A lot has rightly been written about Muhammad Ali as a cultural icon. He was certainly that, as it is part of his greatness. However, his legacy was first built on his sparkling ring career. It’s in my humble opinion that he is the greatest heavyweight of all time, and a top five pound for pound fighter in the history of the sport.
Even if he had taken on largely poor opposition, his physical attributes alone put him up there, at least in his prime. He grew up idolizing the greatest pound for pounder of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson. Ali danced and boxed with all of Ray’s elegance, but Ray was a welterweight and middleweight. To be able to replicate that at heavyweight was something else. The speed of foot and fist was unlike anything seen previously at heavyweight. His punching power wasn’t exactly bad, either.
The 1960’s Ali (formerly known as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr), coming off the back of winning an Olympic gold medal, beat some sterling names. Sonny Liston was the Mike Tyson of his day and Ali beat him twice, with relative ease, even though there were some doubts about Liston’s legitimacy. Add to that, a comprehensive win over Floyd Patterson, almost a proto type version of Ali. Furthermore, he defeated durable and skilled opponents such as Ernie Terrell, Henry Cooper, George Chuvalo and Archie Moore. But the best was yet to come.
What really solidifies his greatness is the 1970’s incarnation. He was no longer the fleet footed young champ. He was the slower challenger. In his years out, a young, exciting new breed of America heavyweights had arrived on the scene. Despite his primary physical advantage having left him, Ali managed to chop down George Foreman in arguably the most famous fight of all time. Foreman was a buzz saw who had decimated the division, yet Ali out thought and out fought ‘Big George’. He then defeated arch rival Joe Frazier in perhaps the most brutal fight of all time in Manila. Add in wins over Ernie Shavers, considered by many to be the hardest hitter ever in boxing, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, Jimmy Young and Jimmy Ellis, and it is frightening how good he was. The fact he avenged all his defats in his prime, to Spinks, Frazier and Norton, also speaks volumes.
The unfortunate epitaph is the beatings he took in the 1980’s. Larry Holmes isn’t the best know heavyweight champ, but skills wise, he is up there with the best. He and Trevor Berbick, no slouch himself, physically outclassed the shell of Ali in fights which were a travesty.
The world has seen some great heavyweight champs. Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Frazier, Foreman, Holmes, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson. Yet, purely based on athletic achievements, I’d still put Ali at the top. Add in his significant cultural achievements spoken about in the rest of this issue, he truly was ‘The Greatest’.