Muhammad Ali’s 5 Most Important Fights
As the New Year gets underway and we reflect on the events of 2016 it is impossible to articulate the effect that the loss of “The Greatest of All Time” had on his legions of admirers.
True to form, Muhamad Ali “shook up the world” one last time with his passing.
He profoundly touched millions of hearts around the globe, influenced world leaders and impacted the Civil Rights movement with the same grace with which he would glide about the ring.
Loved by many, reviled by some, Ali is the manifestation of the phrase, “Often Imitated, Never Duplicated.”
While his footprint is massive socially, his impact cannot be overstated in annals of boxing history. Ali’s influence on generations of fighters is obvious and can be seen in the personalities and styles of countless palookas, prospects and champions alike.
A veteran of 61 professional fights against the Heavyweight division’s “Murderers Row,” the following are the five most important of Ali’s storied career.
5. Muhammad Ali vs. Leon Spinks II
New Orleans, Louisiana 9-15-78
“This will be my last fight. I will go down as the first man to win the title three times.” – Muhammad Ali
The rematch was aired live on ABC and almost half of the televisions that were on in the United States were tuned in to see if “The Greatest” could make history by becoming the first man to win the world Heavyweight championship for a third time.
Ali trained hard for the fight and entered the ring in excellent shape and full of the confidence that conditioning fuels, looking every bit of a 2.5-1 favorite.
Long departed was the graceful dancing master, gliding effortlessly across the canvas. What remained were flashes of his former greatness as Ali utilized the double jab followed by a right and grabbing the inexperienced Spinks behind the neck, smothering any potential counter attack.
While Ali was penalized in the 10th round for excessive holding it was of little consequence as the legend from Louisville banked no less than 10 of the 15 rounds.
The historic moment was electric and in front of a crowd of 63,350 and viewers in 80 countries Muhammad Ali was announced as the new Heavyweight champion of the world for an unprecedented third time.
It would be Ali’s final victory as a professional fighter.
4. Muhammad Ali vs. Jerry Quarry
Atlanta, Georgia 10-26-70
“He was so close to being the Ali of 3½ years ago that it was scary.” –Angelo Dundee
The brash 25-year-old champion was amazingly just entering his prime and his future shined bright. It was not until he was drafted by the United States military for service in Vietnam that the dark clouds started to roll in.
Citing his commitment to his Muslim faith and adhering to his principals, Ali refused induction and was stripped of his title, boxing license and passport, sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000.
As a result, he spent his most prime years doing speaking engagements while free on appeal and picking up talent fees where he could to make a living as the battle raged both overseas and in the courtroom.
Three-and-a-half years passed before the government ultimately reversed its original decision and eventually returned to Ali his license to box.
Despite the gravity that such a layoff can have on a fighter both financially and more importantly, physically, Ali elected to forego the traditional tune up matches and challenged the third ranked Heavyweight in the world, Jerry Quarry.
While he appeared a slightly larger version, Ali put on a boxing clinic against the rugged contender, floating around him comfortably and raking Quarry with razor jabs and blinding combinations.
Though Quarry never stopped pressing the action and launching his potent left hook in hopes of finding Ali’s jaw the returning king opened a hideous gash over his opponent’s eye forcing the referee to call a halt to the fight.
The victory immediately fueled international interest in a matchup between the undefeated Ali and the fearsome, also undefeated Heavyweight champion “Smokin’” Joe Frazier which took place a mere five months later.
Ali vs. Frazier was a fight so massive, so polarizing–both racially and politically–it was called simply “The Fight of the Century.”
3. Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier
Manilla, Philippines 3-10-75
“I’m gonna tell ya, that’s one helluva man, and God bless him”. –Muhammad Ali
Joe Frazier emerged with the victory and Heavyweight championship in their first meeting and defended it successfully twice before getting annihilated in two rounds by the hulking knockout artist, “Big” George Foreman.
He also lost via 12-round unanimous decision in a rematch with Ali in a relatively ordinary fight after being hurt by a right hand in the second round.
The victory over Frazier secured Ali a title shot against the seemingly invincible new champion Foreman.
An 8-1 underdog, Ali shocked all of the experts and world at large when he knocked out an exhausted Foreman in eight rounds and became only the second man in history to recapture the Heavyweight crown.
When the two met for the third time, the consensus was that Frazier was washed up and Ali was sending him into retirement with a nice payday. Frazier had other ideas…
What ensued is arguably the greatest fight is pugilistic history and a runaway winner of The Ring Magazine’s 1975 “Fight of the Year.”
Knowing Frazier was a notoriously slow starter, Ali jumped on his rival early and peppered him with clean shots from seemingly every angle and took the early rounds.
Frazier began to find his rhythm however and ripped Ali’s body and head with impunity. While the two exchanged momentum through the furious exchanges, it appeared that Frazier was taking over in the middle rounds.
Ali grabbed Frazier and said “Joe Frazier…they told me you were finished,” to which Frazier growled, “They lied.”
As the melee wore on both combatants showed the effects of his rival’s determination. Ali was completely physically spent and Frazier’s eyes were almost completely swelled shut at the end of 14 breathtaking rounds of unprecedented Heavyweight action.
With Frazier virtually unable to see, his corner made the decision to stop the fight between rounds.
An exhausted Ali, who emerged the winner of the legendary trilogy, declared that was the closest he had been to dying.
2. Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman
Kinshasa, Zaire 10-30-74
“If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait till I whup Foreman’s behind.” Muhammad Ali
While Ali’s only two losses had come courtesy of Frazier and hard-hitting contender Ken Norton, Foreman had completely destroyed both in two rounds each. When Ali signed the contract it was widely believed that he was on the decline and had unwittingly signed his own proverbial death warrant.
Ali’s charisma and availability to the residents of Zaire made him the crowd’s sentimental favorite while Vegas had him installed as an 8-1 underdog.
There were no surprises regarding Foreman’s strategy as he went straight for Ali who met him in the center of the ring with a stinging right hand.
Foreman pursued and pressured Ali relentlessly, not allowing “The Greatest” to utilize his advantage of foot speed and bulling him to the ropes, hammering blows to Ali’s head and midsection. The partisan crowd chanted “Ali! Bombaye!” (Ali! Kill him!) in an impressive expression of support.
It quickly became apparent that this is where the battle would be contested and Ali delivered sharp combinations between frightening bombing campaigns administered by the powerful young champion while Ali’s corner screamed at him to get off the ropes.
This pattern continued in an astonishing affair when Ali was still standing and as the rounds progressed it became apparent that spectators were witnessing something very special.
By Round 8, Foreman’s relentless attack failed to stop his foe and he had overexerted himself to get the job done.
With his back to the ropes Ali landed a short barrage of punches that hurt Foreman. He followed them up with another quick burst followed by a powerful right hand that dropped the champion for the full count, his chest heaving.
On this magical night, “The Rumble in the Jungle” lived up to its billing and Ali became only the second Heavyweight to regain the championship, further cementing his legacy.
1. Sonny Liston v Cassius Clay
Miami Beach, FL 2-25-64
“He should be locked up for impersonating a fighter.” – Sonny Liston
Liston’s resume was littered with contenders before he usurped the title from a terrified Floyd Patterson in less than a round. It took him just four seconds longer to knock him out in the rematch.
While many Heavyweights were not anxious to share the ring with the fearsome champion, a young, brash speedster named Cassius Clay was frantically lobbying for the opportunity.
Clay labeled Liston a “Big, Ugly Bear” and doggedly pursued him screaming insults and berating him publicly at every turn.
Eventually, Liston relented and granted the Olympic gold medalist a shot at the title and the latter was listed as an 8-1 underdog. “Smart money” was that the loud youngster would not hear the final bell.
Very few gave Clay any chance at all of defeating the champion and some expressed concern for his physical well-being. Clay had not looked impressive in a recent bout with tough Doug Jones, though he did secure a close decision victory.
Also, he had been heavily dropped against Henry Cooper and earlier against Sonny Banks, ultimately emerging victorious both times.
In the early rounds Clay startled the much more powerful champion with blinding combinations launched with an extremely unorthodox style, creating swelling under the champion’s eye.
Clay controlled the distance and tempo of the fight with fast, graceful footwork that had not been seen in the Heavyweight division before or since.
In Round 4, the challenger found himself in major distress when he was blinded by what is said to be a liniment used on Liston. Pressing the advantage, Liston doggedly pursued his young adversary, slinging powerful punches.
Clay was able to stick, move and sometimes run enough to avoid Liston’s widow makers while his eyes burned and teared.
By the sixth round his eyes cleared and Clay resumed his surgical dismantling of the once invincible rival. He circled, leaned, juked and unleashed scathing punches to Liston almost at his leisure.
Between rounds a bleeding Liston told his corner men that he could not continue due to a shoulder injury (that supposedly happened in training).
The result was a shocking change of championship lineage and Cassius Clay became the second youngest man in history to win the heavyweight belt at the age of 22 years old.
A legend was born.