As Mondays go, this one was pretty big.
Not only was it the 35th 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 would have turned 79 years old yesterday.
The man once known as the “Louisville Lip” was silenced by unforgiving health concerns over the last third of his life, 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 recent combat motor-mouths like Floyd Mayweather Jr., Conor McGregor or Deontay Wilder 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 regained 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 highest-profile champs – based on their single peak year and not their career body of work– since Ali set the bar.
1. 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.
2. 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 1992 is as good as there’s been.
3. 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.
4. Tyson Fury (2020) – I didn’t believe Fury would beat Klitschko in 2015, and I didn’t think he’d beat Wilder in their rematch in 2020. But now I’m a believer. Given his height, skill and pop, it’s difficult to see a lot of heavyweights handling him at his 100 percent self.
5. Wladimir Klitschko (2010) – A big man who could box and punch and ultimately climbed the historic charts with every dominant performance. Wound up getting into Louis and Holmes territory in terms of title defenses before losing to both Fury and Joshua at the end.
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. Went on a decade or more past vintage, but it didn’t tarnish a thing.
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 certain, 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 out-skilled by the best fighters close to his own size and out-foxed by the quicker and more powerful smaller ones.
11. Anthony Joshua (2017) – Another tall, athletic and powerful Brit, though he’s not as technically skilled as Fury. The loss to Andy Ruiz revealed weakness, but the victory in the immediate rematch showed a competitive mettle many thought he lacked.
12. Deontay Wilder (2017) – Has as much one-punch power as any heavyweight in the aforementioned time frame, but it’s masked technical deficiencies that Fury revealed over 19 rounds. He’s melted down into a puddle of excuses since the initial loss and it’s hard to imagine him regaining past stature.
13. 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.
14. 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.
15. 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.
16. 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 who maintained his name value 10 years later.
17. 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. Forty-plus years later, though, he remains the undisputed champion of toothless grins.
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBO junior featherweight title – Uncasville, Conn.
Angelo Leo (champion/No. 8 IWBR) vs. Stephen Fulton (No. 1 WBO/No. 18 IWBR)
Leo (20-0, 9 KO): First title defense; Two wins in two scheduled 12-round fights (2-0, 1 KO)
Fulton (18-0, 8 KO): Second title fight (1-0); Held IBO title at 122 pounds (2019, zero defenses)
Fitzbitz says: This is a nice matchup of young, talented fighters at 122 that someone is going to lose. I like Fulton and what he’s done since he’s raised his level, so I’ll lean his way. Fulton by decision (70/30)
Last week's picks: None
Final 2020 picks record: 39-10 (79.6 percent)
Overall picks record: 1,156-375 (75.5 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.