As we collectively take the time to respectfully contemplate, consider, and pay respects to the great Muhammad Ali, it is befitting that we at Idiots Guide take the time to do a small retrospective of some of his greatest individual ring wars. It could be argued that three of these fights are among the very best in the history of boxing. What cannot be argued is that Ali was a major player in boxing’s last, greatest, historic era. The ‘Sweet Science’ isn’t what it used to be in many ways, and by paying tribute to Ali’s iconic influence, we are also paying tribute to the sport of boxing and it’s long and uniquely colorful history. Professional boxing continues to exist, however it’s ‘Golden Age’ has long since passed. The passing of Muhammad Ali may in fact demonstrate a transcendent symbolism. In either case, the sport of boxing, the world of sports, the sociopolitical minded, and society at large have all been the marked beneficiaries of the profound legendary greatness that was Muhammad Ali…#TheGreatest
#6. Ali vs. Ken Norton III September 28, 1976 Yankee Stadium NYC
Round Three – On September 28th 1976, New York City witnessed the 3rd installment of the Muhammad Ali vs. Ken Norton trilogy. At the time, Ken Norton was an absolute beast of a heavyweight fighter and former champion. Known for his savage punching power, and with a nickname like ‘The Jaw Breaker’ you get the picture. It was Norton who handed Ali one of his rare early losses, beating him by a split decision after a twelve round match in March of 1973, a fight in which he lived up to his nickname by breaking Ali’s jaw somewhere between the 9th and 11th rounds. Going into this fight many ‘experts’ opined that Ali would lose this fight thinking that he had lost a step after his defeat of George Foreman two years earlier in 1974. This fight was a grind house affair, a physically bruising ballet for both fighters, as illustrated by the extremely close decision which fell in Ali’s favor. It is one of the most controversial decisions of Ali’s career.
#5. Ali vs. Joe Frazier 1 March 8th 1971 Madison Square Garden NYC
It was famously billed as ‘The Fight of the Century’ by sportswriters around the world. The magnitude of which was greater than the fact this was the first time that two undefeated heavyweight boxers were set to fight for the outright title. This pugilist battle carried with it the underlying tension of sociopolitical cultural gravitas. Muhammad Ali (31–0 / 25 KOs) was carrying the flag for the de-facto left-wing, anti-war, anti-establishment portion of America. Conversely, Joe Frazier (26–0 / 23 KOs) came to represent the conservative, pro-war, political establishment. The irony being that Frazier never asked nor wanted to be linked to conservatism. This fight also marked Ali’s return from exile to claim the heavyweight title that was taken from him due to his principled refusal to enter the war in Vietnam. The fight went down on March 8th 1971, amidst celebrity fanfare and media frenzy. It showcased two of boxing’s greatest gladiators going toe to toe. It was a passionate fight that met and exceeded the hype, going the entire 15 round limit. Ali seemed to tire quicker than usual as his ‘boxing legs’ hadn’t fully returned to their pre-exile standard. Joe Frazier came out the victor by a unanimous decision, leaving the Ali contingent of America saddened, yet hopeful. The people’s champ was back and there would be a rematch. History would eventually witness two additional legendary matches.
#4. Ali vs. Joe Frazier II January 28, 1974 Madison Square Garden NYC
Nearly three years after the first ‘Fight of the Century’ came the inevitable rematch, this time billed as ‘Super Fight II’ between these two titans of the heavyweight division. This time however, there was no title on the line. Both fighters had lost in the prior calendar year, which caused the average boxing fan to view it as less significant than the original. They were wrong. This was a backyard brawl and Ali wanted his revenge. Styles make fights and the contrasting fighting styles of these two warriors made for incredible boxing contests. Their contrasting personalties and underlying bad blood made for a kind of controlled, passionate aggression that was a marvel to behold. Competition is at it’s regal best when the competitors actually don’t like each other. No Christmas cards make for awesome fights. Ali got his revenge in this fight winning with a unanimous decision, after going all 12 rounds. At the end, boxing fans could tell there was still something left unresolved in this pugilist saga, and their thirst would be rewarded with the 3rd and final war…
#3. Ali vs. Joe Frazier III October 1, 1975 Araneta Coliseum Philippines
The ‘Thrilla in Manila’ – A fight so famous that it has it’s own instantly recognizable tagline. A battle fought so passionately that it’s legendary status continues to grow 40 years after the fact. A contest so brutal that Ali’s 9th round, in-fight quote said it all “Man, this is the closest I’ve ever been to dying.” These two all-time greats provided the case in point for the saying ‘leaving everything you’ve got on the field/floor/ring.’ They split the first two contests, so this was the proverbial ‘rubber match’, and from beginning to end it had a winner take all feel to it. Frazier’s plan of attack was to pummel Ali’s body with a ‘If you kill the body, the head will die’ axiom/strategy. Ali went with his tried and true ‘Rope-a-Dope’ strategy. Neither man’s strategy was effective enough to dominate the other. What was abundantly clear was the alarming amount of savage punches, armed with vicious intent that both fighters gave and received. The kind of blows that would kill mortal men with ease. It was the kind of fight that modern ‘Pay per View’ boxing consumers pray their $100 can elicit. The bad news is that this kind of three part, heavyweight rivalry saga is a thing of days gone by, the good news is that this classic heavyweight saga happened. This fight had to have a winner and in the end it was Muhammad Ali winning by technical knockout (TKO) when Joe Frazier refused to answer the bell for the start of the 15th and final round. Frazier’s cornerman Eddie Futch throwing in the proverbial towel, after witnessing the brutal shots Frazier had taken late in the 14th. This ended the 3rd act of a legendary 3 act saga, with Ali losing the first bout then winning the next two and retaining his WBC/WBA Heavyweight Championship titles. #Classic
#2. Ali vs. George Foreman October 30, 1974 Kinshasa, Zaire
The Rumble in the Jungle – The good news is that the organization and execution of this mega-fight made Don King a world-wide force as a professional boxing promoter. The bad news is that this fight made Don King a world -wide force as a professional boxing promoter. For Ali, this fight fell between Frazier #1 and #3 and had the Undisputed WBC/WBA World Heavyweight Championship on the line. If victorious, Ali would become the world heavyweight champion for the second time in his interrupted career. Standing in his way was an imposing 24 year old named George Foreman (yes, the grill guy), the biggest baddest heavyweight living on planet earth at the time. The same Foreman who had already destroyed champion fighters Joe Frazier and Ken Norton prior to his Ali meeting. ‘Destroyed’, meaning he knocked both men down and out seemingly at will. George Foreman was all but the big bad wolf to Ali’s red riding hood. A vast majority of the ‘experts’ expected Foreman to soundly defeat the 34 year old Ali (10 yrs his senior). Ali as usual had other ideas. The fight happened at 4:30am (yes) on October 30th 1974 in front of 60,000 partisan Africans with many millions more viewing it in American theaters and world-wide (closed circuit). The theatrical narrative was as recognizable as ‘David vs. Goliath’, if David had transcendent boxing ability as a weapon. To everyone’s surprise, Ali came out swinging instead of ‘dancing’ around Foreman, even throwing ‘right hand leads’ at Foreman which served to infuriate him. Ali worked the ‘Rope-a-Dope’ until Foreman wore himself out and suddenly tired. It was at this point that Ali came off the ropes and tattooed Foreman’s face with several bone jarring right hand sledgehammers. Suddenly, late in the 8th round Ali rolled Foreman with a ruthless 5-punch combination, followed by a vicious left hook and a life affirming right hand squarely to Foreman’s face. He stumbled, then fell to the canvas as Ali watched his bested foe on the mat at his feet. Foreman didn’t get up in time and was declared a knock out victim, Ali the winner. There is no legitimate argument against the notion that this fight was one of the greatest in the history of professional boxing. Muhammad Ali was involved in some the very best.
#1. Cassius Clay/Ali vs. Sonny Liston February 25, 1964 Miami Beach, Florida
“I shook up the world” – The first Liston fight in and of itself wasn’t anywhere near as remarkable as some of the aforementioned battles (neither was the 2nd, btw) however what makes this fight so very special is that it marks the beginning of Muhammad Ali’s world championship odyssey that would see him win the title on three separate occasions, the only fighter to do so at the time. It also highlights the ascension of Ali from the halls of obnoxious young fighter, to a world champion that people had to pay attention to wether or not they liked his unprecedented bravado. A boldness that was immediately on display the moment Liston failed to answer the bell at the start of the 7th round. Apparently, Liston didn’t want a repeat of the 6th round in which Ali pummeled his face. To the dismay of his detractors Ali ran to the middle of the ring with arms raised, and started ‘doing the jig’ (dance), later to be known as the ‘Ali Shuffle’. He continually taunted ringside reporters with chants of “Eat your words!” along with the iconic “I shook up the world.” and the legendary coined phrase “I’m the greatest!” The original Ali vs. Liston was the public birthplace for what would become the greatest personality that the world of professional boxing has ever seen. It may be difficult to believe now, but 1960’s American media didn’t resemble modern media in many ways according to style and agenda. I’ll leave it at that.