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.