Muhammad Ali is one of those rare athletes who transcended his sport. He was more than a boxer, he was a cultural icon.
But he made his name as a boxer, and in his career from his debut on Oct. 29, 1960, in Louisville, Ky., against Tunney Hunsaker until his sad, final bout as a faded nearly 40-year-old, he fought the best of his era.
He was 11-3 with eight knockouts against men who are in the International Boxing Hall of Fame during that 21-year career in which he went 56-5 with 37 knockouts and held the heavyweight title on three separate occasions.
He was 2-1 with one knockout against his greatest rival, Joe Frazier.
He was 3-0 with knockouts against George Foreman, Archie Moore and Bob Foster, 2-1 against Ken Norton, 2-0 with two knockouts against both Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston, and was 0-1 and was knocked out by Larry Holmes.
Without question, though, he participated in many of the most memorable bouts in history.
These are my choices for Ali’s 10 most significant bouts:
10. Ali TKO3 Jerry Quarry, Oct. 26, 1970 – This fight was Ali’s first after his three-plus year exile for refusing induction into the military service. Quarry was a very solid opponent who, though not a great brawler, was extremely tough and the kind of guy who could make it tough on a mover. There was concern about whether Ali would have the speed and the reflexes he’d shown before the layoff.
Judging by this fight, there was no change. Ali’s jab dominated the fight. He opened a massive cut above Quarry’s eyebrow and the bout was stopped in the third.
9. Ali TKO5 Henry Cooper, June 18, 1963 – Ali was still a contender and not yet a champion when he went to London to fight Cooper. He was shockingly knocked down in the fourth round.
Asked by the boxing writers after the fight what he was thinking when he was on the ground, he smiled and said, “I saw Elizabeth Taylor in the first row and was thinking how beautiful she is.”
8. Ali TKO12 Floyd Patterson, Nov. 22, 1965 – This was the second title defense Ali made of the championship he’d won from Sonny Liston in 1964. It also marked his debut in Las Vegas.
It remains notable because Patterson was a two-time former champion who could box. And though Ali had a size advantage, there were many who still wondered about Ali’s legitimacy. Some felt Liston hadn’t tried or perhaps had thrown his two fights against Ali, and there were boxing experts of the day who believed Patterson could give him difficulty.
Patterson refused to call Ali by his new name, calling him Clay instead -- a reference to his birth name, Cassius Clay. Ali punished Patterson and could have knocked him out earlier, but because he was angered by what he perceived as Patterson’s disrespect, he carried him so as to deliver a more thorough beating.
7. Ali UD12 Joe Frazier, Jan. 28, 1974 – This was the “other” Ali-Frazier fight. Their first bout, in 1971, had been and remains the biggest fight in boxing history. Their rubber match in 1975 was one of the classic brawls.
The second fight was not for a title and it didn’t have the drama of the other two, but it was big because of the stature of the fighters and because it would set the winner up for a shot at the title held by George Foreman.
They brawled on the set of ABC’s "Wide World of Sports" before the bout when Frazier became angry at Ali’s taunts.
Ali boxed and moved his way to a clear unanimous decision victory.
6. Ali KO1 Sonny Liston, May 25, 1965 The fight was held, oddly, in Lewiston, Maine. It was supposed to be in Boston, but not long before the fight, officials in Massachusetts, fearing that organized crime might be involved, ruled the fight could not be held in the commonwealth.
It wound up in Maine, where there was fear of riots because of tensions involving the Nation of Islam.
Former heavyweight champion Jersey Joe Walcott served as the referee and nearly screwed things up royally. Ali fired a big right hand at Liston that went down in history as “The Phantom Punch.” Many say it never landed and that Liston took a dive; others insist that it was an example of Ali’s tremendous speed and power.
Liston went down and didn’t make the 10 count, but Walcott got distracted and, at about what would have been 16 or 17, started to allow the fight to resume. Officials hollered to him from ringside and he waved it off.
5. Leon Spinks UD15 Ali, Feb. 15, 1978 – Spinks had won a gold medal for the U.S. at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, the primary reason he got the title shot against Ali with just seven pro fights.
But this was kind of the unofficial end of Ali as we knew him. He was old, slow and didn’t have the energy to keep the motivated Spinks off him.
Spinks didn’t box particularly well, but he was aggressive enough and active enough that he won a split decision.
4. Ali TKO6 Sonny Liston, Feb. 25, 1964 – Liston was heavily favored over the 22-year-old Olympic gold medalist then known as Cassius Clay. Ali was almost hyperventilating at the weigh-in, screaming at Liston, but later it was revealed that he acted crazy because he’d heard Liston was afraid of crazy people.
Liston was one of the game’s hardest hitters, but he wasn’t able to do much with Ali, whose speed and agility largely kept him out of trouble.
Liston quit on his stool after the sixth round, citing a shoulder injury. But it was clear he knew he was in over his head against the more talented young fighter.
3. Ali KO8 George Foreman, Oct. 30, 1974 – The bout was held in what was then known as Kinshasha, Zaire, now known as the Congo. Foreman was a massive favorite and only Ali’s charm was selling the fight.
He said, “If you think the world was surprised when [President Richard] Nixon resigned, wait till I whoop Foreman’s behind.”
He went out and laid against the ropes, letting Foreman pound on him. This was his strategy to wear Foreman out, which he later dubbed, “The Rope-a-Dope.”
When Foreman tired, Ali knocked him out in the eighth to regain his title, making him the second man to do so after Floyd Patterson.
The documentary, “When We Were Kings,” is about this fight.
2. Ali TKO14 Frazier, Oct. 1, 1975 – This bout is regarded as perhaps the best heavyweight title fight in history and one of the best matches ever. Ali and Frazier were at their best, and tortured each other with heavy punches while fighting outdoors in the searing heat.
After one exchange in which Frazier took Ali’s punches and kept coming, Ali said to him, “They told me Joe Frazier was washed up.” Frazier smiled, said “They lied,” and winged a punch.
Frazier’s trainer, the legendary Eddie Futch, stopped the bout after the 14th round because Frazier couldn’t see. There was talk that if Futch hadn’t stopped it, Ali’s corner would have.
1. Frazier W15 Ali, March 8, 1971 – This was a fight between two unbeaten men, both of whom had won Olympic gold medals and who had a claim to the heavyweight title.
Ali had stopped Jerry Quarry in three and Oscar Bonavena in 15 after getting his license back after missing three-and-a-half years because of his refusal to accept induction into the military service.
Frazier won the title in his absence and seethed as Ali mercilessly taunted him.
The fight lived up to its billing and was a sensational affair that Frazier won by decision. He knocked Ali down with a classic left hook in the 15th to cement the victory.
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