Table of Contents

By Tracy Callis

From the earliest days of his boxing career, Muhammad Ali claimed to be "the Greatest." With each passing year, that once-shocking assertion becomes more accepted by fans and "boxing experts" alike. Ali's admirers said that he was not bragging when he sounded off -- merely stating the facts.

Angelo Dundee once said, "I always believed in him from the very start. When he said he was the greatest I believed him. I told people long before people accepted him. There was a time when people would simply not accept what their eyes were watching" (see Bunce and Mee, 1998 p 116).

There is little doubt that he was the best fighter in the heavyweight division from 1964-1977 ("suspension" years included). He is living proof that "there is nothing like nerve, if you have the ability to back it up."

With possible exceptions for Joe Louis and Floyd patterson, Ali had the fastest hands in heavyweight history. Rocky Marciano was quoted as saying, "I never saw a fighter with hands that fast" (see Durham 1975 p 299). Ali lacked the benumbing hitting power that Louis possessed but his overall body motion, leg movement, head and neck control, and ability were second to none in the annals of the big boys.

In the early part of a fight, he was often untouchable. As the fight progressed, Ali, being a large man, tended to slow somewhat from the blistering pace of the first five rounds to a moderate pace for the remainder of the bout. However, due to exceptional anticipation, he was still hard to hit squarely.

A master strategist, Muhammad would "psych-out" his opponents by pre-fight talk, predictions, and frequently, by writing poems about how he was going to knock them out or handle them during the match. Many times, the outcome was exactly as he predicted. Gilbert Odd (1975) called him "The Fighting Prophet."

Usually, Muhammad would outrun his adversary, pepper him heavily with jabs and combinations, and when his man tired, move in for the kill. Against stronger and more aggressive opposition, he would back-peddle, tantalize them with jabs, and when they would charge forward excitedly, he would brace himself and greet them with a straight right that rattled them from head to toe. On many occasions, it was obvious that he was "carrying" his man to prolong the fight - even against topflight competition.

Durant (1976 p 151) described him as having "lightning-fast hands and a pair of legs that took him around the ring like a ballet dancer. He would float just out of range with his hands dangling at his sides as if to taunt his opponent." He added (1976 p 172), "he was black pride out loud."

Houston (1975 p 112) said, "He moved gracefully and punched fluently. He was not a particularly damaging hitter with one punch, but his combinations of blows made their mark."

He added that speed and remarkable reflexes enabled him (Ali) to box with hands dangling at his sides and simply not be there when an opponent went to hit him - "He swayed back from the waist to make punches miss by inches."

Cooper (1978 p 13) asserted, "What Ali was, at his best, was the fastest moving heavyweight of all time." He added (1978 p 15), "the second of Ali's great assets, and one which no other boxer can surely have possessed to the same degree, was the ability to judge distances ... he knew to an inch when he was safely out of range."

Myler (1997 p 2) described him, "In the early part of his career, he was truly beautiful to watch. For such a big man (six feet, three inches and around 200 pounds) he was amazingly light on his feet. Not a devastating puncher in the mould of other great heavyweights, though he had a good percentage of inside-the-distance wins, he relied mainly on the lightning reflexes and brilliant combinations. A sway from the hips or a twist of the head enabled him to make his opponent miss by inches. The other man would become discouraged at his inability to land a telling blow and would be easy prey as Ali let rip with his slashing punches."

Odd (1974 p 60) recorded, "Speed, perfect timing, sharp perception and correct punching have been the secret of Ali's success." Litsky (1975 p 16) wrote about Ali, "He is the fastest heavyweight boxing champion ever and, in the opinion of some, one of the best. He is by far the greatest box-office attraction in boxing history ... his athletic talent is only half of his renown. He is colorful and charismatic, charming and abrasive, fascinating and mischievous, loud, antagonistic, magnetic."

Grombach (1977 p 88) called him "probably the most controversial, strange, and most unbelievable character in the history of prize-fighting from ... around 1700 to our present era and probably beyond."

A government enforced suspension from the ring during the years 1967-1970 because of his stand against the Vietnamese War prevented him from fighting in what were possibly his best years. Many claim that had he fought during that period, he would have been "the Greatest" beyond any shadow of a doubt. They may be right!

Mee (1997 p 12) observed, "In a sense he was two fighters. Before 1967 he was built for speed and youthful exuberance. When he returned from his three-year exile, which had been forced on him by his refusal to be drafted into service in the Vietnam War, he was slower than before but more cunning. He took more punches, too many in the end, but he proved that as well as his incredible talent he had a huge heart and solid jaw."

McCallum (1975 p 69) wrote, "There is no telling what heights Ali might have reached had his battle with the federal government over his military draft status not lopped three and a half years off his career. At his peak, he stood 6 ft. 3 in. and weighed 210 lbs. and he moved with the grace of a ballet dancer and punched with a speed hard to follow with the naked eye."

He also stated, "At his peak, 1964-1968, Muhammad Ali deserved to be ranked with the best heavyweights in history."

Gutteridge (1975 p 13) said, "Until Ali regained the richest prize in sport in 1974, I was not totally convinced that he is the greatest heavyweight of all. Joe Louis held sway. Jack Johnson was also a master. Others would argue the case for deadly hitters Jack Dempsey and Rocky Marciano."

He continued, "But, Ali has brought a new conception to the art of boxing ... he is not the hardest of heavyweight hitters and his in-fighting is practically non-existent. Ali's greatness, apart from the grace, the speed and the beautiful art of swaying out of harm's way, is more basic. He takes a blow better than anyone else. Behind the show off is a brave heart and a body that has recuperative powers beyond all other big men."

Carpenter (1975 p 156) expressed his thoughts following Ali's 1974 knockout of George Foreman to regain the title, "How many years had I been hearing Ali say 'I am the Greatest?' Always I had listened, laughed, enjoyed, and yet kept a doubt aflame in my mind. The Greatest? With Johnson, Dempsey, Louis, Marciano there before him?"

He went on to say, "I reflected on what I had just seen and admitted to myself - yes, very likely he is The Greatest."

Howard Cosell (1973 p 188) wrote, "I am of the opinion that the finest fighter of my lifetime was Muhammad Ali." Myler (1997 p 1) said, "He may, or may not, have been the most gifted ringman, pound for pound, of all time, but he's right up there with the very best."

Herb Goldman, former Editor of The Ring Record Book and the International Boxing Digest (IBD) monthly boxing magazine, ranked Ali as the #1 All-Time Heavyweight (The Ring, 1987 p 1071). The Ring (1999, p 124) ranked him as the #1 All-Time Heavyweight and The Ring (2000, p 124) ranked him as the #1 All-Time greatest fighter of the twentieth century (among all weight classes).

However, a close analysis of his boxing career reveals that, in addition to his five official losses, he had a number of extremely close bouts that he could have (or should have) lost (i.e. Jimmy Young, Ken Norton #2 and #3, Joe Frazier #2, and possibly Henry Cooper #1). Granted, these contests were against fine competition but, surely, he would have had even more difficult bouts against the most talented and very best heavyweights in history - Jim Jeffries, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, and Joe Louis.

This writer believes he would have lost bouts against these men and, accordingly, ranks Ali as the #5 All-Time Heavyweight (but perhaps deserves of an even higher ranking).


Bunce, S. and Mee, B. 1998. Boxing Greats. Philadelphia: Courage Books.

Carpenter, H. 1975. Boxing: A Pictorial History. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company.

Cooper, H. 1978. The Great Heavyweights. Secaucus, NJ: Chartwell Books, Inc.

Cosell, H. 1973. Cosell. Chicago: The Playboy Press.

Durant, J. 1976. The Heavyweight Champions. New York: Hastings House Publishers.

Durham, R. 1975. The Greatest - My Own Story (Muhammad Ali). New York: Random House Publishers.

Grombach, J. 1977. The Saga of the Fist. New York: A.S. Barnes and Company.

Gutteridge, R. 1975. Boxing: The Great Ones. London: Pelham Books Ltd.

Houston, G. 1975. SuperFists. New York: Bounty Books.

Litsky, F. 1975. Superstars. Secaucus, NJ: Derbi-books Inc.

McCallum, J. 1975. The Encyclopedia of World Boxing Champions. Radnor, Pa: Chilton Book Company.

Mee, B. 1997. Boxing: Heroes & Champions. Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, Inc.

Myler, P. 1997. A Century of Boxing Greats. New York: Robson/Parkwest Publications

Odd, G. 1974. Boxing: The Great Champions. London: The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited.

Odd, G. 1975. Ali, The Fighting Prophet. London: Pelham Books, Ltd.

The Ring. 1987. The Ring Record Book and Boxing Encyclopedia. New York: The Ring Publishing Corp.

The Ring. 1999. The 1999 Boxing Almanac and Book of Facts. Fort Washington, Pa: London Publishing Co.

The Ring. 2000. "The 20 Greatest Fighters of the 20th Century by William Detloff" contained in The 2000 Boxing Almanac and Book of Facts. Fort Washington, Pa: London Publishing Co.

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