“I am the greatest.”
It’s perhaps Muhammad Ali’s most iconic phrase. He used it as a schoolboy when he ran races with his schoolmates. He yelled it at journalists ringside after he upset Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion. It was even the title of an LP he released for Columbia Records in 1963 — essentially a collection of Clay’s pre bout testimonials, as well as his attempt at crooning the B.B. King classic “Stand By Me.”
Indeed, more recently in 2005, when he was presenting Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the then US President George W Bush said, “When you say the greatest of all time is in the room, everyone knows who you mean.”
The three-time world champion boxer, transcended his sport and revolutionized the way athletes saw themselves and their place in the narrative of the times. And, yes, while Ali may have been more than the sum of his athletic gifts, his greatness nevertheless drew from his achievements in the ring itself.
On the basis of pure numbers though, it seems hard claim to justify. Sugar Ray Robinson (173–19–6) had far more wins. Other fighters had perfect records. Heavyweight Rocky Marciano (49-0) never lost a fight. Yet Ali (56-5-0) can still legitimately be considered if not the greatest boxer of them all, arguably (Joe Louis being the other alternative) the greatest heavyweight.
What determines a boxer’s legacy is the period which he fought, the opponents he faced and the manner in which he won. Ali’s boxing career spanned four decades — his amateur career culminating in the gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics spanned the late 1950s, the 1960’s saw him win the world heavyweight title as a professional for the first time and then banned for his opposition to the Vietnam war at the peak of his powers. The 1970s were when he fought some of his most memorable fights, including his trilogy with Joe Frazier and the Rumble in the Jungle with George Forman. His career ended with two losses including his first career stoppage, against Larry Holmes.
Of these decades, the most defining were the 60s and 70s. Ali was a a fighter who eschewed traditional boxing form in order to do things his own way. While it seems blasphemous, Ali eschewed many of boxing’s cardinal rules. He kept his hands low and slipped punches by simply leaning back.
Ali was never the heaviest puncher — his relatively modest record 37 knockouts in 56 wins would attest to that. Part of the reason was that at 210 pounds at his peak he was a relatively light heavyweight — his Olympic win indeed came in the light heavyweight division (81kg).
However he carried tremendous speed into the professional heavyweights division. If his technique was unorthodox, his quickness of his counters and fancy shuffling footwork made him lethal and kept him free of damage.
By the end of the 60s following his suspension from boxing and the stripping of his world titles, the boxing world had changed. Joe Frazier had seized control of the heavyweight division which is widely acknowledged to have entered its golden era. This was an era which featured boxers like George Frazier, Ken Norton and Larry Holmes who would have been contenders and indeed (as in the case of Foreman in the 1990s – another of the great decades for the heavyweight division) champions in any era of boxing. This was the era Ali returned to. If the 60s were when Ali dominated the heavyweight division, the 70s were the decade he built his legacy on – where he fought and beat other all time greats.
This was also the decade when Ali’s speed deserted him. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s long time fight doctor said that when Ali lost his legs, he lost his first line of defense. But Ali learned something in turn. He discovered he could take a punch.
It was Ali’s toughness and granite chin – he once boxed four rounds after Ken Norton had fractured his jaw in the 11th round of a 1973 contest – that made some of the greatest fights of the 20th century. His battle with Foreman in Zaire – the Rumble in the Jungle – is proof of this. Team Forman had trained their fighter to cut off the ring and punish Ali with his sledgehammer blows. After the first round, Ali quickly adopted the strategy he calls rope-a-dope.
Leaning against the ropes, he kept his guard up and allowed Foreman to swing at his arms and gloves. Ali grimaced constantly but his toughness allowed him to withstand the assault while his quick fists allowed him to counter off the rope.
The strategy, which seems so simple needed an Ali to pull of successfully. Henry Clark, an Ali clone who was used by Foreman as a sparring partner ahead of Zaire, attempted the rope-a dope against the powerful slugging Earnie Shavers and was knocked out in two rounds.
Then of course there was the Thrilla in Manila. In 100-degree heat and watched by 700 million people across the world, Ali and Frazier brawled unrelenting for 14 rounds. Ali would tell his corner it was the closest he had been to dying but nevertheless kept coming forward. Finally Frazier’s corner, with both their figher’s eyes swollen shut would throw in the towel. Ali would later say he and Frazier went to Manila as fighters, and returned as old men.
Ali would fight 10 more times but he wasn’t ever the same fighter, losing thrice including his last two fights. However that does little to negate his legacy. Ali won against the best of his generation; a generation that ranked among the greatest of heavyweights. That as strong an argument as possible for Ali being the greatest heavyweight.
As another of Ali’s quotable quotes goes: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”