By Lyle Fitzsimmons
As Mondays go, this week’s was a pretty big one.
Not only was it the 25th incarnation of a holiday honoring a leader taken far too soon from his calling, but it also marked another anniversary of the birth of a man to whom fans my age and older give credit for planting the seeds for a lifelong love of the sport.
Muhammad Ali turned 69 years old yesterday, and, from all accounts, celebrated the milestone in the same spotlight-free way in which the most-recent third of his life has been lived.
As all who know the story are aware, the man once known as the “Louisville Lip” has been silenced by unforgiving health concerns over the years, robbing from today’s youngest generations a first-hand glimpse of the brash emperor who ruled the ring for nearly two full decades.
It’s an irony history’s best storytellers would be hard-pressed to concoct.
Love him or loathe him, Ali changed the game forever and provided a blueprint from which all subsequent athletes – particularly those with a gift for gab – could borrow while constructing their own larger-than-life personalities in an increasingly media-sopped environment.
It’d be hard to imagine modern-day motor-mouths like Floyd Mayweather Jr., Terrell Owens, Charles Barkley or Rex Ryan had it not been for Ali’s emergence and the paradigm shift he authored while dethroning Sonny Liston to become the most recognized man on the planet.
Sure, they all talk, but it’s not as if we’ve never seen it before.
And not only did he do it first, he did it better.
But with all that sizzle, it’s becomes far too easy to forget the steak.
Too often lost amid flowery poetry and Cosell banter is the fact that, between his debut in 1960 and his last great night in New Orleans 18 years later, there wasn’t a single man Ali faced – journeyman, title-holder, Hall of Famer or otherwise – that he didn’t beat.
And in nearly 50 years since he first ascended the heavyweight throne, not one subsequent claimant has proven himself equally worthy of the moniker, “The Greatest.”
Here’s one man’s ranking of the best consensus champs and their best years since Ali set the bar:
1. Muhammad Ali (1966) – Fought them all. Beat them all. Sometimes a showman. Sometimes a shadow. But always a brave and tough warrior who possessed far more mettle than his persona might have indicated. The best heavyweight who ever lived.
2. Larry Holmes (1982) – The most underappreciated champion in the division’s history and a legitimate No. 2 on any list of its champions, regardless of the years included. Had he been given the proper decision in the Spinks rematch, might have retired at a stellar 49-1.
3. Riddick Bowe (1992) – If Ali is the greatest and Holmes the most underappreciated, then Bowe comes in as the most enigmatic. His post-Holyfield body of work is a pock mark, but the “Big Daddy” who fought from November to May in that stretch is as good as there’s been.
4. Lennox Lewis (2002) – Might have lost to Bowe on both men’s best nights, but otherwise did a clean-up job on the division that Rock Newman’s charge was unable to fashion. A big man’s heart and wonderful technique far outlasted an occasionally balky chin.
5. Wladimir Klitschko (2010) – A big man who can box and punch and is rapidly climbing the charts with every dominant performance. A unification blowout of David Haye, if it ever happens, might be good enough to get him to No. 3.
6. Evander Holyfield (1991) – Got more out of a smallish physique than anyone outside of Atlanta ever predicted and dominated a still-dangerous Tyson long after most were sure his best days had passed. Still going a decade or more past vintage.
7. George Foreman (1973, 1994) – On the winning and losing ends of two of the division’s most dramatic moments – losing to Ali in Zaire and decking the overconfident Moorer 20 years later in Las Vegas. The Lampley call of the latter is as good as it gets.
8. Mike Tyson (1988) – As menacing and violent as there’s ever been while intimidating a laundry list of foes into an early defeat. Still, he took advantage of a so-so division in his prime and was no better than an also-ran against fellow elites like Holyfield and Lewis.
9. Joe Frazier (1971) – A solid pro, to be sure, but quite possibly the most overrated heavyweight in history. Was a notable foil to Ali, but wound up 1-4 with three KO losses against his two best foes (Ali and Foreman), with a whole lot of cannon fodder elsewhere.
10. Vitali Klitschko (2004) – A big man who’s made as remarkable a comeback from four years off as there’s ever been. That said, he would likely be outskilled by the best fighters close to his own size and outgutted by the quicker and more powerful smaller ones.
11. Buster Douglas (1990) – For 10 rounds on one night in Japan was among the best heavyweights of all time, but never replicated the effort in any subsequent fights. Too lazy and too fat against Holyfield, stupidly costing himself even more money than he raked in.
12. Michael Spinks (1985) – The prototype for light heavyweights wanting to move up for a shot at bigger paychecks, using guile to topple an old Holmes and talent to handle an overmatched Cooney. Loss to Tyson, however, showed he didn’t truly belong with the division’s best.
13. Michael Moorer (1994) – A light heavyweight menace who was inspired to one great heavyweight moment with Teddy Atlas calling the shots against Holyfield. The loss to Foreman, though, curtailed what might have been an interesting mid-90s run.
14. Hasim Rahman (2001) – A one-hit wonder who inspired George Foreman to song in South Africa, but was brought back to reality by a rededicated Lewis after his “Ocean’s Eleven” star turn was complete. A solid second-tier heavyweight with name value 10 years later.
15. Leon Spinks (1978) – Became a late-70s sensation with one stunning night in Las Vegas, then gave it all back seven months later in what should have been Ali’s goodbye. Thirty-plus years later, though, he remains the undisputed champion of toothless grins.
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
No fights scheduled.
Overall picks record: 172-54 (76.1 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him at www.twitter.com/fitzbitz .