Today is the living legend’s 73rd birthday and in a news cycle that barely lasts 24 minutes, let alone 24 hours, the day’s blogs and newspapers and newscasts will briefly pay homage once again to The Greatest. This is as it should be.
It is impossible for any of our current sports stars to approach the magnitude of Muhammad Ali’s status in the 1960s and 70s. In the entire history of professional sports, let alone boxing, no one was bigger, no one had more social impact. Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Jim Brown, Pelé, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan — all icons of sport whose names will live on, but the shadow they each cast is dwarfed by that of the man who became a great boxer, a sporting legend, a political lightning rod, and a force for cultural change all at the same time.
For the purposes of this brief tribute, we will limit our focus to the impact of Muhammad Ali on the sport of boxing. His relevance to the social changes which shook the world in the 1960s, and the courage he displayed in forging his own identity as a Muslim and refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War are hugely significant. But time and space are limited and this website is about, first and foremost, the fight game.
Ali liked to boast that not only was he “The Greatest,” but that he was “bigger than boxing.” And indeed, it was true. In fact, it’s a sobering thought to realize that Ali remains bigger than boxing, in that the sport would be vastly different without the mark he left, and that the champions of today have a long way to go to live up to the example he set.
First of all, every single boxer since 1980 who has attained the status to command a major payday is in debt to Ali. Before Muhammad there were big fights to be sure, but until “The Greatest” got his “Gorgeous George” act going, boxing had yet to really tap its true financial potential, or pass on a rightful share of the dough to the fighters. For example, the first battle between Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971 achieved an unprecedented degree of worldwide attention and was in fact the most watched sporting event in history up to that point. The boxer’s purses of $2.5 million each, at a time when top baseball and football players were happy to be earning five figures for an entire season, left people shaking their heads in wonder.
More than any other fighter, before or since, Ali made boxing a popular, mainstream attraction. Unlike today, it was regular fare for the cover of Sports Illustrated and the front pages of the newspaper’s sports sections, while Ali appeared frequently on live, prime-time television. And as his career approached its end — a conclusion years too late to avoid the ravages of Parkinson’s syndrome — the public’s fascination with Ali then naturally shifted to a younger generation of fistic talent and new stars such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Larry Holmes.
The truth is, without Ali’s immense influence and popularity, you simply don’t have almost weekly broadcasts of major fights on live television in the 1980s, or the huge megafights which attracted mainstream attention and earned their participants millions of dollars. Even now, the vast sums which Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao command would not be possible without the precedent set by Muhammad Ali. For his superfights with Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton, Ali set earning records that paved the way for the massive purses of later years.
No current champion comes close to Ali in terms of global renown and influence. But people forget that Ali’s fame was not just about his stand against the draft, or the provocative statements he made every time someone showed him a microphone. Fact is, Ali was one of the most active heavyweights in history. Unlike today’s boxers, Ali maintained a busy schedule, competing regularly against top fighters and traveling the globe to do so. Instead of avoiding challenges, he sought them out, determined as he was to prove himself. His immense pride meant fans got to see him take on every deserving contender available, which is the principal reason why many regard Ali as the best heavyweight of them all: he faced everyone during a time when the division was stacked with formidable talent.
Of course Ali had fate working for him in that regard. It was his good fortune to have as rivals three of the most fearsome heavyweights ever — Liston, Frazier and Foreman — along with a lengthy list of excellent contenders. But if boxers don’t have the same level of competition today, this hardly justifies the fact fans consider themselves lucky if the top champions stop tweeting long enough to get in the ring more than once a year. Ali was a fighting champion; if only more boxers of today had his drive and competitive spirit.
Ali is still bigger than boxing. And if you doubt it, all you have to do is consider the fact that the most attractive match-up the sport has to offer hasn’t been made for going on six years, the same span of time over which Ali, from 1970 to 1976, faced Frazier and Norton each three times, beat a host of viable contenders including Jimmy Ellis, Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena, George Chuvalo, and Ron Lyle, plus dethroned Foreman in Zaire to forever cement his boxing legacy. It’s hard to believe, but after all these years he still humbles today’s champions, and makes an entire sport look bad by comparison.
Happy Birthday, Champ. And man, do we ever miss you. – Michael Carbert