It is a common pastime among boxing fans as to who was the greatest, who would have beaten whom if they had met – Sugar Ray Leonard v Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong v Roberto Duran, Muhammed Ali v Mike Tyson but the fact that Ali could be, and was beaten on 5 occasions, cannot alter the unarguable fact that he is beyond any shade of doubt, the greatest figure ever in boxing whose popularity, appeal and legacy transcends the narrow confines of our always fascinating but sometimes questionable sport. There was time in the last quarter of the last century when he was indisputably the most famous face on the planet. It was commonly suggested that if he was somehow magically picked up and dropped into the world’s most remote villages, he would be recognized and that was not an exaggeration.
He was already a hugely famous personality when he refused to accept the draft in the USA to fight for the army in the unpopular Vietnam war, around which young people all over the world were being drawn together as a catalyst for protest, and this stance projected him from being just a sportsman, albeit a very famous one, to a focal point and a totem for more significant matters such as race, war, religion and politics. His stance polarized America and the western world, in crudely broad terms, between the older and younger generations. This stance cost him his World Championship and his peak boxing years and at that time few of us could have foreseen just how he would come back, not the sleek untouchable athlete he once was but a canny, shrewd boxing operator who knew what he had to do to win a fight and also, what he had to do to sell a fight.
When he did come back he had changed and as the years went by his aggressive, boastful demeanor changed into a slightly self-mocking, grand character with a twinkle in his eye, as he predicted what he was going to do to his opponent.
A cold analysis of his career in the ring shows that he was by no means unbeatable. Both Sonny Banks and our own Henry Cooper put him on the floor and many thought Doug Jones had been robbed in their ten-rounder in 1963 all before he won the Title. Ken Norton, a clever brave fighter but one whose career could not put him among the ‘greats’ of the Heavyweight division, seemed to have his number and many thought he was unlucky to have lost his 2 rematches with Ali having beaten him in their first contest. Both Joe Frazier and Leon Spinks deservedly beat Ali but both were beaten in rematches, Frazier twice.
The losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick can be discounted. Those of us who love this game despite its’ iniquities knew that Ali should no longer have been in the ring then.
What Ali had was a quality shared by most of his fellow boxing greats – an ability to find a way to win regardless and never was this shown to greater effect than when he beat George Foreman in the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in 1974. We can disregard the unbeaten records of Rocky Marciano and Floyd Mayweather. Every boxer born can be beaten eventually. What matters more is how you come back after a defeat.
Another aspect of strategy he certainly popularized if not actually invented, along with his rhyming predictions, was the ‘psyching’ of an opponent in the lead up to a fight, something seen to have been brought into great effect when he defeated the ‘Big Bear’ Sonny Liston when winning the World Championship in 1964. He took it to another level, getting into an opponent’s head before the contest, something us purists don’t always appreciate, with the lesser imitators who followed.
Regardless, all of us in boxing owe him a huge debt. He was an original, a ’one off’ whose like, truly, we will never see again.
On behalf of the Directors of the Commonwealth Boxing Council we express our most sympathies to his family. May this great man rest in peace. – Hon Secretary.