Muhammad Ali: Champion of the World
By: Peter A. Coclanis
Jurek Martin, who writes for the Financial Times, started off a very nice tribute to Muhammad Ali in that paper on June 6 by pointing out that Ali “was the first truly global athlete,” a man whose life and career “reached indelibly into the corners of all five continents.” Martin’s point can be demonstrated in many ways, most notably, of course, by the way in which the entire world has been galvanized by Ali’s death last week. Here, though, I’d like to make the point in another way: The global nature of his career in the ring. Simply put, Ali was truly the world champion. The fact that just under 25 percent of his professional fights took place outside of the U.S. (with another in Puerto Rico, which is an unincorporated U.S. territory) testifies amply to this point. So, too, does the additional fact that the group of “international” bouts included his two most memorable fights: The “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in 1974 and the “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier in 1975 in the Philippines.
That said, Ali liked to fight on the international stage throughout his long professional career, which began with a unanimous decision in a six-rounder against Tunney Hunsaker in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky on October 29, 1960 and ended with a loss by unanimous decision in twelve rounds to Jamaican-Canadian boxer Trever Berbick in Nassau, Bahamas on December 11, 1981. Over the course of his twenty-one year career, Ali fought 61 bouts, winning 56 and losing 5. Of the total, 15 were fought outside of the U.S., beginning with his 1963 bout in London against Henry Cooper, and, as stated above, another was fought in Puerto Rico. The percentage of “international” fights fought by Ali was exceptionally high, particularly for a heavyweight boxer of his era. Ali’s “international” bouts are listed below.
Date Opponent Site Result
June 18, 1963 Henry Cooper London, U.K. Win, TKO/5
March 29, 1966 George Chuvalo Toronto, Canada Win, Decision
May 21, 1966 Henry Cooper London, U.K. Win, TKO/6
August 6, 1966 Brian London London, U.K. Win, TKO/3
September 10, 1966 Karl Mildenberger Frankfort, W. Germany Win, TKO/12
December 26, 1971 Jürgen Blin Zurich, Swit. Win, KO/7
April 1, 1972 Mac Foster Tokyo, Japan Win, Decision
May 1, 1972 George Chuvalo Vancouver, Canada Win, Decision
July 19, 1972 Alvin “Blue” Lewis Dublin, Ireland Win, TKO/11
October 20, 1973 Rudi Lubbers Jakarta, Indonesia Win, Decision
October 30, 1974 George Foreman Kinshasa, Zaire Win, KO/8
June 30, 1975 Joe Bugner Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Win, Decision
October 1, 1975 Joe Frazier Manila, Philippines Win, TKO/14
February 20, 1976 Jean- Pierre Coopman San Juan, Puerto Rico Win, KO/5
May 24, 1976 Richard Dunn Munich, West Germany Win, TKO/5
December 11, 1981 Trevor Berbick Nassau, Bahamas Loss, Decision
Because the U.S. is generally viewed as the center of the professional boxing world—at least the media center—many non-U.S. boxers fight a lot in the United States. But Ali, most unusually, took the opposite tack, fighting frequently outside of the U.S. And not just in Europe either, but in East Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean as well. In so doing, he really came to embody the title “champion of the world.”
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (U.S.A.). He writes frequently on sports.