Ali’s Place in Boxing History: Comparison
How would Ali Rate?
By Tom Donelson
How would Ali fare against other Great Heavyweights? This is one question that sends boxing fans into a tether. Many of the older pundits don’t rate Ali as high as younger pundits. My own bias was that Ali was the greatest Heavyweights but there were other great fighters of the past could easily give Ali a close matches. I will be honest to admit that much of my admiration for Ali was that I grew up in the Ali era. Others such as boxing historian Tracy Callis rate others higher.
Ali vs. Louis
Ali was the unorthodox fighter who rarely hit to the body, kept his hand low, moved straight back and near the end of the career, Ali would fall back into the ropes. On the other hand, Joe Louis was the most technically sound heavyweight. If you wanted to make a film on how to box, Joe Louis would be the fighter you would want to film.
Ali’s advantage was his hand and foot speed and most importantly, his ability to withstand punishment- often an underrated feature of his repertoire. Louis advantage was his hand speed, technical skills and punishing body attack. In a fight between the two, Ali speed would have proved decisive. Louis had trouble against good boxers as Jersey Walcott showed in his two fights and Billy Conn did in his first fight. However, Louis could take Ali best shots and force Ali to go distance. Since Louis rarely cut, Ali’s jab would hit their target but there is little probability that Ali would cut Louis up. I could see Louis winning simply because he could easily take advantage of Ali unorthodox style and when he had a fighter in trouble, he ended their misery. I still favor Ali but the case could be made for Louis.
Ali vs. Marciano and Tyson
Most pundits today would rate Ali as an easy victor or Marciano, however this may not be the case. Marciano did not have the hand speed of Tyson or Frazier but he did have one punch knock out. Marciano’s strength was that he was one of best-conditioned fighters and he would get stronger as the fight wore on. On this score, Marciano was similar to Frazier, who also gained strength as the fighter went on. Ali could take Marciano best and his foot and hand speed would allow him to stay out of Marciano range thus allowing him to avoid many of Marciano sledgehammer punches. Marciano, like Frazier, would have the staying power to maintain pressure throughout the fight. Frazier showed that Ali could be pressured from a swarming style that Frazier and Marciano possessed. The one disadvantage that Marciano had as oppose to Frazier was that he cut easier. Ezzard Charles cut up Marciano badly in their second fight and Ali’s jab could be just as decisive.
Of the three fighters, Tyson may have had the most talent and he was the classic peek a boo fighter. He could jab and knock out an opponent with either hand. At his peak, he could penetrate bigger fighters defenses and score. Tyson also had underestimated defensive skills and may have been harder to hit in the earlier rounds than either Frazier or Marciano. What Tyson did not have was Marciano or Frazier endurance. He did not gain strength as a fight wore on and when he fought upper elite fighters, he could not close the show early. This failure to close the show cost him against Douglas, Holyfield and Lewis. By the time Tyson hit 24, he was on the downside of the career. At 26, Frazier would beat Ali and be at his peak and Marciano went toe to toe with Ezzard Charles at the age of 30. So Tyson ability to pursue Ali for an entire fight would not compare to Frazier or Marciano. And Tyson character flaws ended his championship era sooner that what it should have been.
Ali vs. Jim Jefferies
Ali showed that he could handle bigger and stronger heavyweights. Liston and Foreman were Ali signature victories. Two of the heavy punchers in Heavyweight history, neither Liston nor Foreman could deal with Ali’s guile or hand speed. Jim Jefferies was unusual fighter for he was a big man who could crouch and swarm similar to Frazier or Marciano. Most boxing historians remember Jefferies for his lost to Jack Johnson and many have placed him below Johnson because of that fight. When Jefferies fought Johnson, he had been out of the ring for six years.
It is difficult to judge the older fighters at the turn of the century due to rule changes. Fighters were not required to go to a neutral corner and matches were marathons that could last for hours. The other disadvantage was that films featuring older fighters are not as easily available; whereas one could easily get a copy of almost every Ali fight, especially his championship fights. Endurance and strategy played an important role. Jefferies, at his peak, was a killing machine who could outlast and out punch his opponent. He defeated Tom Sharkey with one arm in a classic 25 round fight and Sharkey was the turn of the century version of Rocky Marciano. He defeated Gentleman Jim Corbett twice even though in their first match, Corbett won most of the rounds according to many pundits of their day. Corbett once commented, “I won 22 out of 22 rounds but it was the 23rd that cost me the fight.” Jefferies endurance proved decisive as he outlasted Corbett and knocked out the slick boxer.
I would favor Ali because his hand speed and ability to take punishment. Of course the rules would matter along with ring size. Of course this would be true against all of these fighters. Jefferies at his peak would challenge Ali for unlike Liston or Foreman, Jefferies would not run out of gas. Others like Tracy Callis would have picked Jefferies. For many of today boxing pundits, Jefferies is a forgotten champion but he was the dominant heavyweight at the turn of the century. He was a big heavyweight for his era and his size would still be a factor today.
Ali vs. Lennox Lewis
Forget about the weight or size. For one, Lewis fought in an era that athletes were naturally bigger due to diet and in some cases, steroids. At the beginning of Lewis career, he fought at 225 pounds and Ali would not have given up much in size to the younger Lewis. Lewis had excellent jab and great right hand. Ali advantage was that his foot and hand speed would be superior to Lewis.
Ali fought bigger fighters such as Ernie Terrell even though Lewis was superior to Terrell. Ali easily defeated Terrell and basically ended his career. Ali could handle the bigger boxers of his era and Lewis showed susceptibility to a right hand- one of Ali’s favorite weapons. And Ali did defeat the great fighters of his era. Against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, Ali was 5-1 with four stoppages. Ali beat the best fighters of his era and all of these fighters were at the peak or considered at their peak. Lewis defeated two of the best fighters of his generation in Holyfield and Tyson, even though some have argued that both fighters were past their peak. Of course, Lewis himself was past 34 years of age when he fought both. Lewis, however, maintained a high caliber of skills even in his late 30’s unlike Ali, who was essentially a shot fighter after he fought Frazier for a third time.
Ali vs. Holmes
This fight would be intriguing. Forget the fight that actually occurred between these two. Ali had not fought for two years and was long past his prime. Holmes easily beat Ali that night but in their peak, it would be different. Holmes’ jab would give Ali trouble similar to the trouble that Ali faced with Ken Norton jabs. Ali, on the other hand, could score with his right over Holmes jab and his own jab would be quicker. It would be a jabbing contest with both fighters almost a mirror of one another. Ali would prevail but a close decision.
Great fighters had to be able to defeat fighters of different styles. Joe Louis was able to find a way to beat the slick Billy Conn and he fought five fights with fighters who weighed over 240 pounds and ranged between 6’4″ and 6’6″ and he won all of these fights by knock out.
Jefferies, and Marciano handled the boxers of their era and Frazier handled all but one- Ali. Frazier weakness was that he could not handle bigger stronger fighters since he would be moving forward into their power reach as the Foreman fight demonstrated. Marciano never fought a Foreman and I suspect that the result would be no different if he fought Foreman. Tyson never wanted anything to do with an older Foreman, so at least Tyson understood his style weakness. Jefferies was unlike other bigger sluggers since he had more endurance and appeared to more elusive.
Ali often won on guile and smarts as he did with skills. After the first Frazier fight, Ali no longer had the same skills as he did before he was forced into boxing exile due to his draft status. When Ali beat Foreman, he beat Foreman on smarts more than skills. He unveiled the rope-a-dope and allowed Foreman to tire himself out while counter punching off the rope. This strategy only worked because Ali quickness and ability to take punches. Most fighters would have been demolished by using such a strategy. Joe Frazier tried this strategy in his second fight with Foreman. It only delayed the inevitable.
Ali had the most trouble with the swarmers such as Frazier and even boxers such as Jimmy Young gave the Great One trouble. On the other hand, big sluggers were mere targets for Ali quick hand. So style makes fights and some fighters have more trouble with some styles over others. Frazier fared better against Ali than he did against Foreman. To decide who is the best is subjective. The one advantage that Ali had over most fighters was not his hand and foot speed but is ability to absorb punishment. Most of Ali’s memorable fights occurred after he came back from boxing exile and after the third Frazier fight, Ali was a mere shell of himself. Even though he stayed a champion for three more years, he was an old fighter at the age of 33. The Frazier trilogy and the “Rumble in the Jungle took their tolls and in the fights after the third Frazier fight, Ali was fighting more on guile than skills. He cleaned out the division but by the time he survived Earnie Shavers, he was an exhausted force. His next two fights with Leon Spinks showed Ali to be an old fighter before his time.
Jefferies quit before he hit 30 and when he came back at 35, he was a spent force with six years rust. At the age of 36, Holmes lost to Michael Spinks but then Spinks was one of the best pound for pound fighters in the 80’s. Holmes came back after his retirement and proved to be competitive with many excellent fighters of the early 90’s past the age of 40. The only fighter who truly humiliated Holmes was Tyson, who slaughtered a 38 years old Holmes in four rounds. The only fighter on this list who was in fact still a great fighter past the age of 35 was Lennox Lewis.
Ali greatness can be judge not just by his skills but by the number of victories in championship fights. Only Joe Louis won more heavyweight championship fights than Ali. Ali fought in the deepest era of heavyweight fighters and thus this record becomes even more impressive when you review the fighters that he had to defeat to stay on top. The late 60’s and the 70’s were the deepest era and the two eras that would be close was at the turn of the century when Jefferies dominated and during the 90’s when Lewis competed against Tyson and Holyfield.
Ali was more than just a fighter for he became a political symbol outside the ring and his impact was felt throughout the entire society. Very few fighters could claim a similar impact. There were no other fighters whose impact was similar outside the ring with the exception of one- Joe Louis.