Muhammad Ali told us he was “The Greatest” before he was Muhammad Ali, back when he was still Cassius Clay and few people took him seriously. That all changed, of course, but even after he had the world at his feet, nobody ever believed in Ali more than he believed in himself. That, perhaps, was his greatest strength. He didn’t think he was The Greatest. He knew he was.
But was he really? Was Ali the greatest boxer of all time? And what does greatness mean, anyway? What are the qualifications and benchmarks for such exulted status? And who decides these things?
If you look at the question strictly from a pound-for-pound point of view, Ali was not necessarily the greatest. Pound-for-pound rankings are just a game played in the arena of the mind, where boxers from all weight classes compete on equal footing.
Could Ali have beaten a heavyweight version of Sugar Ray Robinson or Roberto Duran? Could a middleweight version of Ali have beaten Carlos Monzon or Marvin Hagler?
Unless you take it too seriously, this sort of speculation is harmless fun, but it also reveals one important truth: You can’t evaluate a boxer on fighting ability alone, not when you’re dealing with the very best of the very best. The field is too tightly bunched at the top.
When you read the fighters’ plaques at the International Boxing Hall of Fame, you see some vital stats and a list of the inductees’ accomplishments. But true greatness is much more complicated than that. Intangibles play a major role in pushing a fighter beyond the ring and into the consciousness of the masses.
One of those intangibles is charisma, an overused word that should not be confused with popularity or financial success, though all three often go hand-in-hand. True charisma is like a spell that draws people to the source, often for reasons they can’t quite elucidate.
Ali was unique, something the world of sports had never experienced before and something from which it would never recover. He launched the era of unrestrained braggadocio and unabashed self-promotion that has since influenced athletes in virtually every athletic endeavor. But nobody has ever done it better.
His poetry, prediction and artwork were all part of the package, but they weren’t the brainstorm of a publicist, they flowed naturally from Ali with childlike candor. The authenticity was palatable.
Although much of what Ali said seemed to be tongue-in-cheek, the power of his words was almost as formidable as his fists. The nicknames he gave his opponents (George Chuvalo: the “Washerwoman;” Earnie Shavers: the “Acorn;” and George Foreman: the “Mummy”) elevated them in a strange way, regardless of any affront they suffered in the process.
Those who fought him looked back on sharing the ring with Ali as an honor, even, as was usually the case, they lost. To fight Ali was to be a piece of history.
Ali was charming, witty, brash and funny, but with an edge. Alternatively, mischievous and malicious, he alienated almost as many as he attracted at first, but converted most to his cause by the time he was done.
For some it was Ali’s bravery in the ring that won them over, especially as he aged but continued to persevere and overcome. For others it was his fearless stand against the Vietnam War, for which he sacrificed what could arguably have been his peak years as a boxers. Whether you agreed with him or not, you had to respect the courage of his convictions.
He was a hero of the civil rights and antiwar movement, an advocate of religious tolerance, ahead of much of the United States in his foresight and outrage. The counter culture was in his corner from the start, and as the mood of the country began to change, he was a rallying point, somebody who led by example.
The only other two boxers who came close to having the sociopolitical impact of Ali were Jack Johnson and Joe Louis. Both are seminal figures in the history of boxing and the United States, and the only other boxers whose historical impact compares to Ali’s.
Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, was a rebel reviled by most of white America. Louis became a symbol of America’s strength by knocking out German Max Schmeling on the eve of World War II.
Ali was a little of each, a rebel with a cause who spoke truth to power. Rooting for him gave folks of all stripes a common cause, which eventually spread beyond the ring and into more profound realms of life.
Of course, all of this wouldn’t have mattered anywhere near as much if Ali was not a magnificent fighter. Boxing was the vehicle that kept him relevant until his iconic legacy became secure, part of our collective psyche.
And what a fighter he was, the champion of the world at a time of unparalleled riches in the heavyweight division — Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Jerry Quarry, Earnie Shavers, Ernie Terrell and Oscar Bonavena.
He fought them all and beat them all, at first with unmatched speed and an unorthodox style, which mystified and frustrated all who stood against him. Later, with guile, courage and a willingness to fight on, he was confident he would prevail when others would have faltered.
Ali’s common touch was the glue that held it all together. He loved mingling with the people, hopping out of a car to playfully spar with random people on street corners or kids in playgrounds. He’d do the Ali Shuffle, crack a few jokes and make everybody feel part of him. He was the champion of celebrities and fat cats sitting ringside and champion of the downtrodden who couldn’t afford the price of a ticket.
Ali was The Greatest because he said he was, lived his life accordingly and convinced the world it was true. In the end, it’s the people who decide such things — and the people have spoken.