He did everything wrong — except win.
Ali exemplifies the fundamental power of the growth mindset: It is in rising strong and pursuing victory with single-mindedness, regardless of natural gifts or inborn advantages. Instead of looking in the mirror and saying, “I’m not good enough to be a champion," he said, “If this isn't my path to greatness, I'm going to find a different one.” And he did.