I was asked to put together a list of the five greatest fights fought by the man who called himself “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali. Obviously a very subjective matter, my first problem was deciding on five, I decided instead on six. As criteria I chose ability, execution, drama, and historic value. Now that I’ve set the stage, I’ll go to work and try to do my best.
As I search for a starting place in a career that was 56-5 (37 KO’s) I ask myself which of Ali’s many attributes stuck out, and I thought of his ability to entertain. After all that is the essence of any professional sport: the ability to sell. I pictured a young Frank Sinatra, lighting up the stage, or an early Bob Hope capturing a room, and I asked myself what was it that grabbed you the first time the curtain rose on one of these acts, and it was obvious, it was talent. Pure talent. There have been few exhibitions of raw ability that can match the 212-pound Ali, who in November of 1966, dazzled the audience as he obliterated Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams, in three whirl wind rounds. His speed, combination punching and foot work never allowed Williams to touch Ali. I realize Williams was a much lesser fighter than he had been earlier in his career, but the only judging point here was the uncommon athletic ability that Ali displayed, and for that I make this number six on my list.
Having started with a fourth of July type display, I now looked for a fight that tested him before he was a champion, before we knew what he had besides talent, when there were still questions but not yet any answers. And for that fight the one that will be number five, I came up with the 21-3-1 Doug Jones, who for many that were there in Madison Square Garden that March night in 1963 thought won. The man who had just knocked out Bob Foster and Zora Foley came out fast and staggered the 17-0 Ali in the opening round. It was quite often up to then in his career, that the only time you touched Ali was in the introductions, in the center of the ring, but not this night. If Ali was to win with Jones it wasn’t going to be with his speed and agility, he was going to have to find something else. And he did, as he dug down winning the last two rounds to stay unbeaten.
Next on the list was the first of what was to be several times that he would shock the world, his crowning as the heavyweight champion of the world and with it the undressing of Sonny Liston. They say to win a world title in anything you must be hitting on all cylinders, and that night Ali was and so was his corner man, Angelo Dundee. Muhammad showed that speed that we had seen with Cleveland Williams, only now he was doing it with a man who had struck fear into the heavyweight division, a man who was a 7-1 favorite. As Ali showed his worth, so did Dundee, when a temporarily blinded Ali panicked in the corner and his trainer cleaned his eyes with a sponge and pushed him out with the instructions to run. The fighters with special careers find ways to win fights like the Doug Jones bout and now this one for the title. Ali had learned to frustrate many opponents, but none in a more meaningful spot then Feb. 26, 1964 when Sonny Liston refused to answer the bell for the seventh round.
There is no existence without history, and there are few battles that mark it better than Ali-Frazier I. Why else would the promotional title “The Fight of the Century,” that day in 1971 at the Garden. It is quite rare when you can be any place in the country, perhaps even the world, and say one word; The Garden and everyone knew where and what you were talking about. New York City and Madison Square Garden were the center of the universe that day. Everyone wanted to be there and those who couldn’t headed for closed circuit theaters. It was the day that Joe Frazier finally closed Ali’s mouth for a moment, but in doing so opened the eyes of many who had only seen a gifted athlete and braggart, but now recognized a man, a warrior. Like the respect the young Sugar Ray Leonard would gain years later when he lost his first fight in a gritty effort to Roberto Duran, Ali won much more than he lost that night. When he rose from the canvas, with a swollen jaw, he at once stood for more in peoples’ minds and hearts than he had ever before. This is number three.
To the kind of king who’s always remembered, perhaps you must loose your throne, then return. On Oct. 30, 1974, that is what Muhammad Ali did when he knocked out the undefeated George Foreman early in the morning in Zaire, Africa. Little did Ali know 10 years earlier that when he faced the intimidating Sonny Liston it was to be a prelude, practice for how to defeat a bully. Only, a decade later the choice of weapons would be different. Physical and mental grit would replace shocking speed. Where he had been Michaelangelo he was now Conan the Barbarian, with the intellect of Freud. This was number two.
If that was the fight that brought Ali and his legend to life, then this next one, my number one in his career would be one that left part of him in the ring that night of Oct. 1, 1975 in Manila. If you must die a little to become immortal, then both Ali and Frazier died a bit that night in their third meeting. If a life can be read like a book, then the hardest chapters of their existence were written that night. Like Hemingway with a hammer, they wrote and rewrote what at first seemed like an ordinary script. Although you wondered how neither ran out of ink, or blood, it was the publisher who finally shut down the presses, as Frazier’s trainer Eddie Futch told the ref, no more. I can find no more fitting or even telling place to finish this list, then here, the place where the story ends, at least in my opinion.