Muhammad Ali fought 548 Professional Rounds against 50 different men across a span of 61 fights, 13 countries, four continents and 21 years. 27 of Muhammad’s fights were scheduled for the 15 round Championship distance, so in this blog, I will cover the 15 defining rounds of The Greatest’s career.
Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis are the only fighters in history to win The Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year on more than three occasions, Louis picking up the historic award four times, Ali on a surely never to be matched- six occasions.
He is the only 3-time Lineal Heavyweight Champion in history and he won 5 out of 6 fights against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, who most would consider to be 3 of the top dozen fighters to ever fight in the Heavyweight division, the most historically stacked division of all.
In the 1960′s Muhammad Ali’s in-ring greatness was down to his speed, agility, footwork and athleticism. In these departments Ali was at a level which had never been seen before at Heavyweight, he was a Heavyweight who could move like a Lightweight. His ability to dance and fight up on his toes for entire fights whilst weighing over 200 pounds was something the world had never before witnessed.
His unorthodox, original fighting style was so reflective of the man in his individualism and rejection of norms. He also had unmatched psychological strength, which he showed in the first part of his career with a level of self-belief that led him to beat Sonny Liston after six rounds and declare himself to the world as the Greatest who ever lived, aged just 22 years old
The best examples of Muhammad Ali’s greatness in the first part of his career came against Cleveland Williams where Ali was perfect, against Sonny Liston where Ali was fighting a champion so dangerous and menacing, he had to be at the top of his game mentally aswell as physically and versus Floyd Patterson, who Ali dominated so emphatically to make look almost second-rate, despite Patterson having a 43-4 record and it being his 12th World Heavyweight title fight.
In the 1970′s Ali’s greatness came from his heart, chin, strategy and in-ring adaptability and intelligence. His psychological strength would play an even greater part in this second half of his career. Ali’s heart would push him through the exhaustion and pain barrier when other men would have said no more, his ability to take a punch to both the head and body showed him to be one of the toughest fighters ever with one of, if not the, best chin ever (quite a turn-up for people who thought his defence was only so good because he was so scared of what would happen if he got hit). His strategies, adaptability and in-ring intelligence showed him to be one of the smartest fighters ever. His psychological strength which came from his powering belief in his God Allah and the causes for which he fought willed him on to triumph on occasions when defeat looked to clasp him in its clutches.
The best examples of Ali’s greatness in the second part of his career came against George Foreman in Zaire (in my opinion the greatest night and fight of Ali- for in this fight he showed everything which made him great) and against Joe Frazier in The Thrilla in Manila.
Ali is not the youngest ever World Heavyweight Champion (Tyson), nor is he the oldest ever (Foreman), his record of 3 time champion has been surpassed (Holyfield), Ali was beaten, Rocky Marciano never lost, Joe Louis reigned longer and made more defences. Yet when I think of the ‘World Heavyweight Champion’ I think of Muhammad Ali. I see him as the true possessor of the Heavyweight crown and everyone since a mere borrower of the title ‘World Heavyweight Champion’. If there could only ever be One True Champion, One King of The Division it would be Ali.
People would dispute that and put forward Ali’s idol Louis. It would be a great fantasy match-up for many reasons, one being it would put Ali in the position of a Holmes or a Spinks when they faced him. Having to try and beat up the man he grew up idolising. If you could remove that mental block by making both men the same age at the same time, well I don’t believe anyone in the history of boxing could beat 64-74 Ali two times out of three and that includes Joe Louis, Mike Tyson or anyone else.
Whereas his status as Greatest of All Time inside the ring is disputed by some who give names such as Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis, outside it Ali’s greatness will remain unmatched. A long book could be written about Ali without even mentioning the fact he was a boxer. His stance against the Vietnam War cost him 3 years of his career at a time when he scarcely looked capable of losing a round let alone a fight. Imagine Lionel Messi after the 2011 Champions League final being banned from football for 3 and a half years for being against a war, it’s unthinkable. But such great injustice was done to Ali and he took it with strength, no self-pity, no hint of regret. If his sacrifice was what his religion taught to be right and if by rejecting Vietnam he was getting millions of Americans who looked up to him to think about whether the war was something they thought was right and wanted to be apart of- then it was worth it.
Ali had an extraordinary love of people. He would sign every autograph, shake every hand, speak to anyone who spoke to him. He wasn’t a presidential candidate, there was nothing to gain from meeting people like this everywhere he went, but for Ali meeting people was reward in itself. He was the most famous person on earth, travelling around with one bodyguard and refusing to leave a place until everyone was satisfied they’d had their own individual fix of The Greatest. His patience for people was limitless as was his time that he would offer to others so willingly. Ali needed the press in the early days, but he certainly didn’t need them after becoming the Champ and one of the most famous men on the earth. But still, he chatted with the press more than any other sportsperson, giving them a chance to get to know him and develop a personal relationship with him.
Ali was as generous with his money as he was with his time. It would be impossible to add up all Ali’s charitable contributions as he did not publicise them, all we know is from stories that we’ve heard from his friends. And from what they’ve shared we can gather he was a man who recognised and truly understood the importance of being a high profile person and he valued and made use of his position.
This piece is dedicated to the rounds of Ali’s career which defined Ali the boxer but I couldn’t pass up the chance to briefly mention the man outside the ring. For inside it, he was my favourite boxer ever, outside it, he was my favourite person ever.
Round 1 – vs Sonny Liston II May 25 1965
37 of Muhammad’s 56 Professional wins were inside the distance, of which 2 came in the opening round. Ali rarely threw anything significant in the opening round of fights, preferring to move around the ring, whilst he assessed his opponent’s strength. One time he did though was in his fourth professional fight against Jim Robinson in what was the shortest fight of his career, ‘Sweet Jimmy’ was gone in 94 seconds.
The second and final 1st Round KO of Ali’s career was significantly more memorable and came in the first of the 19 successful World Heavyweight title defences he would make.
After he shook up the world by dethroning Sonny Liston, a rematch was immediately ordered due to the controversial nature of the first fight’s ending. If what the boxing committee’s were after was a more clear cut ending this time out, they most certainly didn’t get it.
The fight was scheduled to take place on November 16th 1964. Finding a venue to take the fight was extremely challenging, controversy was following these two men everywhere and finding a place willing to have them was hard.
The day following the first fight, Cassius Clay announced he was to no longer be known by that name anymore, he was now to be known as Cassius X. Clay was in his words, a slave name, a white name given to his ancestors by their slave-masters. A month later the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, renamed Cassius X as Muhammad Ali. Muhammad meaning “worthy of all praise” and Ali meaning “most high”. Ali was given this new name by the Nation to ensure he remained loyal to them and didn’t leave. Malcolm X had left the Nation disillusioned with Elijah Muhammad’s hypocrisy and wanted to take his close friend with him. This ensured that wouldn’t happen.
Before Ali was stripped of his titles altogether in 1967, the WBA stripped him of his title before this rematch meaning that only the WBC and The Ring Titles would be on the line this time. Due to the controversial natures of both fighters the WBA refused to recognise Ali as its Champion and Liston as its number 1 contender, dropping him from their rankings. The WBA also used their power to pressure Boxing state commission’s across the country to not give the fight a license to fight in their state. In the end the state of Massachusetts took the fight to be shown at the Boston Garden and their boxing council was therefore suspended by the WBA.
Liston as he did for their first meeting, would go into the fight as favourite. Ali, though given a better chance as champion than he had been as challenger, was still a bigger underdog with the bookmakers than Floyd Patterson had been in either of his two fights with Sonny.
This was because many of Ali’s doubters still remained, he had not silenced them all by becoming the Champion. Sonny fought injured, he threw the fight, the fight was fixed, he’d took Clay too lightly, he hadn’t trained hard, he’d gone in too angry. The list of reasons for Clay’s triumph were endless.
But this time we’d see the real Liston, he’d be determined to erase the humiliation he’d suffered, he’d be better prepared to deal with Ali’s trash talking and mind games, having had the experience of the first fight and he’d train hard this time.
And at first he did, reportedly Sonny had worked his way back to career best shape for their November date. But then 3 days before the bout Ali was rushed to hospital for an emergency hernia operation. He was operated on for 70 minutes and the bout was pushed back six months.
Liston’s motivation left him and never returned. He began to drink heavily, had yet more problems with the law due to driving offences (upon his arrest bottles of vodka were discovered in his car) and as the fight drew closer he seemed to get worse and worse in sparring to the point he looked totally unrecognisable from the fighter he’d been.
The new fight date was set for May 25th but the pre-fight drama wasn’t yet over as 2 and a half weeks before the fight, Boston was no longer to be the fight destination. The search resumed and Lewinston, Maine was decided on (a mill town with a population of 41,000). This was the smallest town to hold a World Heavyweight title fight for 42 years and is to date the only World Heavyweight title fight to take place in Maine.
In the exactly 15 months between the 1st and 2nd bout, a lot had changed. Ali had changed his own name from Cassius Clay to Cassius X, had his name changed by The Nation of Islam to Muhammad Ali, he’d met Sonji Roi, he’d married her (and twenty-nine days after this fight he’d divorce her due to her unwillingness to adhere to the rules of Islam, the religion she’d converted to, to be with Ali), he’d fallen out with his once great friend Malcolm X over the latter’s decision to leave the Nation and convert to Sunni Islam (a switch Ali would later also make), and a few months before the fight Malcolm X was killed, assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam, who put 21 bullets into the 39-year old.
If the build-up before the first meeting had been unpleasant, this time around it was 50 times worse. The arena which held just 4,900 seats was under half-filled. There was tangible fear in the air that night. That the Nation of Islam would assassinate Liston, that the mob or a Malcolm X follower would assassinate Ali. There were even reports of a bomb threat, and security for an event of that time was unlike anything before it.
The belief among the media was that the Nation of Islam was going to attempt to muscle in on boxing and control fighters in the way the mob had done for many years. The Nation of Islam had no interest in boxing beyond Ali. They thought it degrading to black people to fight each other in order to make profit for the white man. But they recognised the importance and value in having the Heavyweight Champion of the World as an outspoken member of their cause, knowing how far afield his words would be reported and therefore what an effective recruiter he could be.
Liston landed just one punch on Ali in the entire fight, he threw several but all but one were a long way short. He stalked forwards but just as in the first fight he couldn’t get close to Ali, who bounced and moved around the ring on his toes. The infamous punch that dropped Liston was the sixth of the fight Ali threw and the fifth he landed. These weren’t flurried taps either, these were hard shots.
The punch that caused the knockdown and subsequent knockout is to this day one of the most debated over and controversial moments in the history of Boxing.
Liston threw a left hand, Ali pulled back to avoid it and in a flash before Liston could bring back his left to protect himself, Ali landed a right bang on Liston’s cheek. Liston fell forwards, landing on his gloves and with his knees still off the canvas he tries to scramble away from Ali who has his fist cocked ready to land another blow, Liston rolls over onto his back and lies completely flat for a few seconds whilst referee Jersey Joe Walcott tries without success to get Ali to go to a neutral corner. Ali is shouting and gesturing at Liston to get up, Ali is eventually moved away from Liston but he is now jumping around the ring wildly. Liston tries to get back to his feet with sudden quick movements but then slowly collapses back to the floor, he eventually gets back on his feet and the referee goes to check on him, he then leaves the fighters to go over to the timekeeper who he could not hear as he did not have a microphone.
The fighters resume for a few seconds before the referee rushes over to separate them, the timekeeper had counted Liston out unbeknownst to the ref, the fighters or anyone else. Ali is declared winner by knockout.
So what the hell happened here? well the mood of the time led people to conclude it was a fix. Liston had took a dive. There were several possible reasons why he would do this, none particularly far-fetched. Maybe the mob had insisted he throw the fight so they could clean up with the bookies by betting on Ali, it wouldn’t exactly be the first time a mob-owned fighter had been instructed to throw a fight, or maybe Liston bet on himself to lose as he owed the mob money and this was a way he could get their money, maybe the Nation of Islam had paid Liston to lose or made a threat against his life should he win the fight.
Why the Nation would doubt Ali’s ability to win the rematch when he’d already beaten Liston is a little unclear, though as they were still new to Boxing and Ali perhaps they were still unaware of how good he was and still believed as the bookmakers did that Liston was the big favourite.
It’s also possible the knockdown was legit. Ali was not a devastating knockout puncher ala a Tyson or a Foreman but he was a big, strong guy who had punching power that deceived opponents who bought into the press’s shtick that he couldn’t hit hard. If you think the same look at fights v Alex Miteff, Bonavena and Richard Dunn and you will see Ali drop guys with single shots.
That said none of those guys were Sonny Liston, a man who’d never been dropped before, who’d gone toe to toe with Big Cat Cleveland Williams the man who throws bombs over 5 rounds across 2 fights and come out victorious on both occasions, walking through Williams’ best shots.
But then again that was prime Sonny Liston of five years earlier and it wasn’t the same Liston. The birth certificate Liston used had him born in 1932, though reports into his birth find it more likely he was born in 1930 which would have put him in his 35th year by the time of the Ali rematch.
It’s also unlikely to be the power that dropped Liston, but the speed of the shot which was blink and you’ll miss it fast. Also the fact that it caught him unsuspecting as he didn’t see the punch. He was on the attack and though used to Ali making him miss, he was not used to Ali making him miss and then countering with a great shot.
From there the problem was Ali wouldn’t go to a neutral corner, he was too hyped up and seemingly angry with Liston, the referee therefore couldn’t begin his count and the timekeeper couldn’t be heard without a mic. The timekeeper had counted Liston out before the ref even got a chance to begin counting. It’s possible Liston was knocked out thanks to the lack of control the ref and timekeeper had over this moment, and if he’d been aware of the count he would’ve got up on time.
Everyone will have their own take on the events that unfolded. In my opinion, the knockdown was legit, Ali caught Liston with a fast, hard shot he didn’t see and it knocked him off balance and to the floor. From there everyone assumes Ali was furiously yelling at Liston to get up because he felt he was deliberately throwing the fight. What’s often overlooked is Ali was the greatest showman, an entertainer and he would often act up like this for the crowd, when he wasn’t really as angry as he was making out to be. Here, everyone believes he was truly angry as it suits the narrative of Liston deliberately throwing the fight.
So the knockdown was I believe legit, but was the knockout? I believe Liston could’ve got up inside 10 seconds if he wanted to. His second fall after trying to get to his feet looked comically fake (that said boxers have ofttimes looked rather ridiculous in the act of trying to get to their feet after a knockdown). But would he have got up in time had he been able to hear a count if referee Jersey Joe Walcott been able to get his started? possibly, I doubt it.
I don’t think Liston wanted to be in there with Ali. He thought Ali was a crazy man and that was the only type of man that scared him. He knew he hadn’t trained well and that Ali was much younger and much quicker. I think he wanted to take his pay check and get out of there. Away from Ali, away from the Black Muslims and away from anyone else who may want to kill him or accidentally kill him in a bid to kill Ali.
This was Liston’s last ever fight for the title. After over a year out he returned and won 14 in a row, he was thought to be just one fight away from a fight with the winner of the Joe Frazier-Jimmy Ellis unification bout but in that last fight he was knocked out in the 9th by a former sparring partner. He fought only once more after that and died in mysterious circumstances six months later.
It was a sad but fitting ending to the career of Sonny Liston. And whilst Jack Johnson is acknowledged as the black man who destroyed the myth of white superiority in the ring by beating up any great white hope they put infront of him, whilst Joe Louis is acknowledged as the first black man who was a hero and even an idol to white youngsters, the third great black Heavyweight Champion, Sonny Liston is mostly remembered for his 2 disastrous fights which gave birth to Muhammad Ali.
If the White Media had any idea what the next Heavyweight Champion of the World was to be like, they’d no doubt have been a bit kinder about Sonny. Who as an illiterate and a man of very few words could have been a champion tolerated by the White media if they’d allowed him to tidy his act up and change.
Round 2 – vs Cleveland Williams November 14 1966
Muhammad Ali on the other hand, was certainly not a man of very few words. Nicknamed ‘The Louisville Lip’ Clay was calling out Patterson and Liston just 9 fights into his pro career. He wrote poetry which he shared at every opportunity, he nicknamed his opponents and even declared which round he would knock ‘em out. Amazingly he was very often right. Taking inspiration from the Wrestler Gorgeous George, Clay quickly realised the value of trash talking and self-promotion. An early example of Clay’s ability to sell tickets came in 1963 when he fought fellow contender Doug Jones at Madison Square Garden. It was the first sell-out there for 12 years when Rocky Marciano fought Joe Louis.
He called himself the prettiest, the greatest, said his opponent was a bum, didn’t belong in the same ring as himself, that he would kiss his opponent’s feet in the ring and leave the country for good if he was made to eat his words. And people tuned into see his fights, or they bought tickets for the fight. Ali would win and the act would start out all over again for the next fight. He was a reporter’s dream, he talked and talked and talked.
But then Clay became Ali and started to talk about other things. Things that made the media more uncomfortable. He spoke at length about religion and his leader Elijah Muhammad. And when asked about his religions views on segregation and white people, he didn’t tiptoe around the issue. He tackled the questions head on. Black people had built America through slavery, and now was the time for America to pay black people back by giving them their own land, If America was 10% black people, give them 10% of the land. On segregation he said integration doesn’t work. Slavery, lynchings, castrations, torture of Black people by whites proved integration doesn’t work. On white people he said all his life he had been whitewashed to believe everything and everyone good was white. Jesus, the apostles, angels and Santa Clause to name a few. He also agreed with the Nation’s opinion of the American White man as a blue eyed devil, citing four hundred years of ill treatment from whites to people of darker colours.
As time has moved on, Ali’s views at the time can be quite shocking and disappointing to his fans who were not around at the time, even though Ali certainly did not hold the same views long into his life.
But it was rather hypocritical of the media at the time to criticise Ali’s want for segregation when they already lived in a country with segregated buses, toilets and water fountains. Ali’s wish for segregation is I think understandable given how bad life was for most black people living in America at the time, and with slavery only officially ended 100 years earlier, most living blacks had parents, grandparents or great grandparents who had been slaves in America.
Ali saw great injustice done to blacks by whites, he saw the hatred whites had for blacks and he couldn’t see a way they could live side by side in peace. He saw that Germans were made to feel more welcome and at home in America after 2 World Wars and Japanese after Pearl Harbour than blacks were who’d lived in America their whole lives. It’s easy to understand how he couldn’t envision an America like today at that time. America ofcourse is not free of racism or white privilege but it is still an enormously better place to live for Black People now than it was in the ‘60s. But at the time Ali’s views on this- completely understandable and supported by facts. But the media expected any Black figure of prominence to support MLK’s civil rights movement rather than The Nation of Islam’s views which Malcolm X popularised.
As for the white man being described as the devil, it seemed the media only accepted a race of people being compared to something inhumane when it was them doing it to black people- calling them beasts and monsters etc. They took great offence at being called devils. But again there is four hundred years of evidence to back up why a Black person could feel in his or her right to feel that way about white people. But though easy to do so in that position, you cannot judge a whole race of people from the evil actions of some, even if many, and Ali never hated white people as a whole, or hated anyone because they were white, he hated the actions of many of them towards blacks.
For me the most disappointing and inexcusable viewpoint of Ali in his lifetime were his views on interracial marriage which he opposed. This view seems so out of sync with a man so full of love and care for all people. I am unsure if he held this view for his entire life or if at some point it changed like his other extreme viewpoints, I hope it did though it’s possible it didn’t.
Two years after joining the Nation of Islam and changing his name to Muhammad Ali, he dropped an even bigger bombshell which would ensure he was a topic of conversation across every living room in America.
One month before the first Liston fight Ali then Clay took a military qualifying examination, the passing grade was 30%, Ali scored 16. But by 1966 with the war in Vietnam growing, the passing grade for the mental aptitude test was lowered to 15%, making Ali eligible to go to war.
Ali’s remarks about having no quarrel with the Vietcong, enraged America like nothing he’d said or done before. He had a bout scheduled for Chicago with WBA Champion Ernie Terrell for the chance to win back the belt he’d been stripped of, but following his remark pressure was put on the state of Illinois to withdraw hosting of the bout. After Ali refused to apologise for his remark, that’s what they did so Ali instead went to Canada to fight their champion.
For over 5 decades, there had been just two World Heavyweight titles fights outside of America, that was until Ali had 3 fights on European Soil, two in England, one in Germany, making for four consecutive Heavyweight title fights outside of America. Ali was known for his love of travelling the world but this was done mostly due to the difficulty of getting him a fight in the States.
Ali’s first fight back on home shores since he hit Floyd Patterson in the face with about one thousand jabs was to be against Cleveland Williams. Before Ali was exiled from Boxing and making his comeback, another 6 Foot 3 Black American Heavyweight was making a comeback of his own. Cleveland ‘Big Cat’ Williams was just shy of 500 days out the ring after he was shot in an altercation with a highway patrolman, the bullet hitting his stomach before lodging in his right hip. Four operations in seven months ensued, with Williams in the end having his right kidney removed. Doctors were unable to extract the bullet so Williams fought with the bullet inside him for the remainder of his career.
Aswell as a kidney and 17 months of his career, Williams also lost 60 pounds in weight due to injury and surgeries and over 10 feet of his small intestine. To add further insult to injury, he also had to spend some time in prison during this time after pleading no contest to charges from that incident.
Despite the long absence through injury, the vastly experienced Big Cat’s first and only attempt at the World Heavyweight crown was his 72nd Bout in the ring, he entered with a record of 65 wins, 5 losses (including 2 in a combined 5 rounds against Sonny Liston) and one draw.
The Ali fight was the Fifth of his comeback, he’d won all four leading up to the fight (including one on points against Sonny “Policeman” Moore, which may have felt bitter sweet) but it was already crystal clear the 33-year old was no longer the fighter he’d been before the shooting.
In his prime, Williams was considered a legitimate contender, his power was no joke (George Foreman, who sparred with him, called him one of the top 3 punchers he’d shared a ring with) but by the time of this fight he was given no more than a punchers chance up against Muhammad Ali, a world class Heavyweight at the very top of his game.
Ali knew he was facing a quite literally, shot fighter and was very aware of the huge gulf between himself and his opponent and in a regular moment of in-ring compassion (though these are acknowledged a lot less than his dragged out beatings of Patterson and Terrell) seemed determined to end the fight quickly rather than prolong Williams’ suffering over many rounds and really hurting him.
In the first round Ali danced and moved, shooting and landing mostly single shots but given the ease with which he was hitting Williams and evading his punches, he even at times stood in close with Williams landing some hard blows, which is unlike Ali for a first round.
In the second round, Ali hit Williams at will like he did with many fighters at this time in his career. But this time he was hitting with such force his opponent couldn’t cope with it. Williams was dropped three times by Ali in the second including twice right at the end of the round. The bout should have ended there, Williams was flat on his back and would never have got up in time but he was ‘saved’ by the bell and referee’s were a lot more willing to just let fights go on in those days.
Ali then dropped Williams again 25 seconds into the 3rd round with the referee for some reason again allowing the fight to go on. Ali continued his assault until after 1 minute and 8 seconds of round 3 the ref finally decided Williams had had enough.
The Cleveland Williams performance is considered one of if not the best of Ali’s career. Aesthetically and artistically it surely is, it was an absolute masterclass in the sweet science, the act of hitting without being hit, inflicting damage without taking any back. Ali himself has called it ‘the night I was at my best’ and you’d struggle to find anyone who disagrees with him on that. Just to complete this Ali performance and make it true vintage Ali, this was also the night he brought out ‘The Ali Shuffle’ for the first time as a pro, it hadn’t been seen since the Olympics.