Muhammad Ali was easily the most iconic sportsman of not just generation but the twentieth century. And he won fame not just for being perhaps one of the best boxers of all time, but also for his ability to innovate and come out with entirely new strategies. From the Ali Shuffle to Rope a Dope, boxing owes much to the man who labelled himself The Greatest. And he was at his very best in these ten fights:
I Shot the Sheriff! Vs Archie Moore, 1962
He might have been the Olympic champion, but for most boxing experts, Cassius Clay ( as Ali was then called) was just a quick-moving braggart who would be found out in the more brutal world of professional boxing. In fact, many believed that former champion and boxing veteran "sheriff" Archie Moore, one of the most cunning boxers around, would teach the youngster a thing or two when the pair clashed, even though Moore was close to fifty and essentially from another era. Clay predicted that Moore would "fall in four" and then proceeded to deliver on his prediction in a stunning display of quicksilver boxing against a slow, aged opponent. This was the moment when the world began taking Clay seriously. It would never stop doing so.
Bear Huntin’! Vs Sonny Liston, 1964
This was supposed to be a massacre, with the brutal Sonny Liston decorating the canvas with the entrails of his outspoken challenger, Cassius Clay (as Muhammad Ali was then called). Liston was considered one of the most brutal fighters of the era, and not too many gave Clay, who had been dubbed the Louisville Lip for his penchant for talking down his opponents, any chance. Many were concerned that Liston would be so annoyed by Clay’s referring to him as the Ugly Bear that he might even kill the youngster in the ring. In the event, Clay totally outboxed a surprisingly sluggish Liston (who would later claim to be injured), and even fought with his eyes temporarily blinded for a while. The world watched in shock as Liston finally spat out his gumshield, conceding defeat even as Clay ran around the ring screaming "I am king." He was.
What’s My Name?, vs Ernie Terrell, 1967
Underneath all the boxing finesse that was Ali’s hallmark was a sharp temper. And leading title contender Ernie Terrell felt the edge of it when he taunted Ali prior to their bout, referring to him as "Cassius Clay" which Ali used to call his "slave name." Ali’s response was a bitter thrashing of Terrell, and a seeming refusal to knock him out, marking him down for more pu ishment. Towards the end end, Ali almost battered Terrell at will, pausing only to ask "What’s my name?" It was frightening. It was awesome.
Dismantling the Scientist, vs Zora Folley, 1967
No, this was not a high profile bout, but Zora Folley was one of the most respected boxers of his time, known for studying opponents carefully and pinpointing weaknesses. So Ali went into the fight an overwhelming favourite but it was certaily not expected to be smooth sailing. In the event, it was just that, as Ali turned in what his cornerman Angelo Dundee would call his best performance. The jabs, the shuffle, the heavy punches…all were on display as Ali put down the boxing scientist in one of his very best displays.
The Fight of the Century, vs Joe Frazier, 1971
In terms of profile, they did not come much higher than this – both Ali and Frazier were unbeaten in their careers and close to the height of their powers when they clashed in 1971. Hyped as the Fight of the Century, the bout lived up to its billing with fifteen rounds of utterly brilliant boxing.
Ali dominated the early stages of the fight, only for Frazier to fight back in the latter part. There are many who believed that the fight would have ended as a draw had Frazier not knocked down Ali in the dying moments of the bout, giving him a very narrow victory, and ending the first chapter of one of boxing’s most compelling rivalries!
Broken Jaw Man, vs Ken Norton, March 1973
There are some who will wonder why this fight is in this list at all? After all, Ali lost the bout, a colossal upset, given the fact that Norton was a newcomer. And the fight was not a classic either- it was slow and drawn out with no great punching. The reason it makes the list is because Norton broke Ali’s jaw early in the bout. His corner asked him to quit, but Ali kept going on and on, spitting blood into the bucket, with bones grating against each other in his mouth. He lost simply because he did not have the stamina left to throw punches through the pain, but it remains one of the most stirring displays of courage in a boxing ring.
Rumble in the Jungle, Bomaye! Vs George Foreman, 1974
Almost a decade after having entered the ring with people fearing for his life against a boxer supposed to a master of destruction, Ali was at it again. Once again, he was the outspoken, brash challenger, and in the place of Sonny Liston, this time there was the equally, if not more, brutal George Foreman. Not too many gave Ali a chance of getting past a few rounds. In the event, he revealed an entirely new strategy, called Rope a Dope, where he absorbed everything that Foreman threw at him and then attacked when he was tired out. It seemed suicidal, but like most of Ali’s gambles, it worked.
Thrilla in Manila, vs Joe Frazier, October 1975
Considered by many to be the greatest boxing fight of all time, this was the final chapter in what was perhaps boxing’s greatest rivalry. Joe Frazier and Ali had fought twice with each winning once. Their bout in Manila was supposed to be the decider and for fourteen rounds, it featured some of the most brutal boxing seen in history, with neither boxer giving an inch. Ali started well but then seemed overwhelmed by Frazier’s punching power before conjuring up a second wind towards the end. With Frazier barely able to see, his corner threw in the towel towards the clash between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali
One More Time Vs Leon Spinks, 1978
The fag end of Ali’s career was marked by bouts that seemed to go on for much longer than expected and where he often seemed to dip into his experiences to stay a step ahead of disaster. One occasion where he could not quite do so was when he lost the title to Leon Spinks in early 1978, looking rusty and unprepared. He fought back for the title later in the same year and this time, it was Spinks who was caught undercooked. Ali won the bout as much by his tactical nous as by boxing skill, time and time again landing punches and tying up Spink in clinches. The win made him the first boxer to win back the heavyweight title three times. It would be his last hurrah in the ring.
When Clinton Wept Atlanta, 1996
There would be one final moment of triumph for Ali and it would come outside the boxing ring. And would involve an enormous act of courage. When Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympics, the name of the person who would be lighting the Olympic torch at the opening ceremony was kept secret. And much to the crowd’s surprise, the man who was entrusted with the task was Muhammad Ali. In one of the most touching sequences in Olympic history, Ali, afflicted with Parkinson’s, stood with trembling hands and a gently shaking head, holding the torch, and
managed to light the larger torch in the stadium after a brief struggle (‘it just refused to light up’ he would later confess). The crowd went mad, and in the stands, US President Bill Clinton is said to have broken down with emotion. He was old, he was shaky, his voice trembled more often than not, and he no longer could dance or throw punches. But Muhammad Ali was still the Greatest.
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