The closest he came to getting beat during his prime was that left hook at the end of the fourth in his first match with Henry Cooper. It was one of the only times he ever seemed really dazed. His best performance was probably against Cleveland Williams. That one was a ballet of violence. The pinnacle of his long career in Boxing was surely the win over George Foreman in Zaire. So harrowing a contest was his win over Frazier in Manila that it’s exhausting just to watch. He’ll be forever linked with “Smokin” Joe but Norton did better against him more consistently. He foreshadowed Mixed Martial Arts by 20 years with that odd fiasco with Inoki in Japan and he tamed the dreadful Liston outside the ring and won both their fights well before they started.
He was not the single best all-around prizefighter that ever lived. That title goes to Sugar Ray Robinson. Nor was he was the most dominant or longest reigning Heavyweight Champion. That would be Joe Louis. On his best night could he have beaten any Heavyweight that ever lived over 15 rounds? Probably, but it’s also very possible that a modern-day Goliath, a Lennox Lewis for instance, or one of the Klitschko Brothers, would have given him fits. If he did beat them, he’d have done it over a long and grueling fight, taking them out to the “deep water”, as he called it, where his endurance, will and trickery would have decided things.
His hand speed was excellent but Patterson in youth might have been as fast. It was his legs; his movement and defensive reflexes that were unique for a man his size. He’d hit you a million times in a fight but always to the head. He made his living with the jab and straight right. He had the best chin of any Heavyweight Champ that I know of. Marciano might be in the running but the “The Rock” never got hit by a fighter anywhere near as big and strong as some of the monsters Ali tamed. So, it’s hard to say.
The tales of his exploits outside the ring read like the adventures of a mythic hero, a saint, or perhaps a benevolent trickster god, the kind that used to go around in disguise looking for opportunities to help people out. There was the time he once saw a man about to kill himself by jumping out a window and he went up to there and talked him down, or the time when, on the spur of the moment, he went into a bona fide leper colony and embraced and comforted the sick. While training in Zaire, he ran unprotected through the deadly streets with huge crowds collecting in his wake, joyous to be doing roadwork with their Champion. He always said he wanted to hitchhike across the United States with no money in his pocket, knocking on doors at the end of the day, asking to stay the night and share a meal, depending on his fame and the goodwill of his fellow man to make it across. He’d certainly have done it. He could have gone around the world that way.
He was always authentic even when he was doing his act. People forever wanted more of him. He went silent as the rest of us started making noise with our cell phones and computers, but he didn’t disappear completely. In one last long act of misdirection something twinkled inside the shell.
He outlived many of his contemporaries in sport and popular consciousness; Frazier and Norton, Dundee and Bundini Brown, Mailer and Plimpton, and of course, his TV soul mate, Howard Cosell. His most heated rivals became his friends and, in the end, the culture he’d divided coalesced around him, the attractive power of a righteous man. Defined by his titanic battles and willingness to resist, he died without enemies.
He renews the vigor of the word “Hero” and in him the term remembers its power. An athletic and communicative artist, he was a miraculous confluence of talent, will and circumstance. He was a virtuous circle of genius and luck. The World is little less for him not being in it and the Human Race a shave less potent. Such was the man, Muhammad Ali.