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Muhammad Ali – He Was Great, but Was He the Greatest?

By Elad De Piccioto
 Photo by Johann Walter Bantz on Unsplash
*Updated 2024
Muhammad Ali’s legacy went far beyond just being a world-famous heavyweight boxer; he fought against racism and for equal rights. However, as someone who said: “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was,” Ali invariably invited some scrutiny. This was especially true regarding social issues outside of the ring.
Here are three reasons why he was ‘just’ a great boxer and three reasons why he was the greatest:


He Was Great, but not the Greatest


Stats prove differently

Ali was a great boxer who had a huge impact on American society, but his boxing stats prove he wasn’t the greatest boxer. Ali won 56 out of his 61 fights, and 37 of them were knock-outs. While these are great stats, other boxers had better: Harry Greb won 262 fights (!), Sugar Ray Robinson won 173, and Harry Armstrong won 150. Rocky Marciano didn’t lose a fight. In a sport like boxing, the scope of the fights makes a huge difference, since every fight is injurious and risky. A closer look at the boxing stats of Armstrong and Robinson proves that they fought stronger fighters than Ali did, relative to their weight at the time.


His status is in great part thanks to his out-of-the-ring deeds.

Being deemed the greatest should solely be about Ali’s boxing abilities. However, people confuse those with his out-of-the-ring deeds. Ali changed the world. He was a freedom fighter who fought against racism. He also had unparalleled charisma and charm. He was a master of self-promotion and smart enough to know how to use the media for his purposes. This made him loved by fans and the media for his brave and picturesque figure. All of this created a mythical figure. Ali`s image was one of an undisputed champion, a person larger than life. However, that doesn’t mean he was the greatest boxer. He himself once noted that, pound for pound, Sugar Ray Robinson was better.


Ali`s figure was huge but controversial.

Despite his contributions to racial equality, it’s worth noting that Ali’s out-of-the-ring persona was far from impeccable. He had a tendency to swim against the current a bit too far. Some of his quotes and remarks were on the verge of racism; one such example is “my enemy is the white people, not the Vietcong.” Ali was also vain. He declared himself as the greatest boxer (when he was still Cassius Clay), and was quoted numerous times saying how good, beautiful and talented he was. Amid his showman-like traits, he also disrespected his opponents. Sure, it’s part of boxing psychology, but, at times, he took it too far. Before one of their fights, he said: “Joe Frazier is an Uncle Tom. He works for the enemy.” He also referred to Frazier as an ugly man who “should give his face to The Wildlife Fund.” Great sportsmen should respect their opponents.


He was the greatest:


Boxing is about toughness, and Ali was the toughest.

Toughness was one of Ali’s main attributes. It’s best expressed in his extraordinary ability to take a punch. No one knew how to take punches like Ali did, which takes courage and commitment. His epic “Rumble in the Jungle” fight against George Forman is the best example of his toughness. Forman was one of the strongest punchers in the history of boxing. During their fight, Ali adopted the “rope a dope” tactic, where he allowed Forman to take shots at him just to tire Forman out. Ali took punch after punch, only to take Forman down in the eighth round. That fight, which is widely regarded as the 20th century’s biggest sports event, fixed Ali’s position as the toughest and greatest boxer of all time.



His style

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” is Ali`s most famous quote. More than anything, this quote reflects his unique and remarkable boxing style. Ali wasn’t boxing; he was dancing in the ring. He moved like no other heavyweight boxer moved or will move. The combination of his heavyweight body, speed and reflexes was revolutionary and made his boxing style artistic. He not only introduced new techniques in the ring but also a level of elegance that changed heavyweight boxing and made him world champion three times.


He had the toughest competition

After refusing to be drafted to Vietnam, Ali was stripped of his world title and got suspended for 3.5 years by the World Boxing Federation. When he returned in 1970, heavyweight boxing had already entered what is considered as its golden era. That era included all-time greats like Joe Frazier, George Forman, and Larry Holmes. Not only did Ali adjust himself to that era, he was the best in it. He beat Forman and Frazier (twice) and held the title for around five years.


The Bottom Line: Muhammad Ali was the toughest of all boxers and the prettiest. But he was also a controversial figure and, as his stats prove, he wasn’t the greatest boxer to enter the ring. So, what do you think, statistics or charisma? What should determine his and other boxers’ legacy?

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