Apart from, “I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” the most distinctive, memorable phrase uttered by Muhammad Ali has to be: “I am the greatest, the greatest of all time!”
Floyd Patterson’s thoughts on that boast: “He’s always saying he’s the greatest, but he never finishes that statement. If you’re patient and listen to him long enough, you can fill in the blank.”
If you check with Sports Illustrated, you’ll discover Ali, the boxing icon, has been their cover subject 37 times. Only Michael Jordon has been on the cover more often, 47 times.
Most recently, General Mills honored Ali by placing him on boxes of Wheaties cereal. Does he deserve the recognition? Sure he does. You’d have to be an ignoramus not to realize how glorious a boxer he was. He deserves every praise for his skills in the ring and the fun character he created. Over his illustrious career, he was like a comic book super hero. Every rhyme, every amusing utterance became fodder for the press.
When reaching the twilight of their years, athletes, like statesmen, attain a certain degree of sanctity. All mistakes are forgotten, while the exploits are exaggerated. Case in point, the inscription on the current Wheaties’ cereal box claims Ali, “is the Greatest, an Ambassador of Sportsmanship.”
Whoa, we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. We could count on one hand the number of times Ali exhibited that trait. Yes, he is legendary, and the ex-champion’s life will become folkloric, much the same as Davy Crockett. Aside from killing a bear when he was only three, Ali has accomplished much. As time passes his exploits will be extolled and likely overblown. It’s up to the boxing historians to keep things real.
Tennis star, James Courier Jr., himself a good sport, once said, “Sportsmanship is when a guy walks off the court and you really can’t tell whether he won or lost. He carries himself with pride either way.”
Dartmouth College’s Athletic Director Harry Sheehy adds: “It is your response to winning and losing that makes you a winner or a loser.”
Good sportsmanship is when you see teammates, opponents, coaches, and officials treating each other with respect. Kids learn good sportsmanship from the adults in their lives, especially from parents and coaches. When they see adults behaving in a sportsmanlike manner, they learn the real winner in a sporting match is the one who knows how to behave with dignity. Whether they win or lose.
Everyone knows it’s suicide to poke fun at the revered. Some people are so well liked, they become untouchable. They get a free pass even when being a jerk. This article ignores common sense and instead is dedicated to all the guys who ended up playing second fiddle to the great Ali, guys like Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, Kenny Norton, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, et cetera.
Who do you blame for over-hyping an athlete? The sports networks? They’re certainly known for doing whatever’s necessary to keep their ratings high. That’s why they key-in on the most colorful, the “look at me, aren’t I special” people in their broadcast. Why? Because the Dennis Rodmans, Money Mayweathers and Ochocincos of the world do a great job of promoting and at the same time put the fans in the seats.
Kobe Byrant of the LA Lakers has a huge ego. Could this basketball legend be elected Mayor of Los Angeles? Could he ever earn the NBA’s Good Sportmanship award? We know that’s never going to happen. But still, everyone comes to see him play because they know he’ll be lighting up the scoreboard.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (his slave name) was 18 years-old and fresh off his light-heavyweight gold medal performance at the Rome Olympics when he was refused service by a waitress at a “whites-only” restaurant in his native Louisville, Kentucky. Clay found that despite his new acclaim, he was not immune to the racism that was so prevalent at the time. After that incident and a scuffle with some white boys, the disgusted Clay threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River.
Unable to skirt controversy, Clay, aka “the Louisville Lip” then faced a 30 year-old small town police chief in his first professional fight. The bull dog police chief, Tunney Hunsaker, was a veteran of 25 professional fights. After working over Hunsaker’s eyes for six rounds, they were nearly swollen shut. Hunsaker never made it into the Pro Boxing Hall of Fame, but he was inducted into the Law Enforcement Hall of Fame.
In 1964, Clay announced his name change to Cassius X, then Muhammad X, then Muhammad Ali after defeating Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight title.
On November 22, 1965, Floyd Patterson, the former Heavyweight Champ, became Ali’s victim #22. In order to gain support or perhaps ingratiate himself to fellow Blacks, Ali kept referring to Patterson as “an Uncle Tom” and “the White man’s champ.”
In their match, Ali, who was three inches taller and outweighed Patterson by 15 pounds, stated before the match he wanted Patterson to suffer. Almost every time Ali hit Patterson, he taunted him. The crowd ended up booing Ali and felt he had treated the ex-champ with cruelty and disrespect.
Interviewed after the fight, ex-champion Joe Louis said: “He (Ali) could have knocked Patterson out whenever he wanted, but let’s face it, Clay is selfish and cruel.”
Ali had an uncanny talent for hyping fights and in turn build his celebrity status. Before each bout, the “Fighting Prophet” would name the round in which his opponent was to be retired and this worked for some time.
Earnie Shavers, one of the top heavyweights of that era, once said, “Ali was something, he knew how to con you in a million different ways.”
He not only had the cunning, the hand and foot speed, the impeccable skills, he had the ideal body type with his 80 inch arm reach and 6’3” stature.
Over a career that lasted 21 years, his KO ratio was 60.66% despite the fact he fought only one boxer with a losing record. In 61 fights, 37 of his opponents failed to go the distance.
His personal life became a whirlwind of fast women, the birthing of children, fancy cars, the business of being a conscientious objector and the change in religions; all distractions working to derail his efforts to become the greatest ever. It’s an old axiom in Boxing; the more one wallows in their celebrity, the more lackadaisical they become in the gym.
You can forget everything else, weight gain is always the strongest indicator of a boxer’s decline. In Ali’s case, at the weigh-ins he went from 188 pounds all the way up to 236. That meant, he allowed himself to drift upwards to 250-265 pounds between each fight. As a fully mature heavyweight, Ali’s ideal fighting weight was between 208 to 212 pounds.
With the weight gain, his strategy in the ring had to change. He started dropping his hands to rest them. He held more, introduced the “rope a dope” and like any crafty veteran began to steal rounds with late flurries.
Lest we forget, over the last six years of his career, he was only a shell of his former self and when facing the likes of Trevor Berbick (12 years his junior), Leon Spinks (11 years younger), Larry Holmes (7 years, 10 months younger), he’d spend the majority of the time either running, circling or holding.
In 1967, Ali got himself in trouble on several fronts. The courts found him guilty of draft evasion, fined him $10,000, sentenced him to five years in prison, and then had the boxing commission strip him of both his title and boxing license. Embroiled in this financial mess and fighting the conviction, Joe Frazier came through with some financial help. He also lobbied hard to have Ali’s license reinstated.
Frazier’s aid was forgotten when the two men signed a contract to fight on March 8, 1971. Even after the venues had been sold out and well after the fighters had received their guarantees, the demeaning, hurtful comments continued. These incendiary remarks provoked the crazies to call the Frazier household with death threats or they’d get a call that said their house was going to be blown up. Understandably, Frazier felt betrayed.
At the Press Conference for his first fight with Frazier, Ali predicted a KO by the sixth round and made the following promise, “If Joe Frazier were to beat me. I’m going to get down on my knees and crawl over to his corner, look up at him and say, ‘You are the greatest! You are the Champion of the World!’”
During that epic battle several verbal exchanges took place. In an attempt to psyche Frazier out, Ali boasted, “You know, you are in the ring with the God.”
Frazier’s reply, “If you’re God, you are in the wrong place tonight.”
At the close of round six, Frazier made reference to Ali’s earlier boast, “I ain’t going nowhere.”
After his humiliating defeat, Ali left the ring sheepishly without following through on the promise to crawl across the ring. People say that fight and those remarks gave Sylvester Stallone the inspiration to write the screen play for the movie which turned out to be Rocky.
When discussing the top heavyweights of all time, where does Ali (The Greatest) rank? Keep in mind the sport has been around for over 150 years. The first “World Championship” took place at Farnsborough, England on April 17, 1860 between the British Champion Tom Sayers and the American champ John C. Heenan.
To be fair, we’d have to weigh, not only a person’s transcendence over fighters of his day, but over the fighters from all 16 divisions over the past 150 years.
Joe Louis (68-3) held the heavyweight title for longer than anybody (11 years, 8 months, 7 days) and made more successful defenses (25).
Henry Armstrong (151-21-9 with 101 KOs) is the only boxer to hold world titles in three different weight classes simultaneously. Sugar Ray Robinson (175-19-6-2 with 109 KOs) lost just once in his first 123 fights to Jake LaMotta, a defeat he avenged five times in their classic rivalry. Only stoppage defeat came when he challenged Joey Maxim for the light heavyweight crown, and then was leading on points until overcome by heat so extreme it forced the replacement of the referee in the tenth.
San Diego’s own Archie Moore (183-24-10-1) would be in the running. He fought 168 times and was 39 years old before finally getting a shot at the world title. He took full advantage and outpointed champion Joey Maxim to take the crown. His 131 knockouts is the most by any boxer.
Featherweight Willie Pep had a record of 230-11-1 with 65 KOs and achieved tremendous success despite suffering near-fatal injuries in a plane crash. He won his first 63 bouts, then went 72-0-1 before losing again.
Julio Cesar Chavez had a ring career that lasted 25 years and his record during that time, 108-6-2 (87 KOs). Chavez won his first 88 fights.
Benny Leonard won the world lightweight championship in May 1917, and retired as champion in January 1925, making him the longest-reigning lightweight champion.
A 1974 World Boxing reader poll ranked Ali as the 5th greatest heavyweight in history. In 1975 historian Nat Loubet ranked him ninth. In 1976, John Durant, author of The Heavyweight Champions, ranked him as the fourth greatest. After all the research, I find it’s impossible to name “The Greatest Boxer” of all time.