Recently, we lost one of the great icons of the boxing world, Muhammad Ali. Many refer to him as the greatest boxer of all time, while at times others have questioned the validity of such a claim. Personally, I stay away from making such proclamations, as they tend to be meaningless outside the context of personal opinion, regardless of how prevalent that opinion may be. It’s kind of like proclaiming what the best rock band of all time was. Having said that, there is a reason he was considered the greatest athlete to ever have competed in the sport.
Actually, there are several.
The most obvious place to start is his mastery over the discipline of boxing, which is no small thing. It is a sport that tests you like almost no other, requiring agility, strength, stamina, coordination, timing, balance, pain tolerance, control over one’s emotions (panic and rage are always knocking at the gates, wreaking havoc on the athlete that allows them to take root), and sheer guts.
It is difficult enough to succeed in boxing, regardless of what tactics one employs, but Ali did it with style. In a sport so often associated with sheer aggression and brutality, he took the art of not getting hit to a new level. His superior footwork, timing and head movement were a source of torment to his perplexed opponents who, more often than not, found themselves punching empty space rather than the satisfying thud of fist on face they were expecting. He would expertly capitalize on the resulting loss of balance with sharp, accurate punches, all the while shifting, slipping and ducking away from the retaliatory response. As if this weren’t demoralizing enough, he would taunt them, mocking their near misses, sticking his tongue out at them, talking to them, offering up his face for them to try and hit again, only to have them fail again. He did little shuffles and dance moves in the middle of his combinations, adding flare and showmanship to the spectacle of blood and guts. His sheer mastery over human movement elevated the affair to a form of poetry in motion as he made some of the best fighters of his time look ordinary. He was an accomplished artist, and the ring was his canvas.
Another component that added to his legacy was his willingness to take on all comers in an era with no shortage of formidable opponents. He took them all on, some more than once, and when it was thought that he was nothing but a flashy showboater, he showed his grit in some notable wars with the likes of Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton.
Ali’s competence in the ring was rivaled by his genius for self-promotion; he was a constant stream of printable quotes, and the press ate it up. Arriving on the scene as the Civil Rights movement was picking up steam, his bravado and in-your-face, irreverent persona stood in stark contrast to the respectful humility the people expected from their champions. The fact that he was an African American man loudly proclaiming his own merits gave the public of the time quite a bit to digest. It was a tactic that worked brilliantly. As much as he was admired, there were a great many who tuned in just to see someone shut this young upstart’s mouth. They were often left unsatisfied, because he consistently backed his words up with his fists.
For all the attention he attracted in the arena of pugilism, he was not averse to controversy outside the ring. Born Cassius Clay, he won a gold medal for the U.S. in the Olympics. Elated at his accomplishment, he was looking forward to using his growing notoriety to promote racial equality. He was refused service at a restaurant in his hometown after winning the Gold for his country because, as a matter of policy, they didn’t serve African Americans. He joined the Nation of Islam in 1964, when his career was already in full swing, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali shortly afterwards. Drafted to fight in Vietnam in 1967, he refused to go, citing religious and moral convictions. This resulted in a three-year suspension from the sport of boxing at the height of his career, as well as a legal battle for which he faced several years in jail (he was convicted, and the verdict was ultimately overturned).
His comeback fights were some of the most memorable in his career, and included the Thrilla in Manila against Joe Frazier a brutal fight in which Ali emerged battered but victorious after Frazier failed to come out for the 15th and final round, and the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman in which Ali baited Foreman, one of the hardest hitters in the sport, by using his famed “rope-a-dope” strategy (where he laid against the ropes and baited Foreman to throw wild punches, thus becoming exhausted) before administering the coup-de-grace, knocking Foreman out in round 8.
After his retirement from boxing, Ali turned his attention to philanthropy and social activism, traveling to underdeveloped nations and helping those in need. As a result of his efforts, he was chosen to be a Messenger of Peace by the U.N. in 1998 and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005.
So, was Ali the Greatest of All Time? I suppose the answer can only be a subjective one, but he sure as hell belongs in that conversation.
Article by: Gerry Pinzon, Mercedes Club Personal Trainer & Boxing Instructor
Looking to try your hand(s) at boxing? Or to integrate boxing into a 100% customized Personal Training program? Contact Gerry for more information: [email protected] or 212-265-1111