By Thomas Gerbasi
At this point in time, it wouldn’t be out of line to assume that there is nothing new to be learned about Muhammad Ali. Countless books have tackled every aspect of the life of “The Greatest,” some even focusing on a single fight or period of his 74 years on the Earth.
But in “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers,” a new book by Compubox president Bob Canobbio and boxing historian and scribe Lee Groves, Ali the boxer takes center stage. And while there are insights and stats we’ve never been exposed to before, it’s also a reminder that often the myths take over from reality when it comes to the former heavyweight champ’s career.
And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, I think it only adds to Ali’s legend as the best heavyweight of all-time.
Case in point, ask anyone about “The Rumble in the Jungle,” his epic 1974 bout with George Foreman. The first thing they’ll likely say is that everyone thought that Ali was going to get murdered by “Big” George, who had destroyed the only two men to beat Ali at that point, Ken Norton and Joe Frazier.
That doesn’t change. But the next thing to come up will be Ali’s victory, and how he used the “rope-a-dope” strategy to wear Foreman out and then stop him. Again, no changes in the story, but most would assume that this means Ali took seven rounds of abuse before finishing Foreman in the eighth.
Not so fast.
According to the research done by Canobbio and Groves, not only was Ali in the fight before he ended it, but he was winning it on all three scorecards at the time of the knockout by scores of 68-66, 69-66 and 70-67.
Add in Groves’ detail-filled round-by-round report, and it’s something we might have never seen before when it comes to Ali literature, and that’s a complete focus on what happened in the ring.
Now the book’s 346 pages do obviously deal with Ali’s life outside the ring and how that affected his career, but the reason for the book is to examine what happened between the ropes. The initial hook is obviously having fight-by-fight stats for 47 of Ali’s 61 pro fights. It was project that began when CompuBox was contracted by “Ali: A Life” author Jonathan Eig to break down each bout that had complete footage for the research on his book and to show just how many punches Ali delivered and took over the course of his career.
And those numbers do tell quite the tale, whether on a fight-by-fight basis or in comparison to other heavyweight champs of the past. There is also a clear decline in his later years, something that was visible even before the stats confirmed it. Most brutal is obviously his second to last fight against Larry Holmes in 1980, when Ali only landed 42 of 198 punches on Holmes, who landed his 340 blows at a frightening 52.2% accuracy clip with none of those shots landing to the body.
But Groves is the real star of the show, as his tireless research has pulled out an endless array of interesting pre and post-fight tidbits from the reporters of the time and quotes from the fighters that bring those days back to life.
It’s not just the big fights with Frazier, Foreman, Liston and Norton that get this treatment. It’s all the fights that are broken down here, and you get a read for where Ali’s head was at and his status in the sport at the time throughout. Before his 1962 fight with Sonny Banks, Ali (then Cassius Clay), said, “Why do they have to get me unrated bums? I’m tired of being fed on set-ups?”
Ali hit the canvas for the first time in his career against Banks, but he rose to stop his foe in the fourth round to move to 11-0. Two years later he was fighting Sonny Liston for the title, a fight that was a draw on the scorecards (Ali 59-56, 56-58 and 57-57) when Liston quit on his stool.
It wasn’t the chronological beginning of one of the greatest careers ever, but it was the start of Ali’s road to greatness at the top of the sport, a road that may not have been described better than in “Muhammad Ali: By the Numbers.”
Yes, it’s got numbers, plenty of them. But even if you’re not a stat head, if you’re a fan of Ali or boxing, in general, this is one of the best books about “The Greatest” I’ve read. Like I wrote earlier, it separates myth from reality, but that reality is still damn good.