Was Muhammad Ali Really ‘The Greatest’?

Muhammad Ali

(Photo courtesy of the outstanding “Happy Birthday, Muhammad Ali” gallery on Time.com. 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.