As a boxer, Muhammad Ali's era is unmatched, defined by courageousness and an unparalleled matching of greats not seen again until the 1980’s Middleweights of Hagler, Leonard, Duran and Hearns.
We’re talking Floyd Patterson, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Leon Spinks: the guys who defined masculinity and pushed the sport to the peaks of sublime with their bodies and unbridled athletic spirits.
This was the time when a fight meant an excruciating 15 rounds of exertion, and all these men ran it like a marathon when they had to.
When you think about what would become his set-it-off moment, the historic first fight against Sonny Liston, when Ali took the World Heavyweight title in the 6th of 15 scheduled rounds, it is all kismet.
Derided as a tough talker in over his head, the majority of sportswriters at the time picked Liston to win by knockout. Why wouldn’t they? Liston had just demolished then-champion Floyd Patterson two consecutive times, with both knockouts delivered in the first round.
Liston at the time became the first man to win a Heavyweight title in the first round. Yet at 22 years old, the man labeled disdainfully as “The Louisville Lip” made Liston remain sitting on his stool, walking into history and beginning to enamor our fighting hearts.
That February 25th, 1964 Fight of The Year by The Ring Magazine was only outdone by their next meeting a mere three months later to the day, where Ali demolished Liston in the first round in Lewistown, Maine.
The giant killer was now the new giant, and he defended that title eight more times before being arrested in Houston for refusing to be drafted in the Vietnam War for conscientious objection. New York State was the first to suspend his boxing license and strip him of his title, with other States following suit immediately thereafter.
Still for almost four years, Ali’s greatness stimulated and cajoled our innate longing for righteousness and when his 1967 conviction was eventually overturned by the United States Supreme Court with an overwhelming 8-0 decision, sans Justice Thurgood Marshall’s vote, we knew our hearts would begin the healing process through Ali’s rarified brand of combative therapy.
Ali extended his unbeaten record to 31-0, knocking out Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena two months apart upon his return. He then met his future long-term rival in Joe Frazier, whom he danced with for 15 rounds, ultimately losing his The Ring & Lineal Heavyweight titles.
He would avenge that loss three years and 13 fights later, going a full 12 rounds again with Frazier, instead this time winning and solidifying his second greatest achievement in the ring, the fortuitous pairing against the new Sonny Liston at the time in George Foreman, who was the unified World Heavyweight champion.
The event would catapult Ali not only into the history books as probably the greatest champion of all time behind only the remarkable Sugar Ray Robinson, but as the best ever as he, at 32 years old, in Kinshasa, Zaire knocked out the undefeated, 25-year-old Foremen, reclaiming his former glory and proving that conviction will always see one back to where they belong.
The win pushed Ali almost to the brink of death, employing his famous ‘rope-a-dope’ brand of personal bodily sacrifice to tire his opponent, only to turn around and defeat them from their own energy depletion.
Ali held that title for four years and 10 opponents, of which Ron Lyle, Ken Norton and Earnie Shavers were among the defeated. He ultimately lost his title in February of 1978 and regained it again that September, with both of those fights coming against Leon Spinks. He become a Heavyweight champion for the third time.
Ali is the best ever because he pushed rhymes like weight, stood before J. Edgar Hoover’s G-men as a non-compliant to an assumed COINTELPRO-backed baiting of his conscientious observance against the Vietnam War and survived it all to win back everything he had and more.
He wore our hearts and souls across his waist when he did that. And now we may we all collectively lay to rest the question of who was the best ever. Because without quarrel, our regaled king of confidence may not rest in power, taking with him our hearts and souls, he rope-a-doped his into eternal gratitude and reverence in a way that no one else, ever, will be able to.