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Was Muhammad Ali Really ‘The Greatest’?

(Photo courtesy of the outstanding “Happy Birthday, Muhammad Ali” gallery on Seriously, go there right now.)

By Steve Silverman

Muhammad Ali was the most influential sports figure of the 20th century. Among athletes, Ali was without peer when it came to social influence, and had as much to do with the advancement of civil rights and the end of the Vietnam War as any other individual. As an iconic self-promoter, his golden tongue had no equals — and still doesn’t, no matter what Dana White says about Chael Sonnen.

However, as great a boxer as he was during his prime, he simply was not “The Greatest.” We can name one heavyweight and four other boxers who were better at their craft than Ali. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, we mean no disrespect. We just want to set the record straight.

Let’s start off by analyzing Ali’s fighting style. He was a heavyweight who moved like no one in his weight class before or since. His left jab was almost perfect because he kept opponents off-balance with it and he could also stun an opponent enough to deliver a power shot. He also had a strong right hand that he could use to knock out an opponent once he had hurt him with a flurry of punches.

During his prime, Ali was a very strong defensive fighter, using his speed to avoid getting hit and his long arms to parry hard punches. Obviously, he lost that ability in his later years as he was hit hard by Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman and Larry Holmes. His ability to take hard punches and keep on fighting made him a great champion, but it cost him dearly outside the ring as he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease shortly after his career ended in 1981. Ali recorded a 56-5 record during his professional career.

Here are five boxers who rank higher than Ali…

1. Sugar Ray Robinson, 173-19-6, 1940-60, Lightweight to Middleweight

Robinson is recognized by most boxing experts as the greatest pound-for-pound boxer in the history of the sport. He had every characteristic that a boxer needed to be successful. Robinson had tremendous athleticism, very quick feet and the ability to deliver hard punches in succession. As a defensive fighter, Robinson was just too quick for most opponents to hit with combinations. Ali patterned his style after Robinson and he did a great job of mimicking him, but he was not as dominant as the original.

2. Joe Louis, 69-3, 1934-51, Heavyweight

In his quieter moments – and there weren’t many of them – Ali would admit that Louis was untouchable as a heavyweight champion and that nobody could have beaten him in his prime. Louis was a prolific fighter who had knockout power in either hand. There’s no way Ali could have stood up to Louis’s two-handed assaults. Louis admitted that Ali was a great champion and he did not have the speed to stay with him if they stood in the middle of the ring, but Louis said he would have used a two-hand attack to the body to drive Ali to the ropes before knocking him out.

3. Roberto Duran, 103-16, 1968-2001, Lightweight to Light Heavyweight

Duran was known for his ferocious style in the ring and his ability to hurt and finish opponents with a single punch. Hence his “Hands of Stone” nickname. If Duran hit you with a barrage of punches in his prime, you simply could not stand up. In a sport filled with men who were defined by their toughness, Duran often reduced these men to teary messes with his vicious assaults. Forget about the “No Mas” fight with Sugar Ray Leonard — Duran was among the meanest fighters to step into the ring.

4. Jack Johnson, 79-8-12*, 1897-1928, Heavyweight

The first African American to wear the crown of heavyweight champion, Johnson was the Ali of his day. He moved with very similar speed and he was a harder puncher with both hands. Johnson had brilliant defensive skills at the peak of his career and opponents could rarely hit him with hard shots. Outside the ring, white America feared and reviled him because of his proclivities to bed white women.
* Disputed record; includes newspaper accounts of all fights.

5. Manny Pacquiao, 54-3-2, 1995-present, Light Flyweight to Light Middleweight

Pacquiao’s overwhelming physical ability and his devotion to his craft allows him to rank with his sport’s all-time great. Pacquiao’s ability to throw punches from all angles rivals Robinson’s talent at that same skill. Pacquiao knows how to avoid punishing blows, but when he does get hit his concentration increases and he becomes even more dangerous.

Cagepotato Comments

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Lesnars_tiny_pecker_says- January 19, 2012 at 7:00 am
Well your very wrong. Ali is the greatest and it is because he was the fastest the best in the business when there where a lot of great fighters. He was also probably one of the toughest SOBs. how many times was he knocked out? yea only Marciano shows a better record on that and also take manny and the other modern fighters and throw them into the training and medical standards of the time of an Ali, Robinson and you would see them leave the sport. There are some good names but Marciano should be there. Bottom line it's all opinion and opinions are like assholes
smellypiratehooker- January 18, 2012 at 1:23 pm
@ Boomtime
Mike Tyson: " I wish one of your guys had children, for I could kick them in the fuck'in head or stomp on their tecticles, for you could feel my pain, cause that's the pain I have, waking up everyday."
peacexxl- January 18, 2012 at 11:51 am
... yeah, yeah, and Kobe, D Wade and Lebron are better than Jordan was. Oh and Bruce Lee never would have made it in the UFC either.

Apparently not everyone's hindsight is 20/20. Some people are even more shortsighted than usual when looking back.
The Truth- January 18, 2012 at 8:04 am
"boomtime Says:
Wed, 01/18/12 - 02:55

I do not care what anyone says cause I know that mike tyson in his prime could beat any boxer to have ever lived, plus he will eat their children, the guy was a beast"
winklepicker- January 18, 2012 at 8:02 am
All you fools are forgetting Clubber Lang.
KeithHackneyWindmillPalmStrike- January 18, 2012 at 5:06 am
@Buffalo Ben Amen brotha, didn't see ya there
KeithHackneyWindmillPalmStrike- January 18, 2012 at 5:01 am
Edwin Valero....toughest, scrappiest son of a bitch to have ever lived, 27-0 with 27 KOs, that's unheard of for a flyweight....too bad he was a complete psycho and killed his wife....should have made him better sammiches......not really saying he should be on the top 5 of all time, but he deserves a mention for being a badass
jibbo13- January 18, 2012 at 4:54 am
When i read the opening to this I thought oh please don't let manny be on this list!
He has controversial wins on his record, probably on roids and Marquez who fought both pacquiao and mayweather said floyd was a far better boxer, his style is too difficult to defeat.
Anyone who thinks manny is top five is too easily swayed by the media and its bias roided up, knockout stars. gimme a break
Dagnut- January 18, 2012 at 4:36 am
So if it's based on who you think is technically the best fighter ever who haven't watched Leonard.
boomtime- January 18, 2012 at 2:55 am
I do not care what anyone says cause I know that mike tyson in his prime could beat any boxer to have ever lived, plus he will eat their children, the guy was a beast
Summoner10- January 17, 2012 at 11:18 pm
No willy pep or henry armstrong or even Harry Greb or julio Chavez? CP needs to stay far away from any sort of boxing talk....
Romeo_Must_Rock- January 17, 2012 at 11:08 pm
i'm a filipino and i still don't agree at #5
Romeo_Must_Rock- January 17, 2012 at 10:40 pm
put it this way, ali to boxing is like fedor to mma
RumbleMakingWeight- January 17, 2012 at 10:31 pm
Rocky Marciano???? where is his mention. Guy went 49-0 only undefeated heavyweight champ. 43 KOs. KO'd joe louis, archie moore, joe walcott,etc.
How about pacman actually beat Marquez without judges favoring him ie last fight. and Fighting Floyd to prove whose the best of them two. Stop ducking him thru Arum. I dont feel pacman should be in this list at all. no way.
fatbellyfrank- January 17, 2012 at 9:03 pm
How is this even up for discussion, Ali is the greatest cause he was the greatest, he was the greatest at atime when the HW division was full of studs, Frazier, Foreman Norton et al. The rest of the article is just comparing apples to oranges, under what criteria have Pac man and johnson been rated higher than Ali?
You state "Here are five boxers who rank higher than Ali…"
The correct statement here would be "Here are five boxers who I have ranked higher than Ali, for no real reasons other than my own opinion"
DangadaDang- January 17, 2012 at 8:31 pm
I didn't write this Xeno. We both know that you know my name. Yours on the other hand...
TheCanadian- January 17, 2012 at 8:07 pm
Putting Pacquiao and Johnson infront of the likes of Ali and Frazier is complete and utter nonsense. I dont mean to sip on that haterade but this article sucks.
Buffalo Ben- January 17, 2012 at 7:12 pm
What about Edwin Valero? 27 wins, 27 KOs, undefeated for life. The only argument against him being on this list would be that he only has 27 wins, which is hard to hold against him considering his tragic and untimely death. I guess the relatively short career of "El Indio" prevents him from reaching most peoples GOAT lists for boxers, although he's higher on my personal list than Ali.
smellypiratehooker- January 17, 2012 at 6:44 pm
John L Sullivan would have been nice to see on that list since you seemed to be grabbing at boxers from differant periods. Cause there are more then five of them, if greatest, in your mind means "Better boxer"
Diaz Cartel- January 17, 2012 at 6:29 pm
The heck?! Where's Mike Tyson. Sure sure he wasn't fighting high caliber opponents during his time. But let's not forget, Tyson didn't even reach his prime. He was a small heavyweight (height wise) but he came knocking. Plus, unifying all titles at the age of 20 is definitely worth mentioning.

He didn't even beat Smokin' Joe. The ref saved his ass. As is the case for the white bread vouches for Ali.
dranokills- January 17, 2012 at 5:58 pm
this was a waste of space thread, cause none of the 5 you mentioned as GREAT as Ali......period, end of conversation. They will NEVER be as popular, and as GREAT a boxer as Ali was.
Debate all you want, it's a waste of time. ALI is the greatest.
EnemyofReality- January 17, 2012 at 5:07 pm
First off the punches Ali took didn't cause his Parkinsons you damn moron. Pretty much all people with Parkinsons are not boxers or even sportsman. Second off, his ability to take those punches didn't make him great, the collection of fantastic epic moments did. Third off, shame on CP for publishing such a stupid piece.
Joedirt- January 17, 2012 at 4:50 pm
Rex... haha... thing is... they don't ask how... they ask how many! Even if Marciano wasn't the best of all time.. maybe he was just the smartest. The only champ to retire undefeated and NOT try to make a comeback.
ReX13- January 17, 2012 at 4:49 pm
the dead cow >>
i'm sorry, the response we were looking for was a jewish accent saying "He beat Joe Louis' ass....."
(but to answer your question, yes)
The_Dead_Cow- January 17, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Is that from Coming to America? Sounds like a familiar movie line involving Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall.