We’ve been reading quite a few ‘greatest heavyweights of all-time’ lists just recently, and in almost each case Muhammad Ali has been placed right at the top. Deservedly. Definitely. Unquestionably. Why? Not just because the man himself said he was The Greatest. Not merely because “everyone else says Ali was the best, so you go along with the crowd.”
No, I and many, many others rank Ali as the best ever, and it’s for quite a few reasons. Here are the two most important:
1: His almost ludicrous quality of opposition.
Ali faced each and every deserving contender throughout his prime years as champ; along with this, Ali often fought his toughest challengers more than once: Sonny Liston (twice), Floyd Patterson (twice, once in the 1960s, again in the ’70s), George Chuvalo (twice, once in the 1960s, again in the ’70s), Ernie Terrell, Cleveland Williams – and then later, after his enforced exile, Joe Frazier (thrice), George Foreman, Ken Norton (thrice), Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers, Jimmy Young, Jerry Quarry (twice), Joe Bugner.
Now that is some list of quality opposition. No doubt about it. Who during his best years – from 1964 to 1977, did Ali duck? The answer is absolutely nobody.
2: The fact that the world never, ever even got to see Ali at his absolute best.
Think about this real hard for a while. All Ali achieved, all he did in the ring, he achieved, he did, either before he had had a chance to reach his absolute physical peak as a fighter, or afterwards. Ali was 29-0 at the time of his final fight before being so utterly and disgracefully stripped of his title and refused the right to fight, to earn a living. The rate Ali was going at this point in his career (and I take on board the fact that Ali was getting in as many fights as he possibly could because he knew the government net was closing in, that his career was on borrowed time) he would have had maybe three more fights in 1967 (after easily dealing with Zora Folley in March).
Ali, then aged 26 and at his physical peak as an athlete, would then likely have had three or four fights in 1968, and with no elimination series needed to crown a new champ due to Ali’s stripping, who would he have faced? Joe Frazier maybe, who was the leading contender at the time. Ali at his peak, with no rust, no slippage of his speed or his skills due to almost four long years out of action, would have beaten Frazier (as he very nearly did in March of 1971) with no arguments.
Then, at around 36-0, Ali would have boxed maybe two or three fights in 1969. Who his stern opposition would have been at this time, fighters who had any shot at beating him, I cannot tell you. But Ali, the king, would arguably have retired, unbeaten, at say, 39-0, maybe 40-0, in maybe 1970.
Of all the great heavyweight champions, only Joe Louis had a comparative amount of his prime years robbed from him (this due to WWII, Joe having to miss out on a potential 32 months of action; this time perhaps allowing Louis to beat his incredible 25 title defences record – this another article altogether).
In short, it is the time Ali was forced to stay out of the ring that makes us, forces us, to fully realise how special he was. And how much more special he could have been. Just think, if that Vietnam war had never happened……..
Ali is THE Greatest. No doubt about it.