By Cliff Rold
He was a fighter.
It’s easy sometimes to lose sight of that.
Muhammad Ali was and has become so many things to so many over the years. Symbol, icon, hero, villain, and often a reflection for his generation; Ali was always a fighter first.
It’s why we knew him. It’s where the child born Cassius Clay made his way to the world stage. It’s what created a space for a new type of sports personality. There are those who tried to diminish that over the years.
In 1996, the height of the Ali public renaissance, the former light heavyweight gold medalist lit the Olympic torch at the Atlanta Games and moved the globe to tears one more time. His hands shaking, his body ravaged by Parkinson’s syndrome, he was back where it all began for him. A famous tale (probably more folklore than reality) had Ali casting his Olympic medal into the Ohio River in protest of injustice in the nation he’d represented.
In Atlanta he was awarded a replacement medal in a televised ceremony. That ceremony didn’t come surrounded by the young faces of American amateur fighters hoping to someday scale the heights he did. The photos of the ceremony aren’t framed with Antonio Tarver, Fernando Vargas, and Floyd Mayweather looking on.
Instead Ali was awarded his replacement medal surrounded by Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, and Scottie Pippen at halftime of a basketball game. The foolish corporate message was clear: Ali was too big for boxing.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Ali was, and remains even on the sad occasion of his passing, the face of the sport that defined him. There will be many a reflection about his broader influence, his contributions as a man, and the character he displayed outside the ring.
What we can’t forget is the foundation of it all.
The greatest prizefighter that ever lived is gone.
In looking back on Ali’s fistic mark, four categories will be examined:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
How do we measure the greatest of all time against all time?
The Tale of the Tape
Born: January 17, 1942
Hailed From: Louisville, Kentucky
Turned Professional: October 29, 1960 (UD6 Tunney Hunsaker)
Record: 59-5, 37 KO, 1 KOBY
Record in World Title Fights: 22-3, 14 KO, 1 KOBY (All lineal)
Title Reigns: February 25, 1964 – February 1, 1970; 9 Defenses, Retired; October 30, 1974 – February 15, 1978, 10 Defenses; September 15, 1978 – July 27, 1979, Retired
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 7 (Archie Moore TKO4; Sonny Liston RTD6, KO1; Floyd Patterson TKO12, RTD7; Bob Foster KO8; Joe Frazier UD12, RTD14; George Foreman KO8; Leon Spinks UD15)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 3 (Joe Frazier L15; Leon Spinks L15; Larry Holmes RTD10)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 2 (Ernie Terrell UD15; Jimmy Ellis TKO12; Ken Norton SD12, UD15)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Faced in Defeat: 2 (Ken Norton L12; Trevor Berbick L10)
Ali, then Clay, won two National AAU title at light heavyweight in 1959 and 1960 en route to the culmination of his amateur career, a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Games. He was still just eighteen years old when, little more than a month after the Olympics, he turned professional as a 192 lb. heavyweight.
Amassing a 19-0 mark with 15 stops, a 22-year old Clay fought and talked his way into a crack at the heavyweight championship of the world. Less than four years a professional, he scored an upset stoppage of the feared Liston to begin his first reign as the king of boxing. Changing his name and announcing his affiliation with the Nation of Islam, Ali was stripped by the WBA and NYSAC before his rematch with Liston but remained the recognized champion by the WBC, Ring Magazine, the bulk of the press, and even most of a viewing public with divided feelings about him.
Ali would defend the title nine times and captured the WBA title from Ernie Terrell in February 1967. His refusal to enter the Vietnam draft cost him his fighting license in the US later in the year. While Ring Magazine and other publications would continue to recognize him as the rightful champion for several years, the WBA and NYSAC began tournaments to crown his replacement. Ali would formally, if only briefly, announce his retirement from boxing in 1970, vacating history’s crown in the process.
Any claim remaining to the title was erased in March 1971 when then-recognized and unified champion Joe Frazier defeated Ali.
He would not regain the title until October 1974. Again playing the significant role of underdog, as he had with the fearsome Liston, Ali knocked out George Foreman. He defended the title ten times in his second reign.
He would lose the title in the ring for the first time in early 1978, defeated by professional novice Leon Spinks only to regain it for the final time later in the year. To date he remains the only fighter in boxing history to win the lineal heavyweight crown three times.
Along with his amateur and professional titles, Ali collected an array of outside the ring honors. Ali was named in, or as, the:
• Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year: 1963, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1978
• BWAA Fighter of the Year: 1965, 1974, 1975 (Co-honored with Joe Frazier)
• Ring Magazine Fight of the Year: 1963, 1964, 1971, 1974, 1975, 1978
• Ring Magazine Round of the Year: 1970, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1975, 1978
• Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year: 1974
• #9 – Ring Magazine Greatest Heavyweight of All Time: March 1975
• #1 – Ring Magazine Greatest Heavyweight of All Time: May 1994
• #2 – Ring Magazine Top 50 Fighters of the Last 50 Years: June 1996
• #1, #4, #33, & #60 – Ring Magazine 100 Greatest Title Fights All Time: Holiday 1996
• #1 – Boxing Illustrated All-Time Heavyweights: Nov/Dec 1997
• #5 – Boxing Illustrated All-Time Pound for Pound: Nov/Dec 1997
• #1 – Ring Magazine Greatest Heavyweight of All Time: Holiday 1998
• #1 – BBC Sports Personality of the Century: 1999
• #2 – ESPN Sports Century Top 50 Athletes of the 20th Century: 1999
• #4 – AP Top 100 Athletes of the 20th Century: 1999
• #2 – AP Top Ten Fighters of the Century: 1999
• #1 – AP Top Ten Heavyweights of the Century: 1999
• #3 – Ring Magazine 80 Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years: Annual 2002
• #7 – Ring Magazine 90th Anniversary Pound for Pound: February 2012
• #1, #3, #17, #23 – Sports Illustrated Top 25 Superfights of All Time: 2015
Ali was developed quickly but wisely, facing one-time contender Alex Miteff by 1961 and tackling fellow undefeated Billy Daniels in 1962. In 1963, he faced serious contender and former light heavyweight title challenger Doug Jones in what, to then, was the closest and most debated win of his career. He followed with an off the floor stoppage of contender Henry Cooper to set the stage for Liston.
Liston, who hadn’t lost since a 1954 split decision in only his eighth pro fight, entered the bout having defended once with knockouts in thirteen of his previous fourteen starts. Ali used a dramatic edge in hand and foot speed to build a lead on the cards and forced Liston to retire in the corner with a shoulder injury after six. All of Ali’s subsequent nine title defenses, including an immediate and controversial rematch with Liston, a defeat of former champion Floyd Patterson, and the unification bout with Terrell, came against contenders rated in the top ten by Ring Magazine.
Returning from exile in late 1970, Ali didn’t seek out a soft touch. He immediately faced top ten contenders Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, stopping the former on cuts and the latter in the fifteenth round. His first defeat, to an undefeated Joe Frazier for the title, was followed by a string of ten victories. Among his notable foes were rated contenders that included former title claimant Jimmy Ellis, Patterson again (in his final fight), and Mac Foster. He split two narrow fights with then relatively unknown Ken Norton in 1973 and avenged his loss to Frazier to set the stage for a shot at Foreman.
Handing Foreman his first professional defeat, Ali kept on facing contenders. Lesser contenders like Joe Bugner and Chuck Wepner came on either side of hard nights against Ron Lyle and in a final “Thrilla” with Frazier.
Following Frazier, Ali took on some softer touches like Richard Dunn and Jean-Pierre Coopman while also picking up hotly debated decisions over contender Jimmy Young and Norton. In his final successful title defense, he gutted out a decision over big punching Earnie Shavers. Spinks, Holmes, and Berbick closed out his career.
Competition Not Faced
As always, this section is not concerned with why certain fights didn’t occur; simply that they did not.
Look again at just the sample above of the names of the fighters Ali faced and it’s hard to find many he missed. During his active title years from 1964-78, he faced a who’s who of top ten contenders as both champion and man on the chase. That doesn’t mean one can’t argue he didn’t miss a few in terms of rematches.
There was never a second fight with Foreman or a Young who made a case to deserve one. There was also no fourth fight with Norton despite Ali appearing to many to lose their rubber match. Norton was the leading contender when Ali chose to face a Spinks who was not expected to be a serious threat. There are other names that came in and out of the ratings over the years but none so notable as to merit much note here.
Reaction to Adversity
Ali could be dropped.
Ali always got up.
His most famous trip to the floor came in the first fight with Frazier. Dropped with a perfect left hook at the end of a grueling war, Ali was up in a flash and finished the fight. There are those who wonder if Henry Cooper might have finished him in their first fight if not for some crafty corner work from Angelo Dundee that stretched the break between rounds four and five. There are others who wonder if he could have gone three more minutes in the final bout with Frazier.
The breadth of his career says yes to both. Yes Ali could be dropped but he showed a rare combination of strong whiskers and will throughout his career. Against Norton the first time, he kept fighting for some ten rounds with a broken jaw. Well past his prime, and sometimes not entering the ring as professionally as he once had, his fifteenth round effort against Shavers spoke to how deep the well of his ring character went. He was hurt by a younger man with some of the hardest hands ever and found a way to win the frame.
His opponent selection also spoke to how he reacted to adversity. He could have parlayed his name into easy fights on the road to Frazier in 1971. He didn’t. He could have done the same in lobbying for a return with Frazier after the loss. He did the opposite, fighting anyone he could while Frazier largely took the next two years off.
Combine that with his involvement in arguably the two greatest and most violent heavyweight title fights ever, the first and last with Frazier, and there was almost no question Ali didn’t answer in this regard. Even against Holmes, Ali had to be saved from himself. There was no quit in him. He was a fighter to the end.
Measured Against History
Muhammad Ali was a fighter.
But of course he was so much more. There are plenty of people who achieve fame. There are some who become larger than life. Fewer still become giants, the kind of persons whose last names are uttered long after they’re gone and still bring a nod of acknowledgement. In boxing, Ali’s status as a giant is rivaled by only one man: Joe Louis.
That fellow giant is also his chief competition for placement as the greatest heavyweight of all time. While their styles are dissimilar, their careers have some parallels. Both arrived at the title within their first four years as a professional. Both had their careers interrupted for several years by issues beyond the ring (Ali by Vietnam, Louis by World War II).
Louis’s record setting title reign remains the benchmark for championship greatness. It’s never been surpassed. Ali had a genuine shot to do it. Would he have been able to defeat Joe Frazier, likely twice, as a defending champion? Could he have held off a young George Foreman with different miles on his tires and under different circumstances?
We’ll never know. We’ll also never know for sure who the better man might have been had Ali and Louis met in the same era.
Opponent for opponent though, the case for Ali as the better of the two is strong. Louis beat several very good former champions like Max Baer and Max Schmeling, and knocked out Joe Walcott to end his title reign.
As good as those fighters were, it’s hard to find the combination of violence and skill Liston, Frazier, and Foreman represented. That’s as good a trifecta of wins as any fighter has ever amassed in any class.
And no one ever called Ali’s foes a bum of the month club.
That label has often been applied unfairly, and out of context, against Louis. Had Ali never been forced off the stage, maybe he just dominates the field. Many of the fighters who proved to be as valuable as they were to the era (like Bonavena, Quarry, Lyle, and Shavers) might not have received their just desserts. The fighters Ali bested in his first reign, when he was lapping the field, are rarely recalled as fondly as what came when he slowed down.
What ifs don’t obscure how it all played out. The late 1960s and 1970s were years of impressive heavyweight depth. It was the arguably the greatest, most talented era in the division’s history. It featured the greatest rivalry in boxing, if not sporting, history in Ali-Frazier and Ali came out ahead.
How good a period was it? Foreman, whose only stoppage loss was to Ali, came back to regain the heavyweight crown twenty years after losing to Ali. That was during a heavyweight decade many would argue was second only to the Ali era.
It was a special time. Ali was its leader and most accomplished battler.
Ali overwhelmingly fought the fights he should have when he should have. The scale in favor of foes faced versus those who he didn’t tilts so heavily in his favor that the best one can point to are rematches with fighters he’d already seen.
He fought tough outs when they were perceived to be the most dangerous for him. There was some ebb to that after the final Frazier fight, but even then he was still fighting Young, Norton, and Shavers. He got lucky on the cards a few times but so did lots of the great ones. Ultimately, Ali is credited with wins over seven fighters in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
If Ali was the best in the best era ever at heavyweight, what does that make him?
There can be an argument about how he rates relative to his weight class. Even Ali acknowledged Sugar Ray Robinson as his better, pound for pound.
Real boxing doesn’t occur in that mythical realm. It happens in the ring. Heavyweight is the peak of the boxing world. Ali is the peak of heavyweight achievement. That makes Ali exactly what he always said he was.
Muhammad Ali was, literally, the greatest fighter of all time.
In four decades since the third Frazier fight took the rest of his best, we’ve not seen another heavyweight as good. Mike Tyson, Larry Holmes, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, and Wladimir Klitschko have all made their marks as great heavyweights. None has come close to challenging Ali’s mantle as the greatest.
Ali meant so much to so many in the world, growing from a source of controversy to one largely loved and respected by even those who reviled him in his prime. His dignity in dealing with Parkinson’s, his contributions to humanitarian causes, and the guts he showed in standing on principle when it cost him millions, enhanced him.
But it was what he did in the ring that ultimately defined him and opened the door for all of those other things to matter.
Muhammad Ali was a fighter.
The best there ever was.
Boxing has never replaced him. The rest of the world never will either.
Verdict on Muhammad Ali: R.I.P. G.O.A.T.
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series examining the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest. This special retro edition makes an exception for one of the finest ring warriors ever to grace the ring.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com