Today is the anniversary of the birth of the amazing athlete who changed boxing forever, only the third such anniversary since his death in June of 2016. Muhammad Ali‘s passing caused the entire pugilistic world to stop and reflect upon the far-reaching legacy of a man who was, in many respects, truly bigger than boxing; indeed, he will forever stand as one of the most influential and famous athletes in the entire history of sport.
For those not entirely clear as to why Ali commands such respect and meant so much to so many, consider this list a sort of primer on the greatness of the man they call “The Greatest.” There has never been, and likely never will be, an athlete like Muhammad Ali. He was a truly great boxer but he was also a truly important world figure. Here are the reasons why he assumed such magnitude and had such a profound impact on both boxing and the culture at large.
12. A Fighting Champion: Unlike so many elite-level boxers of today, Ali wanted to establish himself as a truly great boxer and he knew to do so meant staying active. To put his activity level into perspective, consider that in the span of five years, 1970 to ’75, he answered the bell 22 times, in the process giving sports fans his trilogy with Joe Frazier, two tough battles with Ken Norton, his unforgettable knockout over George Foreman, and wins over a host of elite-level contenders including Jerry Quarry, Oscar Bonavena, Jimmy Ellis, George Chuvalo and Ron Lyle. Meanwhile, from 2010 to 2015, Wladimir Klitschko competed 12 times; Floyd Mayweather just nine. (Ed. note: To further keep this in perspective, guys like Harry Greb and Henry Armstrong fought more than 20 times in a single year.)
11. Speed: There is little doubt that a prime Ali is the fastest heavyweight who has ever stepped into the squared circle. His quickness and mobility was a revelation in the 1960s; big men simply did not move like that. His amazing speed and reflexes allowed him to introduce a level of artistry and elegance to heavyweight boxing which changed the public’s perception of the sport and pioneered new tactics and techniques. Years past his prime, Ali still enjoyed a decided speed advantage over most of his opponents, a testament to his astonishing athleticism.
10. Chin: One of the ironies of the career of Muhammad Ali is that for years the old-timers questioned his courage and toughness. They watched him dance and slip punches and concluded that if he was ever hit squarely by a serious puncher he would fold up like a cheap suitcase. How wrong they were. In fact, Ali proved too tough for his own good. Few boxers in the history of the sport, let alone heavyweights, have withstood the kind of firepower Ali took from Frazier, Norton, Foreman, Shavers and Holmes. Ali was knocked down only four times in his career, by Sonny Banks, Henry Cooper, Joe Frazier and Chuck Wepner. And it should be noted that the Wepner knockdown was the result of “The Bayonne Bleeder” stepping on Ali’s foot at the same moment he landed a right hand to the ribs.
9. A True World Champion: Few boxers have fulfilled the title of “world” champion the way Ali did. Instead of staying moored in one’s home country or in Las Vegas, like so many titlists of recent years, “The Greatest” trekked about the globe, boxing in such diverse locales as Switzerland, Malaysia, Ireland, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, and of course, Zaire, in the process cementing his status as a figure of global significance.
8. Sonny Liston: Charles “Sonny” Liston was a truly fearsome heavyweight. Incredibly strong and powerful, in 1964 he was regarded as just shy of invincible. An aura of menace surrounded this ex-con and former leg-breaker for the mob, his reputation so dark that many were of the conviction he did not merit the opportunity to fight for the world title, despite the fact he had defeated virtually every viable contender prior to facing champion Floyd Patterson. He demolished Patterson inside of one round; in the rematch, he did the same.
Thus, many were predicting a long and dominant championship reign for Liston and when he agreed to face the undefeated Cassius Clay in his first title defense, virtually every boxing pundit and expert foresaw an easy win for the champion. Instead, despite some underhanded tactics by Liston’s corner which saw Clay temporarily blinded during the match, the brash, young challenger “shook up the world” and completely outclassed Liston, compelling him to quit on his stool after round six.
7. The Return: Elite-level athletes rarely come back after lengthy lay-offs to re-establish themselves as the best of the best. Does anyone think that say Sidney Crosby, or Lebron James, or Tom Brady could sit out three-and-a-half seasons and then just pick up where they left off? Amazingly, after Ali finally won the right to return to boxing, he took on no soft touches, no tune-ups, but instead faced two dangerous top contenders, Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, and then the champion, Joe Frazier, defeating the first two and giving “Smokin’ Joe” the toughest fight of his career to date.
6. The Louisville Lip: Early in his career, Ali witnessed professional wrestler Gorgeous George perform and immediately realized that being loud, brash and boastful would help attract attention and sell tickets. Thus, “The Louisville Lip” was born. But the significance of Ali’s rapping and rhyming went beyond stealing the limelight and bringing a renewed focus to the sport of boxing. For a young black man to be so cocky and outspoken in the 1960’s was nothing short of revolutionary, and with the aid of his natural charisma and wit, Ali introduced a whole new dimension to the idea of “Black Pride.” And it must be noted that Ali did not only indulge in mindless name-calling and “trash talk” but went out of his way to offer intriguing opinions and insights on a wide range of topics as he recited poetry, quoted verses from the Koran, performed on Broadway and gave speeches at universities.
5. Joe Frazier: After Ali had been stripped of his world title and banned from boxing in 1967, it took time for the heavyweight division to find a worthy successor, but by 1970 “Smokin'” Joe Frazier had established himself as one of the most relentless and powerful big men fight fans had ever seen. Like a giant-sized Henry Armstrong, Frazier applied constant pressure, breaking down his opponents with a non-stop attack and maybe the best left hook in boxing history. Ali and Frazier were a study in contrasts while being virtual equals in terms of strength, courage and will to win, all of which made for an unforgettable rivalry. Frazier was victorious in their first great battle in 1971, one of the most significant fights ever and a match which not only transcended boxing, but sports itself; Ali won the next two clashes. His performances against Frazier in all three meetings are testament to his ring greatness and constitute a huge part of his legacy.
4. An All-Time Great Competitor: When it came to competing, Ali was ‘old-school.’ Which is to say, that while much of what Ali brought to boxing was new and unique, when it came to his chosen profession, Ali was not so different from the great battlers of decades past who loved to fight, loved to win, and wanted to prove themselves against the best competition available. It just so happens that Ali came along during the heavyweight division’s Golden Age; never before or since have their been so many big, tough, capable boxers in that weight class and Ali fought them all. He ducked no one; he demanded no catch-weights; he didn’t wait for anyone to get old or stale. Instead, the second anyone challenged him or questioned his supremacy, he responded as all truly great competitors do and sought to prove himself again.
3. George Foreman: There is no doubt about the ring greatness of Big George Foreman. Any sensible ranking of the greatest heavyweight champions of all-time has to put him in the top five (and Liston and Frazier in the top 10), and in 1974 he was regarded, like Sonny Liston before him, as something close to superhuman. Boxing insiders knew he was mortal and some gave the cagey Ali a decent chance to pull off a huge upset in 1974, but almost none were picking Muhammad outright, while many fans of “The Greatest” feared for Ali’s life. After all, the two formidable heavyweights who had beaten Ali and given him his toughest fights, Frazier and Norton, had been demolished with ease by Foreman. How could an ageing Ali defeat a younger, stronger and more powerful opponent? And yet he did. It remains one of the most significant matches in boxing history for both Ali’s performance and its many cultural and political implications. This is the great triumph that transformed Muhammad Ali from a famous boxer and an important figure in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, to a genuine living legend.
2. Political and Cultural Impact: Books can and have been written on Ali’s influence beyond sports. He was a leading figure during the upheaval of the 1960s in America; a prominent and outspoken critic of American society; an anti-war activist arrested for refusing the draft and denied his right to box during his prime years; a world figure for becoming a Muslim and changing his name. There is no way to overstate the significance of all this. For a young, prominent black man to change his name and religion and loudly proclaim his anti-establishment views in the late 60s … Well, let’s put it this way: during a time when Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton were all assassinated, it’s probably fortunate that Ali too wasn’t murdered. And after his boxing career had ended he continued to be a force for social change as he rejected the dogma of the Black Muslims, advocated for reconciliation and cultural harmony, raised awareness for Parkinson’s disease, and even rescued hostages from Iraq in 1990.
1. A People’s Champion: Finally, the story of Muhammad Ali is that of a man of conviction and faith who was beloved by millions and who in turn loved nothing better in life than connecting with as many of those people as he could. Ali loved people and refused to cut himself off from the press or the public. His training camps were always open to visitors and it was the rare request for an interview that he declined. While Floyd Mayweather disembarks from his private jets far away from the public and surrounded by a platoon of mammoth goons, even at the height of his fame, Ali only ever employed a single bodyguard and never hesitated from mingling with his admirers wherever he happened to be.
And while boxers today may refrain from discussing their personal life or avoid making themselves available to the media, Ali did the opposite. He loved answering questions and being challenged by interviewers and held nothing back. His integrity, the fact that he stood for something bigger than boxing, along with his openness and natural charm and his ring success, all coalesced to make him a superstar. Books, television specials, comics, games, toys, movies, plays, video games; accolades and tributes from people like James Brown, Diana Ross, Madonna, Norman Mailer; honorary degrees from universities and the Presidential Medal of Freedom; a museum and cultural centre in his name in his home city of Louisville, Kentucky; the Olympic flame lit by his trembling hand in 1996 — Ali became, and still is, larger than life. Yes, boxing was the springboard to all this, but the man’s influence will continue to be about much more than sports. Ali was, and is, the people’s champion, and his legacy will no doubt outlive all of us.