Muhammad Ali called himself “The Greatest” and he was accurate because he can never be called “The Best Ever” or TBE. (We already know who calls himself TBE).
The TBE label doesn’t fit Ali, because he was never a technically superior boxer. Those who criticized Ali even believed he abused his ability to take a punch, did not really possess good defense, and a number of little known opponents even managed to floor him. But how could we forget how Ali produced the most thrilling and dramatic fights at the time the heavyweight division was at its most competitive, and when boxing was not yet “sanitized” like it is today.
Ali fought in an era where championship bouts were 15 rounds, a standing knockdown was not yet fully in force, and where three knockdowns in a round would not automatically result to a fight being stopped.
Also, the existence of only two world boxing sanctioning organizations—the World Boxing Association and the World Boxing Council—made unifications bouts easier to stage than today, where there are at least five sanctioning bodies. And if you were the number one contender, you had to challenge the champion or risk getting called a chicken.
In short, you can get killed in the ring or suffer terrible consequences if you fought at the championship level during Ali’s time.
Ali also had to deal with other heavyweights who in their own right were among the greatest or best in the division’s history: Joe Frazier; George Foreman; Ken Norton; Jerry Quarry; and Earnie Shavers, among others.
He also took the torch from Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson, whom he both beat twice by stoppage.
His getting into the ring against Liston in February 1964, where he was the overwhelming underdog, was considered suicidal because Liston, an ex convict, just came off two straight first-round knockout wins over Patterson, also considered one of the best at the time. And Ali, then fighting as Cassius Clay, absorbed two knockdowns from mediocre opposition in previous fights.
But when fight night came, Ali made Liston quit on his stool after the sixth round. Allegations flew that Liston threw away the fight and he suffered from a persistent shoulder injury. Yet one thing is for sure —Ali shook the boxing world.
Ali would stop Liston in the first round in their rematch on May 1965 to shake the boxing world again, although there were allegations Liston wasn’t really hurt from Ali’s “phantom punch.”
More than 10 years later after beating Liston for the first time, Ali fought a then undefeated Foreman in October 1974 and boxing pundits gave him little chance to win. Despite getting bludgeoned by Foreman’s most powerful shots in the early rounds, Ali turned the tide and scored an eighth-round stoppage over Foreman in the fight that was called “Rumble in the Jungle.”
Ali fought Frazier three times with the penultimate being “The Thrilla in Manila” where Frazier retired after 14 rounds. But in their first bout, Ali went down in the 15th round to lose by unanimous decision in their showdown dubbed “Fight of the Century.” And it was really a great fight compared to “The Fight of the Century” of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.
And even if Norton broke his jaw in their first fight, Ali still insisted on getting into the ring with the muscular boxer only to be questioned if he really did win the last two bouts. He actually lost all three fights against Norton.
In his bouts against the best of his era, Ali never had the “perfect” or flawless fight or one that he dominated completely. Even the “Thrilla” was a seesaw battle. And if it were not for his ability to take punishment and recover quickly, he would have been floored or stopped by Foreman’s punches in the “Rumble.” Shavers also came to stopping Ali while Norton was torment to him.
And that what makes Ali really great—he could have elected to stick and jab and run during his marquee title fights because he was gifted with quick hands and feet. But Ali wanted to prove he was the best and he traded leather, took his share of punishment and not run away. And he took on the best when they were at their prime and not after they were already fading. So to call “The Thrilla in Manila,” “Rumble in the Jungle” and “Fight of the Century” great fights is not enough. And those fights set the benchmark for real marquee title fights up to this era of boxing.
(Part two: Who made Ali great)