Sunday, June 4, 2017

Muhammad Ali’s 15 Greatest Fights

By Peter Silkov 

Few will argue that Muhammad Ali was the greatest heavyweight world champion of all time. There were a number of things, which made him ‘The Greatest.’ In his fighting youth, he had blinding speed, the kind that has never been seen before or since in a heavyweight. Some other heavyweight champions were fast, Larry Holmes for example, but none had the sheer speed of the young Ali. On top of this, Ali had deceptive strength, and carried a better punch than he is usually credited for having.  Later in his career, when his speed and reflexes had dimmed, Ali had to rely much more on his physical strength, a great chin (again another aspect which is often overlooked with Ali) and a steely willpower. In his declining years as a fighter these attributes were able to get him victories against fighters who were younger, fresher, and physically superior to him. The fact that Ali dominated the heavyweight division during a time when it was at its most talented and competitive, is the underlying testament to his greatness. His greatest moments during the 70s came largely when he had already passed his athletic peak by some way. Looking at Ali’s career its fair to say that he was in more ‘classic’ matches than just about any other heavyweight champion, again, just one more reason why he can claim the mantle of ‘The Greatest.’  Here is my top 15, greatest fights of ‘The Greatest.’  They have been chosen for a number of reasons. Some were simply great fights; others were great performances by Ali rather than great competitive fights.  Part of Ali’s magic was that he could make the most mundane contest compelling, just as a great film star can lift a film from the mediocre to something special. From the beginning to the end of his career, whenever Ali entered the ring you were bound to see something out of the ordinary. 

1. Muhammad Ali Vs George Foreman:  Oct 30, 1974, Stade du 20 Mai, Kinshasa, Democratic Republic Of The Congo.

In his greatest achievement in the ring, Muhammad Ali regained the World heavyweight title by out-lasting and out-psyching George Foreman. Just as he had against Sonny Liston ten years previously, Ali entered the ring a heavy underdog against a champion believed by many to be invincible. While he had been perceived as a fragile youngster against Liston, against Foreman Ali was considered to be too old and past his prime, to beat the destroyer which was Foreman.  Yet again, Ali proved everyone wrong. With his rope-a-dope, tremendous will power, and almost superhuman durability on this night, Ali allowed Foreman to punch himself out, before coming back to knock out an exhausted Foreman in the 8th round.   

2. Muhammad Ali Vs Cleveland Williams:  November 14, 1966, Astrodome, Houston, Texas.

Making the 7th defence of his World heavyweight title during his first title reign, Muhammad Ali produced a display against big-punching Cleveland Williams, which many today perceive, as his masterpiece. Ali was like a cruel artist in this fight, as he mixed his blinding speed with destructive punching power, with spectacular results.  Williams was floored 3 times in the 2nd round, then again in the 3rd, before the slaughter was ended.  This mix of speed and power gave us an indication of the kind of fighter Ali would have developed into if he hadn’t been banned from boxing a few months later in 1967, due to his refusal to fight in Vietnam. 
This was also the fight where Ali used the ‘Ali shuffle’ for the first time.

3. Muhammad Ali Vs Sonny Liston 1:  February 25, 1964, Convention Center, Miami Beach, Florida.

In a fight that was named ‘Fight of The Year’ by The Ring magazine, and later 'Fight of Decade', and 'Upset of The Decade', Muhammad Ali won the World heavyweight title, in one of the rings biggest upsets. In just his 20th professional contest, Muhammad Ali (then named Cassius Clay) stepped into the ring a huge underdog against the feared champion, Sonny Liston. The 22-year old challenger was expected by many to be blown out of the ring by Liston, but instead, Ali stunned the boxing world with a sensational display. Liston was out-boxed and then out-punched, and finally retired after the 6th round. After the fight, Ali declared to the shocked media at ringside “I am the Greatest! I shook up the world!” 

After this fight, the new champion changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, and announced that he had converted to the Nation of Islam. It was the start of what would be a legendary reign.  

4. Muhammad Ali Vs Joe Frazier 3:  October 1, 1975, Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines. 

This was Muhammad Ali’s 4th defence of the world title, in his second reign, and nicknamed ‘The Thriller in Manila’ this fight pitted Ali against his archival Joe Frazier for the 3rd and final time. Hailed by many as the perhaps the greatest heavyweight fight of all time, this was a savage contest, which saw both men standing toe-to-toe and ripping merciless punches at each other. While neither man was the athlete that he was in their first contest, with both men a little heavier, and a little slower than in 1971, for sheer non-stop action, courage and intensity this fight has never been surpassed.  After starting fast and confidently, believing that he was in for an easy night with Frazier, Ali tired, and the fight became a battle of endurance and wills, until the 13th and 14th rounds, when Ali suddenly found a new reservoir of energy and battered Frazier round the ring, forcing trainer Eddie Futch to pull Frazier out before the 15th and final round.  Ali was never the same fighter after this match, and after the match, described it as being ‘the closest thing to dying’ he had ever experienced. 

5. Muhammad Ali Vs Joe Frazier 1:  March 8, 1971,  Madison Square Garden, New York, New York. 

This match was called the ‘Fight of The Century’ and was one of the most eagerly awaited fights in boxing history. Ali was having just his 3rd fight in nearly 4 years after being banned from boxing for 3 years due to his refusal to enter the Viet Nam war. In Ali’s absence, Frazier had won the vacant world title, and Ali was desperate to reclaim it as his own. The fight had been built up even further by the needle between the two men, which had intensified during the matches’ build up.

The fight itself was the epic contest, which had been expected, with both men fighting at a pace and intensity that seemed almost superhuman at times. Ali showed the marks of his 3 years out of the ring, as he struggled to find his previous form, and flagged after the first 6 rounds. Yet despite his tiredness in the face of Frazier’s incessant attacks, Ali displayed a fortitude, and courage that he had never needed to call on before, standing with Frazier and fighting back. In the 15th and final round, Ali was floored by Frazier, yet got up, with his jaw swollen, and managed to fight it out to the end of the round. This was Ali’s first defeat as a professional, yet in an ironic twist, his valiant effort in losing served only to enhance his popularity. For Frazier, this was to be his greatest night and his greatest victory, yet he paid a heavy physical price for his win, and had to spend several weeks in hospital recovering. 

For many, the first and third fights between Ali and Frazier, are the greatest heavyweight fights of all time. 

6.  Muhammad Ali Vs Ernie Terrell:  February 6, 1967,  Astrodome, Houston, Texas.

In what was his second to last contest before his infamous ‘exile’ from boxing, Muhammad Ali made the 8th defence of his title against the hulking Ernie Terrell. Ali gave a beautiful exhibition of his boxing skills against the awkward and rangy Terrell, showing the kind of speed and reflexes never seen before from a heavyweight champion, either previously, or since. This was a grudge fight, as Terrell had tried to out-psyche Ali by continually calling him by his ‘slave name’ Cassius Clay. However, this ploy backfired badly on Terrell, as Ali gave him a slow and punishing boxing lesson. Terrell was the holder of the WBA version of the heavyweight title, but from the first bell it was clear who the real world champion was out of the two of them.  The fight went the full 15 rounds, even though it looked as if Ali could have stopped Terrell inside the distance, had he wanted.

7. Muhammad Ali Vs Ken Norton 1:  March 31, 1973, Sports Arena, San Diego, California.

Now an ex-world champion, after his loss to Joe Frazier in their first fight, Ali entered this match with Norton while in the midst of a campaign to gain another shot at the world title, and overlooked the then unknown Norton. Ali entered the ring wearing a robe that had been given to him by Elvis Presley, which had ‘The People's Champion’ embroidered on the back of it. He also weighed a heavy 221 pounds.

From the beginning, Ali found Norton’s crab-like style tough to break, and his long jabs tough to avoid. Added to this, Ali had his jaw broken, perhaps as early as the second round. Lacking the old energy and bounce in his legs, and in constant pain from his jaw, Ali once more showed great courage, despite going down to his second professional defeat. After a dramatic contest, Norton won a split 12 rounds point's decision.  He also won Ali’s NABF heavyweight title.
After this fight many people wrote Ali off as a top-flight fighter, but of course he would return.

8. Muhammad Ali Vs Ernie Shavers:  September 29th, 1977,  Madison Square Garden, New York, New York. 

Deep into his second reign as world champion, Ali made his 10th defence against the huge-punching Ernie Shavers. By this point in his career Ali had little left in the tank, and Shavers was one the biggest punchers in the heavyweight division.  Yet, Ali won this fight with a mixture of guile and courage, allied with his remaining boxing skills, and still formidable durability. This fight is at times painful to watch, as Ali takes punches that he would have avoided a few years previously. It is also a testament to Ali’s greatness, that he was able to retain his title against such a dangerous challenger, at this point in his career. Ali won on points after 15 often hard fought rounds.  Despite his decline as a fighter, it was Ali who finished the fight the stronger man, and at times looked like he could even stop Shavers in the last round.

9. Muhammad Ali Vs Oscar Bonavena:  December 7th, 1970, Madison Square Garden, New York, New York.

In what was his second comeback fight since his 3 year ‘exile’ from boxing, Muhammad Ali took on the strong, and aggressive, Oscar Bonavena. Ali had boxed barely 3 rounds in his previous comeback contest when he stopped Jerry Quarry on cuts, and the rust of almost 4 years of inactivity showed clearly in this fight. Ali was no longer the fleet-footed boxer he had been in the 60s before his exile. He was flat-footed and his reactions and reflexes were considerably slower. This was the fight, that clearly showed  the price that Ali had paid for his ban from boxing. Rather than being able to out-box Bonavena, Ali was forced to go toe-to-toe with him as he was dragged into a brawl. The fight developed into a hard fought contest with both men exchanging big shots, and Ali showing for the first time that he could still beat top fighters even though he had lost much of his old speed and skills. After being hurt several times in the fight, and taking more punches than he ever took in the past, Ali roared back in the 15th and final round to floor Bonavena 3 times and score a technical knockout victory. This was the first and only time that the rock-chinned Bonavena was stopped in his 68 fight boxing career.

Ali would improve in later fights as he got rid of his ring rust, but he would never again be the boxer that he had been before his exile.

10.  Muhammad Ali Vs Ken Norton 2:  September 10, 1973.  Forum, Inglewood, California.

Six months after their first contest, Ali and Norton met for a second time. This time Ali was in prime condition, weighing 9 pounds less than he did in the first fight, and armed with a grim determination to avenge his previous defeat to Norton. Once again it was a very tough fight, with Ali starting fast, and showing a lot of his old speed in the early rounds, but then fading after the first 6 rounds. After Norton took over in the middle rounds, Ali staged a strong finish in the last two rounds to capture a split, 12 rounds point's decision victory. Ali would fight Norton once more in 1976, and win again via a split decision. All three Ali Vs Norton fights were close and for some, controversial decisions.   


11.  Muhammad Ali vs George Chuvalo 1:  March 29, 1966, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

In what was the third defence of his first reign as world champion, Ali was taken the 15 rounds distance for the first time in his career, as he beat Canadian iron man, George Chuvalo, on points. Although for most of the fight, Ali out-boxed Chuvalo with ease, he could not stop or floor Chuvalo. The match was one-sided yet entertaining, as Chuvalo bravely kept the pressure on Ali and landed more punches than previous opponents. Ali showed his speed and reflexes, but he also displayed his strength and durability, as he at times chose to go toe to toe with Chuvalo. This fight answered many critics who had doubted whether Ali could fight at his fast pace for a full 15 rounds.

12. Muhammad Ali Vs Henry Cooper 1:  June 18th, 1963, Wembley Stadium, Wembley, London. 

This was Ali’s last fight before he challenged Sonny Liston for the World heavyweight title. Facing the determined British champion, Henry Cooper, Ali  (who was still calling himself Cassius Clay at this point.) Ali toyed with Cooper for much of this fight, cutting him badly in the 3rd round, but then near the end of the 4th, a Cooper left-hook caught Ali and dropped him to the canvas by the ropes. Ali beat the count, but was visibly groggy, only to be saved by the bell. When the bell rang for the 5th the crowd was in uproar, believing that Cooper was on verge of a huge upset win over the young sensation. However Ali showed his tremendous powers of recuperation, and launched a vicious assault upon Cooper, sending several punches into the already badly cut Cooper left eye, until it was pouring blood all over the ring.   With Cooper blinded by his own blood and on the verge of being defenceless, the referee was left with little choice but to stop the fight in Ali’s favour, giving Ali a 5th round TKO win. Prior to the fight Ali had predicted that he would beat Cooper in 5 rounds.  

13. Muhammad Ali Vs Karl Mildenberger:  September 10, 1966, Wladstadion, Frankfurt, Hessen, Germany.

Making the 6th defence of his world title, in his first reign, Ali found the tough and clever Mildenberger to be a tricky opponent. The German was the first southpaw to challenge for the World heavyweight title, and made good use of his awkward stance.  Ali, who was approaching his physical peak at this point, showed an impressive mix of speed and physical strength and slowly broke down his determined challenger.  Mildenberger was floored in the 5th, 8th and 10th rounds, and the referee finally stopped the contest in the 12th round to save the German from further punishment.

14. Muhammad Ali Vs Zora Folley: March 22, 1967, Madison Square Garden, New York, New York. 

In what was to be his final fight before he was stripped of his world title and banned from boxing for over 3 years, Muhammad Ali made the 9th defence of his world title against the clever and experienced Zora Folley. Having been carefully avoided by previous world champions, Folley tried to make the most of his chance against Ali, and started their fight well, landing some good right hands on Ali, while also making Ali miss with his own punches. Yet the champion was taking his time rather than struggling, and when he opened up in the 3rd round, his superiority in strength and speed was visible. In the 4th round, Ali floored Folley heavily and the challenger barely beat the count. After playing a bit more with his challenger in the 5th, Ali finished things in the 6th round with two short rights. This fight showed Ali becoming increasingly stronger as he matured, and this rare mix of speed and power already had people comparing him to the all time heavyweight greats of the past.

15. Muhammad Ali Vs Doug Jones:  March 13, 1963, Madison Square Garden, New York, New York.

Having just his 18th professional contest, Ali faced the toughest opponent of his career so far in the tough and experienced Doug Jones. In a fight, which was one of the toughest of his career, Ali found Jones to be a very tough nut to crack. Ali was caught and rocked by Jones several times in the fight, but replied with hard jabs and lightning combinations. At times, Ali showed his inexperience in this fight and his speed based fighting style was still not fully realised. Jones seemed the stronger fighter at times and on occasions bullied Ali, but Ali showed that he had grit and durability by standing up to the more mature Jones and fighting back. With the fight poised Ali as (he would so often in his career) staged a brilliant finish, out-punching Jones over the last couple of rounds to come out a clear winner after 10 exciting rounds.  This fight would prove to be valuable experience for the still developing Ali.

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