“I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.”
— Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was “The Greatest.”
Everyone knows that, but there’s something that seems to be lost in the deification of the man born Cassius Clay: he wasn’t unbeatable.
Ali actually lost five times in his career, and while three of those defeats can be overlooked since they happened in his final four fights, when he was old and feeble, two occurred in the midst of his prime. He lost the “Fight of the Century” by unanimous decision to Joe Frazier in 1971 and lost by split decision to Ken Norton in 1973, suffering a broken jaw in the process.
He wasn’t invincible. He was beatable. Like all of them.
Virtually all of the great ones have lost — and lost big.
Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback in NFL history and has a record five Super Bowl rings, but he’s also lost three Super Bowls, as well as four AFC Championship games. His team’s loss in Super Bowl XLII prevented the New England Patriots from becoming the first team in history to go 19–0.
Brady was 1–3 against rival Peyton Manning in AFC Championship games, who himself was only 2–2 in Super Bowls. John Elway lost three Super Bowls handily before finally breaking through twice at the end of his career. Jim Kelly led a record-breaking offense but lost four Super Bowls in a row. Joe Montana was 4–0 in the Super Bowl, but lost twice in the NFC title game.
Like Montana, when discussing Michael Jordan, many point to his perfect 6–0 record in the NBA Finals to solidify the argument that he is the greatest basketball player in history. However, the flaw in that argument is that Jordan played fifteen seasons in the NBA. Even if you exclude the two years with the Washington Wizards (which you shouldn’t), that still leaves 13 seasons, meaning there were seven times in which Jordan failed to even reach the Finals. Prior to 1991, and the ascension of Scottie Pippen, Jordan was in his absolute prime — in ’88 alone, he led the league in both scoring and steals, won the All-Star Game MVP, and was the first player to win the NBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year Award in the same season — yet was stymied by the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference playoffs three straight years.
This was the era of the Jordan Rules and Sports Illustrated covers showing Joe Dumars stopping Jordan, the narrative often being that MJ didn’t have what it took to win a championship.
LeBron James is probably the most complete player in NBA history and has plenty of Finals records to his name — including being the only player to lead both teams in all five major statistical categories — but virtually everyone is aware of his sub-.500 NBA Finals record of 3–6, including his complete meltdown in the 2011 Finals.
Kobe Bryant, who famously said that LeBron has to “find a way” to win, has five rings of his own, but he also lost in the NBA Finals twice, including a 39-point loss in a championship-deciding game. Four other times, his team missed the playoffs entirely.
Magic Johnson lost nearly as many Finals as he won, finishing with a record of 5–4 and having to endure the nickname of “Tragic” Johnson for his play in 1984. Jerry West, the man whose silhouette serves as the NBA’s logo and the one that was dubbed “Mr. Clutch,” had a Finals record of 1–8. Hall of Famers Julius Erving, Gail Goodrich, and Bob Pettit each finished their careers going 1 –3 in the Finals.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
— Theordore Roosevelt, “The Man in the Arena”
It goes far beyond just sports.
The acronym “G.O.A.T” — Greatest Of All Time — is so ubiquitous that it has entered the lexicon but, ironically, the man that coined the term, LL Cool J, has endured his own string of L’s throughout his career, including a lukewarm response to the very loftily-titled album that birthed the term.
Plenty of great artists have taken massive losses.
The Beatles released Yellow Submarine. Steven Spielberg made 1941. Nas crafted Nastradamus. Tom Wolfe penned I Am Charlotte Simmons. Jack Nicholson starred in Man Trouble. The Rolling Stones made Dirty Work. Jay-Z created Kingdom Come. U2 made Pop. Salman Rushdie wrote Fury. Brian De Palma filmed The Bonfire of the Vanities. Eminem gave us Revival. Meryl Streep agreed to She-Devil.
It happens. All of the greats lose.
Yet, in addition to taking major L’s, the greats also bounce back from those failures.
Meryl Streep has been nominated for an Academy Award thirteen times since. Brian De Palma went on to direct Carlito’s Way and Mission: Impossible.
Tom Wolfe sold the manuscript for Back to Blood for nearly $7 million.
Nas made Stillmatic. Jay-Z made American Gangster. LL Cool J became the first rapper to receive the Kennedy Center Honor. The Beatles made Abbey Road.
Kobe won back-to-back titles. LeBron ended a city’s drought. Jordan and the Bulls swept the Pistons en route to six titles. Manning ended his career with a Super Bowl victory.
And Ali came back and defeated both Frazier and Norton twice each.
He was “The Greatest,” not because he couldn’t lose, but because he came back from losing. That may make him seem more mortal, but I believe it also makes him more inspirational.
Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.