With the death one year ago today of Muhammad Ali, the tributes and remembrances came thick and fast and it was gratifying for those who revere Ali and what he did for the game of boxing to see the outpouring of love and respect from all corners of the globe. A previous Top 12 list outlined all the reasons why Ali meant so much to so many, but now we appraise his extraordinary ring career and offer up a list of the finest performances this legendary sportsman bestowed upon fans of The Sweet Science.
Various criteria are at play here including quality of opposition, and some performances are defined more by Ali’s technical skill and extraordinary speed and grace, while others are primarily about his courage and unshakeable will to win. After all, Muhammad Ali was not only a supremely talented boxer, but also an amazing competitor and an incredibly tough warrior. These are the 12 ring performances which best testify to his multifaceted greatness.
12. Ken Norton W15, Sept. 28, 1976: The judges’ decision, certainly one of the more controversial in heavyweight history, is not the issue here. This fight stands out in Ali’s pantheon for his noble performance in the bout’s second half, an impressive display of guts and guile no matter one’s opinion of the final verdict. Behind on points against a determined foe who appeared far fresher and stronger, the 34-year-old champion, clearly in sub-par condition after having suffered a serious leg injury in his farcical contest against Antonio Inoki three months before, proved his mettle yet again as he out-duelled the always dangerous Norton in most of the championship rounds, including the pivotal final stanza.
11. George Chuvalo W15, March 29, 1966: An impressive 15 round clinic against an iron-tough battler who had earned his title shot with a win over crafty veteran Doug Jones and highly competitive battles against Zora Folley, Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson. Chuvalo had more success than any of the champion’s previous opponents in terms of landing some heavy artillery to the body and yet it slowed Ali down not a bit as he won at least 11 rounds and in the process displayed astonishing speed and stamina.
10. Oscar Bonavena TKO 15, Dec. 7, 1970: Returning to action after a three-and-a-half year layoff, Ali took no tune-ups or soft touches but instead immediately faced the top contenders in the division. Just six weeks after stopping number one ranked Jerry Quarry, Ali battled Bonavena, a strong and sturdy brawler who had given current champion Joe Frazier the most grueling fights of his career. Despite no longer having the spry legs of his younger self, as well as the fact he was still working off some serious ring rust, Ali clearly took at least ten rounds from the Argentinian before becoming the first man to stop Bonavena when he floored him three times in the 15th and final round.
9. Earnie Shavers W15, Sept. 29, 1977: Another heroic performance in the twilight of Ali’s career. It took everything “The Greatest” had to turn back the challenge of Shavers, perhaps the hardest puncher in heavyweight history, who wasn’t supposed to be in the champion’s class. But the man Ali dubbed “The Acorn” proved he belonged by giving “The Louisville Lip” an extremely tough battle and hurting him more than once with vicious right hands. Fearing his title was slipping from his grasp, Ali, ever the dauntless competitor, went toe-to-toe with Shavers in the final round, staggering him in the last seconds with a two-fisted attack.
8. Zora Folley KO7, March 22, 1967: Boasting victories over Chuvalo, Bonavena and Terrell, Folley was the number one contender for the title and according to ringsiders won at least two rounds from the champion that night, an accomplishment in itself considering Ali’s dominance at the time. But the outcome was never in doubt as The Greatest had one of his finest nights, his sublime blend of uncanny speed, constant movement and underrated power simply too much to overcome.
7. Ken Norton W12, Sept. 10, 1973: Norton was a most formidable heavyweight and this may well have been the finest performance of his career, as he gave a superbly conditioned Muhammad Ali one of the toughest and most competitive battles of his. Having suffered an upset defeat to Norton six months before, no win was more crucial for Ali’s career and it took all of his skill and determination, plus a desperate final round rally, to pull out the split decision victory.
6. Ernie Terrell W15, Feb. 6, 1967: Terrell was tall and rugged and riding an impressive win streak, his victories over Doug Jones, Chuvalo, Cleveland Williams and Eddie Machen all attesting to his being a more than worthy challenger, if not a champion, as the World Boxing Association had bestowed him their belt. But Ali appeared in a league all his own that night, as he outclassed his rival in a most one-sided contest, winning virtually every round by a wide margin. So dominant was Ali that he could afford to regularly cease his attack to angrily taunt Terrell, who insisted on calling the champion “Clay,” with cries of “What’s my name?” Terrell had no reply to Ali’s question, or to his astonishing ring prowess.
5. Joe Frazier L15, March 8, 1971: While Ali’s fans were crestfallen after he dropped a 15 round decision to a relentless and unyielding Frazier, they could take comfort from the fact that rarely had a champion fought so nobly in defeat to a fellow Hall of Famer. “The Greatest” withstood an amazing performance from Smokin’ Joe, absorbing Frazier’s best punches while winning his share of rounds, never giving up, and rising from a final round knockdown to land his own flurries before the final bell.
4. Cleveland Williams TKO3, Nov. 14, 1966: It’s doubtful if Ali’s unique combination of speed, grace, mobility, and power were ever more effective than on that night in Houston when “The Louisville Lip” painted his masterpiece by steamrolling the powerful Williams with astonishing ease. The only caveat to this impressive demolition is that Williams was clearly a shadow of the fighter he had been before a state trooper shot him in the stomach in 1964.
3. Joe Frazier TKO14, Oct. 1, 1975: Fueled by rage borne from a hundred cruel insults, Joe Frazier imposed his will on Ali in the middle rounds of this brutal war, trapping his quarry on the ropes and punishing him with vicious blows that Frazier himself would later say could have brought “down the walls of a city.” Spent and hurting, Ali journeyed to a realm beyond human endurance to somehow reassert himself and batter Frazier in the championship stanzas, forcing the challenger’s trainer, Eddie Futch, to surrender after round 14. A truly remarkable demonstration of stamina, will, resilience and courage.
2. Sonny Liston TKO7, Feb. 25, 1964: One of the biggest upsets in boxing history. Liston was viewed as unbeatable, Cassius Clay his next victim. Instead the sporting world was shook up that night by one of the greatest exhibitions of boxing skill ever put on by a heavyweight, as Clay danced with swift fluidity and grace, evading Liston’s power shots and countering with perfectly timed jabs and straight rights. Make no mistake: Liston was deadly and dangerous, but the future Muhammad Ali took him to boxing school and rendered him helpless.
1. George Foreman KO8, Oct. 30, 1974: Foreman’s status as an all-time great heavyweight has only grown in the decades since he was first champion, but even back in 1974 few thought Ali had enough left to best the man who had demolished Joe Frazier and Ken Norton in less than two rounds apiece.
But an inspired and determined Ali journeyed to the heart of Africa to put on a veritable clinic in advanced boxing technique. Using every trick in the book, the challenger controlled the pace and distance of the fight, countered with precision, repeatedly beat Foreman to the punch while blocking or slipping George’s heaviest blows, and then capped his astonishing performance with a one-punch knockout. With a massive crowd of Africans chanting Ali Bomaye!, it was night unlike any other in boxing history; how befitting that it would also be the single finest exhibition of the ring greatness of Muhammad Ali. — Michael Carbert