Many factors came together to create recognition of Muhammad Ali, who has died aged 74, as “the greatest” boxer in history.
There is no doubt Ali’s determination to overcome racial inequality, his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War, his emergence as a representative of Islam and his highly engaging media persona coalesced to make him by far the most widely known boxer of all time. He came to be popularly regarded as a champion of the oppressed and a seeker of justice for the persecuted. This resonated globally.
Central to the celebrity Ali achieved, though, was his exceptional ability as a boxer.
A unique style
Ali won a gold medal (as a light heavyweight) at the 1960 Rome Olympics as the culmination of an amateur boxing career in which he won 100 of 105 bouts.
As a professional, Ali won the world heavyweight championship on three separate occasions over 14 years. He was victorious in 56 of 61 professional bouts, with three of the losses coming late in his career when his athleticism had faded. Sports Illustrated named him as its Sportsman of the 20th Century.
What made Ali such an outstanding exponent of his sport?
It certainly wasn’t sheer strength and power. He was never considered to be among boxing’s hardest punchers and more than one-third of his professional contests lasted their full scheduled duration. Nor was he remarkable in terms of height or weight.
Rather, Ali’s speed, agility, footwork and general athleticism were among the attributes that most distinguished him from other competitors. It was said he was a heavyweight who moved like a lightweight.
In the early years of his career, Ali also displayed outstanding aerobic endurance: he was able to relentlessly maintain his dancing, up-on-the-toes style.
There is no doubt Ali was uniquely skilled. But he employed techniques that, while clearly effective, were far from classical. In stark contrast to contemporary views of best practice, he often held his hands by his sides at waist level, and he sometimes avoided the punches of opponents by pulling his head backwards away from them.
Many boxing experts regarded these as high-risk behaviours made viable only by Ali’s astonishing speed, but the unorthodoxy served to confuse his adversaries and lure them into errors. He was seldom the aggressor, preferring a method that capitalised on the aggression of others.
Ali very aptly characterised his own style as “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. His distinctive, unconventional boxing style was in keeping with the fierce individualism and rejection of norms that pervaded other aspects of his life and created almost universal interest in him.
Ali also demonstrated major psychological strengths. He was renowned for his self-belief, which frequently extended beyond vociferous pre-contest expressions of confidence to actually nominating the very round in which he would win.
He was predisposed to composing rap-style poems designed to extol his talents and unsettle opponents, and was well-known for his intimidatory stares and for subjecting opponents to verbal taunts during bouts.
Over time, Ali’s perennial competitive success seemed increasingly to justify the self-belief and enabled him to inculcate an impression that he was almost superhuman. That was an impression that a public seeking new heroes in turbulent social and political times was very willing to accept. In addition, it appears to have been embraced by Ali himself.
The self-belief and illusion of superhuman qualities were arguably instrumental in enabling Ali to get through a number of torturous contests. These included the “Thrilla in Manila”, where he and Joe Frazier inflicted shocking damage on each other in what he later described as a near-death experience, and the “Rumble in the Jungle”.
In the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali absorbed some massively forceful punches from George Foreman as part of a contrived “rope-a-dope” strategy. This eventually brought him an unlikely victory that proved to be the crowning glory of his incredible boxing journey.
In the phase of his boxing career commencing after his 3½-year suspension from the sport due to his refusal to enter the US Armed Forces, Ali became famous for an extraordinary ability to “take a punch”. This – along with the courage and commitment to purpose that it implies – has been viewed as another reason for his boxing greatness.
The taking of punches, though, very likely had a significant downside in causing neurological injury and contributing to the Parkinson’s disease that affected his life from the mid-1980s onwards and was soon greatly debilitating.
Ali not only competed during the “golden years of heavyweight boxing” but was the fundamental reason for them. He brought completely new dimensions to the sport and gave it a sort of aestheticism and a broader relevance that was without precedent.
Despite the health problems that he suffered in retirement, he reportedly continued to enjoy being Muhammad Ali. That enjoyment was well-earnt. He inspired and empowered multitudes of people around the world and engendered cultural change.
Ali’s passing has evoked widespread sadness, particularly among the many admirers who somehow identified so strongly with him that they felt a quite intensively personal sharing of his triumphs and defeats, both in the ring and outside it. He leaves an enduring and highly influential legacy, that in the final analysis has been made possible by the qualities that made him genuinely “the greatest” as a boxer.