When we call Muhammad Ali “The Greatest,” we are of course talking about so much more than boxing. Ali’s courageous choice to stand up for his principles made him a hero to millions and required that even those who disagreed respect his integrity. His constant willingness to make time for strangers from every walk of life gave him a humane quality that few celebrities have ever possessed.
Ali has had such a big presence beyond boxing that sometimes it’s possible to overlook how huge his status is within the sport. He is the greatest heavyweight who ever lived, and he’s hardly even close. Some old timers will declare for the likes of Rocky Marciano or Joe Louis. There are even Gen-Xers who sometimes speak up for Mike Tyson. All of them are wrong.
In all-time comparisons, fighters much be judged based upon who they fought and defeated. And nobody’s resume is even close to Ali’s. He ruled the division for two decades, during the greatest moment of heavyweight history.
Early in his career, Ali handled tough contenders like George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Cleveland Williams and Zora Folley, making it look easy. He completely dismantled a very good challenger in Ernie Terrell and knocked out former world champion and all-time great Floyd Patterson.
Ali came back from a three-and-a-half year exile in 1970 to defeat the very tough and intelligent Jerry Quarry in his first fight back. He then handled the rough and crude Oscar Bonavena. Late in his career, Ali was still defeating tough contenders like Ron Lyle, Joe Bugner and Earnie Shavers, all men who might have held world titles in other eras.
Ali struggled with certain opponents. Ken Norton was an incredibly strong, athletic fighter who boxed in a very disciplined, pressure style that cut off the ring on Ali and gave him real problems. He broke Ali’s jaw and beat him by decision early in Ali’s comeback. Ali defeated him in two rematches, by very close decision.
Ali’s most famous loss was his first, to Joe Frazier in 1971. All three fights between the two were brutal and extremely close, but Ali prevailed in both rematches.
Against Sonny Liston in 1964, and again against Geoerge Foreman a decade later, Ali beat two of the most dominant heavyweight champions in history. Both men were seen as unbeatable. Liston had knocked out Patterson twice in the first round. Foreman had knocked out both Frazier and Norton in two rounds each.
Frazier, Foreman and Liston were all top-10, all-time heavyweights. Norton and Patterson both deserve inclusion in the top 20 to 25. Other Ali victims like Tyrrell, Jimmy Young, Jimmy Ellis, Quarry, Shavers, Lyle and Folley, along with the aging Archie Moore, all belong inside the heavyweight top 50, or near. Chuvalo, Bonavena and perhaps Bugner, Karl Mildenberg and Henry Cooper are all in the conversation for top 100 of all time.
Only a very few fighters in the sport’s history have faced so many good and great fighters. Not a single heavyweight has.