Top 12 Greatest Muhammad Ali Performances

Do we need a special occasion to pay tribute to arguably the most popular and influential prizefighter of all-time? Is there ever a bad time to recall the ring greatness of “The Greatest”? We think not. When Muhammad Ali died in June of 2016, the tributes and remembrances came thick and fast and it was gratifying for those who revere Ali to witness the outpouring of love and respect from all corners of the globe. We have previously itemized all the reasons why Ali meant so much to so many, but here we wish to appraise his extraordinary ring career and offer up a list of the finest performances this legendary sportsman bestowed upon fans of The Sweet Science.

Ink drawing by Damien Burton.

Various criteria are at play here including quality of opposition, and while some performances are defined more by Ali’s technical skill and extraordinary speed and grace, 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 twelve 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-dueled the always dangerous Norton in most of the championship rounds, including the pivotal final stanza.

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Norton and Ali go to war in Yankee Stadium.

11. George Chuvalo W15, March 29, 1966: An impressive fifteen 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 eleven rounds and in the process displayed astonishing speed and stamina.

Muhammad Ali
Ali out-boxed and out-fought Chuvalo.

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, or 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 to ever stop Bonavena when he floored him three times in the final round.

Bonavena and Ali rumble.
Ali became the first man to ever stop the rugged “Ringo.”

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, a fighter 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.

ali vs shavers 1977
Ali vs Shavers: an unexpected war.

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, may have won at least two rounds from the champion that night, a major 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.

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Folley couldn’t keep up.

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.

Muhammad Ali
The second Ali vs Norton battle was a thriller.

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.

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Dominating Terrell.

5. Joe Frazier L15, March 8, 1971: While ardent fans of Muhammad Ali the world over were crestfallen after he dropped a fifteen 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 bell.

Ali and Frazier 1971
Rumbling with Smokin’ Joe in ’71.

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.

Ali vs Williams: one of his finest performances.
Battering Williams: one of his finest performances.

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 late going, forcing the challenger’s trainer, Eddie Futch, to surrender before the start of round fifteen. A truly remarkable demonstration of stamina, will, resilience and courage.

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The Thrilla: one of the most brutal fights in boxing history.

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 fighter soon to be known as Muhammad Ali took him to boxing school and rendered him helpless.

Clay vs Liston I
Shaking up Liston and the world in 1964.

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.

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Confounding Foreman in Zaire.

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 

4 thoughts on “Top 12 Greatest Muhammad Ali Performances

  • January 19, 2020 at 5:10 pm
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    The entire Norton series was a slower burning version of Paq vs Marquez. And as much as it showed how mentally tougher than any other champion except perhaps Ray Robinson Ali was, it also showed he had basic skill deficiencies. He struggled mightily with Norton’s cross-arm defense and never really out-boxed him. Most of his stuff hit forearms and gloves. But Ali was like LeBron James back in that era as not a single other heavyweight had comparable physical gifts and on top of that Ali was the same size as Foreman. Not taking nothing away from him but his size explains why what the littler guys do is so much harder. Their bodies burn out faster and they’re not blessed with Godly stamina the way Ali was.

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  • December 23, 2020 at 7:33 am
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    I was trying to think what other performances you could throw in there and I came up with Frazier 2 (I know some people complained about Ali’s holding tactics but he found a way to nullify his greatest rival) and Spinks 2 (Ali was FAR past his best obviously but it was such a historically significant win).

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  • May 11, 2021 at 2:52 am
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    Reading the headline of this article, my mind quickly thought Floyd Patterson in 1965 was his greatest, most skilled performance. Yet sadly not a mention.

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    • May 11, 2021 at 12:45 pm
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      This is due to the fact that Patterson came into the match with a serious back injury which affected his performance for most of the fight. He was barely able to compete in the last several rounds.

      Reply

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