The Invaluable Lesson Salespeople Can Learn From Muhammad Ali

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Jeff Hoffman
Jeff Hoffman





I recently watched the documentary “When We Were Kings,” which examines the 1974 heavyweight championship boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. It was a fantastic film, but beyond its entertainment value, it also contains a valuable lesson for salespeople. 

Going into the fight, Foreman was the favorite. Young, brutal, and viciously strong, the odds were on Foreman to defeat the older, smaller, and less powerful Ali. The only way Ali even stood a chance of winning, according to boxing experts, was if he avoided Foreman by dancing around the ring, making use of his impressive speed.

But when the fight started, it was clear that Ali was not going to use this tactic. Instead, after briefly going on the offensive, he switched to defense and simply absorbed Foreman’s hits. Punch after punch, Ali stood and took the blows.

Everyone thought he was crazy -- what kind of a tactic was this? Isn’t the point of boxing to not get hit?

However, Ali’s strategy began to pay off in the later rounds of the match. After throwing so many powerful punches, Foreman was exhausted. Ali took advantage of his opponent’s fatigue and went back on the offensive, knocking him out in the eighth round. He was declared the winner, and awarded the championship title. 

The Power of Absorbing the Punch

How does this apply to sales? Reps often fall prey to the belief that the only way a prospect will buy is if they can effectively overcome each and every single one of that buyer’s objections. They think buyers will only purchase something they’re 100% on board with.

But that’s not true at all. All that a salesperson needs to do to win business is prove that their offering is the best option among all the alternatives -- not that it’s a 100% exact perfect fit. Similarly, not every objection needs to be “overcome” -- sometimes it’s smarter to pick your battles and simply absorb the punch. 

In sales, “absorbing the punch” means accepting an objection at face value, without trying to negate or overcome it. Here’s what this might sound like in conversation: 

Salesperson: “Hi Dana, I’m Mike calling from Acme Corp.”

Buyer: “Oh … we already evaluated Acme Corp. six months ago, and it wasn’t a fit.”

Salesperson: “Ah. Well, if you looked at us six months ago and came to that conclusion, you were probably right.”

Instead of arguing against the prospect’s decision, the salesperson simply accepts the information. And here’s where the beauty of this tactic comes in: Because the prospect is so used to salespeople fighting back in similar scenarios, they’re not prepared for this unexpected conversational detour. And this leaves a valuable opening for the salesperson: 


Salesperson: “The good news is I can determine in five minutes if things on your end or our end have changed to the extent that our product would be a better fit now.”

Buyer: “Oh, uh … sure, that makes sense.” 

Whereas before the prospect was running on autopilot and ready to hang up the phone, they’re now engaged with the rep and ready to have a conversation.

Here’s another example:

Salesperson: “Hi Sam, I’d like to talk to you about how your design team works.”

Buyer: “Well I’m not the right person to talk to about that.”

Salesperson: “Oh, okay.”


Salesperson: “Well, what do you do?” 

Instead of following up the buyer’s objection with “Who is the right person?” -- the question the prospect expects and is prepared to dismiss -- the rep accepted the information, and pivoted the conversation in a different direction. After building some rapport with the contact, it’s far more likely they’ll be willing to introduce the rep to the buyer for the design team.

Besides getting buyers to lower their guard, there are a few other benefits to absorbing the punch every now and then:

  • It makes the prospect feel heard. At the end of the day, everyone wants to be heard. When a rep accepts an objection and doesn’t attempt to argue with it, the buyer feels respected and like the rep is truly listening.
  • It creates conversations, not confrontations. Nothing will put a bad taste in a buyer’s mouth faster than a rep questioning their decisions or conclusions. Absorbing the punch leaves the door open for a conversation by skipping the argument about who’s right and who’s wrong entirely.
  • It shows the buyer that you can handle the truth. When a buyer sees that a salesperson can accept information they don’t necessarily agree with without flying off the handle, they’re more likely to be honest and forthright about sticking points and concerns -- throughout the sales process. 

The next time you get a hasty brush-off objection like one of the examples above, don’t rush to deflect the punch -- try absorbing it instead. By strategically absorbing the punch from time to time, you might just find that you emerge “victorious” at the end of the match, with a new customer to show for it. 

See how you can make Jeff’s proven sales strategies and techniques work for you at our San Francisco and Boston fall workshops -- both happening in October. Learn more here.

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