It takes courage to lace up a pair of boxing gloves and step into a ring.
Muhammad Ali had that courage and beyond.
Ali may have been physically gifted, but as a boxer what makes him so great are all the intangibles and how he transcended the sport. People ask which was greatest fight, wondering if it was with Foreman or Frazier, but the reality is that the greatest fight in Ali’s career was with the US Armed forces when he refused to go to serve in a war he didn’t believe in. This cost him his title, prison time, and he didn’t fight in four years.
If you see his fights, you’ll also see what makes him so great. He didn’t take the easy fights. He didn’t choose opponents based on paydays. He chose fights based on greatness and legacy. He was also a mean guy.
Boxing is not a sport for the squeamish and greatness in this sport often comes at the price of someone getting knocked out. Ali was particularly mean and two outings come to mind. The first I’ll mention is the fight where he famously asked Ernie Terrel “What’s my name?” before proceeding to beat the man for 15 rounds, mercilessly, inflicting serious damage but never enough to stop the fight.
This was another of Ali’s gifts, his psychological prowess and getting into people’s heads. This sometimes led to ugly moments in his career, a perfect example was his relationship with Joe Frazier. When they fought, Ali crossed pretty much every line you could cross and called Frazier horrible things that Joe would never forget much less forgive. Being called dumb and being accused of being an Uncle Tom in an age where that was one of the biggest insults you could offer a black person.
But that was Ali. He was a trash talker. But he never shied away from a fight and he never backed down. But definitely, another of his greatest assets as a boxer was pretty much being the most quotable fighter of all time.
"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."
"If you even dream of beating me, you'd better wake up and apologize."
"I'm so mean, I make medicine sick."
"Bragging is when a person says something and can't do it. I do what I say."
And he did what he said, even when he lost.
In the first fight with Frazier, Frazier won, including one hellacious left hook that shattered Ali’s jaw in the 15th round and sent him to the canvas. But he got up and finished the fight. They met twice more, Ali winning the first by decision and the Thrilla in Manilla by TKO in the 14th.
Think about that, his reaction to losing a fight and in the process getting his jaw broken was to want a rematch. He also did that with Ken Norton and Leon Spinks. Also, feel free to see the names I’m mentioning. All Hall of Famers. That’s because Ali wasn’t much for ducking unless it was in the ring to return a right cross or left hook.
Psychologically speaking, he was also the best. Pretty much no one could get in your head like Ali and you can ask George Foreman about that. For perspective, please note that George Foreman was one of the hardest punching heavyweights of all time. Where Ali beat Norton and Frazier by unanimous decision, Foreman knocked both of these men out in 2 rounds. He was a beast and physically, no one could stand toe to toe with him. Period.
So if you can’t win with strength, you still have wits, agility, and speed. The psychological warfare Ali unleashed on Foreman was relentless and the people of Africa were on his side. Add to this an outdoor ring and sweltering heat, and conditioning comes into play. Another notch in Ali’s favor. These were times where fights were 15 rounds and Ali went the distance in more than one long grueling fight. Then we saw the birth of the rope a dope. Might I repeat the fact that Foreman is one of the hardest hitting heavyweights of all time (68 KOs). Then try to imagine the gall of Ali to coax Foreman into giving him his best shot… or shots. Ali laid on the ropes and allowed Foreman to unleash barrage after barrage of punches to the head and body, answering just enough so the fight wasn’t stopped. These were not pitter-patter punches. These were sledgehammers. And Ali leaned on the ropes almost reaching the crowd while Foreman was in full berserker mode. There were two options, either Foreman would punch himself out or Foreman would get another vicious knockout.
Ali won by KO in the 8th. The stuff of legend.
When it comes to boxing prowess, only two people come to mind that might have been better boxers. Henry Hank Armstrong and Sugar Ray Robinson. Multiple division champions themselves whose skill in the ring was next level. I mention this not to diminish Ali’s reputation, but to keep in perspective the caliber of boxer, the record, and the accomplishments it takes to be called the greatest boxer of all time.
But unlike the two other legends, Ali brought boxing to the forefront of a world audience. Boxing had been around for a long time, but Ali is the reason it is truly global. His legacy comes from showing all sorts of courage, from being human, from having faults, from showing he was far from perfect, from trying to mend old wounds and not being forgiven for them, for being mean, for never ducking a fight, and for backing up what he said.
The reason Ali is the greatest of all time is precisely because his record as a boxer and a human has faults and blemishes. He knew greatness had a price and he paid it in full. He also knew that to be great, you had to welcome any and every challenge. And he did.
It could not have been easy to be Muhammad Ali, but in the end, only one person could do it, and his name was once Cassius.