In June of 1941, Joe Louis was fighting a losing fight against light heavyweight champion Billy Conn at the Polo Grounds in New York in what has been described as the greatest fight in boxing history.

Louis was at the height of his power and abilities. But Conn, at 169 pounds – an almost impossible to believe weight for a challenger in a heavyweight title fight by today’s standards – was just too smart and too fast for Louis on this particular day, and after twelve rounds he was a few short minutes away from a shocking upset.

Conn never had a logical answer to the only first question ever asked him for the rest of his days as to what he was thinking as he came out of his corner for the thirteenth round. As one reporter described it, after staggering Louis in the eleventh and twelfth rounds, Conn “came down off his toes” and decided to slug it out with the most deadly puncher of his day. Conn went toe to toe with Louis in that fateful thirteenth round and his error in judgment got him knocked out at 2:58 in the round.

Conn decided that while winning on points would make him the heavyweight champion of the world, it wasn’t good enough. He wanted to knock the great Joe Louis out. Louis knew that he could still win the fight with one punch, and Conn surprisingly obliged him by standing still long enough to deliver it.

Conn forgot that the point of the fight was to win the fight, wrongly deciding that a knockout was better than a unanimous decision. Louis knew that the point of the fight was to win the fight, with a knockout the only option available to him. What surrounds the point is ancillary. What matters must be kept in focus.

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Key Takeaways:

The buzz, the social media, the artistic ads and the industry awards don’t matter. Sales matter. If the ancillary bits and pieces create the sales, then fine. But remember what you’re showing up to do.

You don’t need to win the war for style points, praise or trappings. You just need to win where it matters, when it matters. Focusing on the real goal in the midst of chaos and charged situations is what separates wins from losses.

You don’t have to win everywhere. Often, the opportunity to win presents itself almost impossibly late in the game. Focusing on the goal and staying open to cracks in your opponent’s strategies reveal competitive advantages for those who stay alert.

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We all get wrapped up in the hubris of our jobs, spending time and collective effort on the bureaucracy of our corporate cultures. We remember to assemble the presentation deck with the right chapter headings for the senior staff meeting but we spend little time thinking hard about what our customers and channel partners really want. As marketers, we never spend enough time actually “marketing” to our “market.”

It’s worth it to remind ourselves often where the goal really is.


PS: photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.