There must be something special about January–it is clearly the month that brings us great heavyweight champions. Earlier this month, Big George Foreman and Smoking Joe Frazier had birthdays. But this week, we celebrate the greatest of them all. On January 17, 1942, Muhammad Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky.
It is nearly impossible to overstate Ali’s importance–as an athlete, as a pop culture icon and as a political and historical figure. Few people in the 20th century were more famous worldwide. Fewer still were more beloved.
I have little patience for any arguments against Ali’s standing as the best heavyweight boxer who ever lived. In his early years, he had a stunning combination of speed, agility and creativity. As he matured, he developed into the sport’s preeminent ring general. His will power and mental toughness stand out even in a sport where such qualities are a requirement for entry.
Ali’s resume speaks for itself. He ruled over the greatest era in the history of the heavyweight division. He stopped three opponents who unquestionably belong in the division’s all-time top 10 to 12–George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston. He twice beat two other men who should rank in anybody’s historical top 20 to 25–Ken Norton and Floyd Patterson. Over two decades he defeated top contenders who might easily have reigned as champions in less competitive eras: Jimmy Ellis, Jerry Quarry, Earnie Shavers, Ronny Lyle, Jimmy Young, Oscar Bonavena, George Chuvalo, Zora Folley–all legitimate ring legends in their own rights.
Ali’s courageous stands against the likes of Foreman and Frazier are well-known to even casual fans. But to truly understand how dazzling Ali was in his prime, I suggest fans watch his 1966 defense against Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams. You will see a dangerous, two-fisted heavyweight rendered defenseless by the a man who took the Sweet Science to a level never seen before or since.