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Was Ali the Greatest Heavyweight?

Posted on 07/14/2008

My thoughts on Ali in place in boxing’s history.

Tom Donelson

Ali the Greatest?

There is nothing like a debating who was the greatest heavyweight to set boxing historians in a frenzy. We all have our opinion based on certain assumptions just how they fare against specific opponents or particular styles. I enter this debate with one thing in mind; making the case that Muhammad Ali was the greatest heavyweight, knowing very well that there may be ten heavyweights that boxing historians can make the same case.

There are many reasons not to make Ali the greatest; not the least he was not a technically sound boxer. Ali had the speed of a welterweight early in his career and his superior athletic skills allowed him the luxury to overcome his lack of true boxing skills. While much of this blasphemy, Ali often broke many of boxing’s rule like keeping his hand low and retreating straight back. Lesser fighters would have short careers if they imitated Ali and even his rope-a-dope consisted of flaw boxing skills that only Ali’s toughness overcame. Most fighters who used the rope-a-dope against powerful sluggers often lost. Henry Clark, a young boxer, attempted the rope-a-dope against the powerful slugging Earnie Shavers and was knocked out in two rounds.

Boxing historian Frank Lotierzo once told me that if you ever wanted to learn the intricacies of boxing, just watch films of Joe Louis. Louis was the complete opposite of Ali for his boxing techniques were exquisites. Trained by Jack Blackburn, Louis learned techniques that helped gain Jack Johnson and Joseph Gans their title thirty years earlier. Louis was the classic boxer, Ali the innovator.

So what made Ali greatest? One attribute, his toughness. Ali was deceptively strong and his ability to a take a punch was exceeded by very few. His battle with Foreman is proof of this as he took Foreman’s sledgehammer shots. After the first round, Ali realized quickly that Foreman would wear him down if he continued to move and box. Team Forman trained their man to cut off the ring and combined with Foreman sledgehammer shots; Ali may have been the one on the floor in the eighth round. Foreman’s punches made Ali winced throughout the early rounds but his toughness allowed him to withstand the onslaught and his quick hands allowed him to counter off the rope. Ali adaptability within the ring allowed him to persevere against one of the hardest hitting heavyweight.

Ali won 22 championship bouts in the heavyweight division and only Joe Louis won more. Ali won his championship against Sonny Liston, one of the most feared sluggers. Liston was viewed as combination of Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano and no one gave Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, a shot.

Ali out boxed Liston to claim the title and then knocked Liston out 15 months later with the “phantom” shot in one minute. Liston was great fighter who was denied a shot at the title for several years before allowing to fight Floyd Patterson in 1962. It could easily be argued that if Liston had been allowed to fight for the title in the late 50’s, he may have been recognized as a great champion in his own right. After Ali, Liston would go on to win 15 of his last 16 fights and if he had not lost to Leotis Martin in 1970, he may have been in line for another possible title shot.

After Ali returned from his exile, the boxing scene had dramatically changed. A whole new generation of heavyweights grew up led by Joe Frazier, who became the recognized champion by the time Ali made his comeback. After refusing to participate in the heavyweight tournament to find Ali’s replacement, Frazier knocked out the tournament winner, Jimmy Ellis.

From the time Joe Frazier took control of the heavyweight to the end of the 70’s, the heavyweight division entered its golden era. All down the line, existed heavyweights who would have been contender in any era, maybe even champions. This era included George Foreman, Joe Frazier and at its very end, Larry Holmes. These fighters were not just good fighters but great fighters in their own right. This was the era that Ali came back into and Ali legacy was built not on his first career in which he dominated heavyweight division but in his second tour as champ where he had to fight and beat other all time greats.

He fought 41 of the toughest round against Joe Frazier, winning two of them and his defeat of George Foreman was a testament to his ability to adapt and his toughness. The real key in Ali greatness lays in his ability to fight and defeat different kind of fighters. Like any other fighters, Ali had more trouble with certain style of fighters or certain fighters. Ali easily defeated fearsome sluggers like Liston and Foreman but had trouble with a swarming Joe Frazier. Jimmy Young, a light punching cutie, gave Ali all he could handle and he fought three very close, controversial fights with Ken Norton. Like Ali, Joe Louis easily defeated taller fighters like Abe Simon and Buddy Baer but nearly lost his first fight with Billy Conn before a late knockout saved his crown. Against Jersey Joe Walcott, Louis won a close controversial decision in their first fight and needed a late knockout to win his second bout. Walcott and Conn were cute boxers who gave Louis trouble but Louis found a way to win those bouts. Ali demonstrated similar qualities. In his third bout with Norton, Ali needed to win the last round and what separated Ali from Norton was that Ali went the extra step to win a fight that he could have easily lost. Norton, thinking that he had the fight won, essentially took the 15th round off and Ali boxed to steal the round and defended his championship.

Norton was a good heavyweight but he never could rise to the big stage against those great fighters of his generation. He lost to George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Ali. His bouts against Holmes and Ali were close affairs but these fights showed the depth of the heavyweight division where excellent fighters like Norton could not win championships.

Ali legacy was settled by his victory over Foreman but Ali did more than just dominate a great era of heavyweights; he transcended this era. Fighters like Foreman, Frazier, Liston and even Holmes found their career overshadowed and all of these fighters had to wait for decades for their own greatness would finally be recognized. Foreman lost his title at 24 but at the age of 45, he defeated Mike Moorer, a solid heavyweight in his own right. The 90’s may have laid claim as boxing second greatest era with fighters like Holyfield, Lewis and Tyson at its top but both Larry Holmes and George Foreman were competitive with the best of that era. When Foreman sent Moorer down for the count in the tenth round of their bout; he showed a new generation of boxing fans that indeed, he belonged among the greatest. Holmes lost his two shots at title in the 90’s but in both fights; he showed that as a fighter in his 40; he had the skills that were overlooked at his peak.

Joe Frazier never received his full recognition until recent times. His two losses to Foreman and to Ali always diminished his place in history but he lost to great fighters. Frazier would have been a champion in any era and his trilogy against Ali showed his own greatness while bringing out the best in Ali.

In my book, Boxing in the Shadow, I tried to compare Ali style to others. Of course all of these exercises are academic since it is based on theories based on opinions. Opinions do need facts to back them up. Joe Louis had the right style to beat Ali and his superior boxing techniques could take advantages of Ali more unorthodox style. My own view was that Ali foot and hand speed would have been enough at allow Ali to win.

Against early fighters like Jim Jefferies and Jack Johnson, Ali had his advantages. Of course, it is difficult to judge fighters of this era to the early 20th century. Fighters had to fight longer bouts and no neutral corner rule gave sluggers advantages since a Jim Jefferies or Jack Dempsey could hover over an opponent while waiting for the referee to finish the count. Jim Jefferies was a big man who crouched and moved forward. Unlike Foreman or Liston, he would not have given Ali an easy target but Ali strength would have allowed him to take Jefferies best and his hand speed gave him advantages. Jefferies in his first fight with Gentleman Jim Corbett had trouble with Corbett style and simply outlasted him by knocking him out in the 23rd fighter. In Ali, he would have faced a bigger and stronger version of Corbett.

While Jack Johnson defensive styles would have given Ali trouble, I always felt that Johnson’s style would have given Ali less trouble than Jack Dempsey, whose swarming style would have given Ali similar trouble that Ali had with Frazier. Another aspect of Jack Johnson was how he treated the better African-Americans fighter. Boxing historian Clay Moyne in his book on Sam Langford wrote that Jack Johnson often avoided Langford and Sam McVey when he was champion. (Johnson defeated both of these fighters early in their career and economics played a significant role in Johnson’s decision avoid them later in his career. Johnson earned more money fighting inferior white challenger than either Langford or McVey. It was economic risk to fight both of these great African American fighters.) While I always felt that Tunney may have been a better fighter than Dempsey, a Tunney-Ali fight would have been similar to Ali-Ellis, in which Ali easily out boxed his former protégé.

Ali’s greatness lied in the intangibles. Often judgment on how to judge a fighter’s greatness based on intangibles. Often great athletes have that extra something that distinguished them from those just right below them. Ali had those similar traits that allowed him to win on the big stage. Great fighters always performed on the big stage and that is what makes them great. Sugar Ray Leonard found a way to beat Tommy Hearns in their first fight after he forced a brawl against a purportedly stronger puncher and later, he outwitted Marvin Hagler just as Ali outmaneuvered Foreman. My bias toward Ali is based on those intangibles that somehow, he would have found a way to win. All of the great champions had those intangibles in their peak and that what makes this an iffy proposition. My judgment on Ali’s place in history is based on what happened in the ring. Ali won against the best of his generation; a generation that ranked among the greatest of heavyweights. That is Ali’s strongest argument for being the greatest heavyweight.

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