Muhammad Ali’s five greatest performances

Joe Frazier on Ali: ‘I hit him with punches that’d bring down the walls of a city. I can’t stand the man. There was no need for those insults, but I got to say, he’s got a giant heart and a strong chin.’

1) October 30, 1974: Eighth-round knockout win v George Foreman (WBA/WBC world heavyweight titles; Stade du 20 Mai, Kinshasa, Zaire/DRC)

One of a number of Ali bouts to transcend boxing, the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ is arguably his most astonishing performance. Not only was it the most famous example of his rope-a-dope strategy, but the build-up to the bout, its novel location and pre-fight predictions all added to the sense of drama.

Foreman, undefeated in 40 bouts, was widely perceived to be an indestructible wrecking machine and Ali was not so much considered an underdog as a deer in the headlights.

Taking place in what was then Zaire, with president Mobutu stumping up much of the fighters’ respective $5 million purses thanks to promoter Don King.

The combatants took to the ring at 4am local time to accommodate US TV. Ali confounded predictions by abandoning his trademark dancing style, hitting Foreman with right hands early on before seemingly absorbing tremendous punishment on the ropes from the second round. Ali, however, managed to avoid many heavy blows as he blocked and rolled with punches. An exhausted Foreman was felled in the eighth round by a left hook and right hand.

Ali:

“I told you all that I am The Greatest. Never ever doubt me again.”

Foreman:

“He out-fought me and out-thought me.”

2) February 25, 1964: Sonny Liston retired after Rd 6 (World heavyweight title; Convention Center, Miami Beach, Florida)

Ten years before beating Foreman, a 22-year-old Cassius Clay ‘shook up the world’ for the first time by defeating another ring monster in the form of ex-convict Sonny Liston, who was a 1/7 betting favourite. It was the win that truly launched the legend as Clay upset the odds and proved wrong 43 of 46 of the sports writers polled prior to the bout.

A fired up Clay, with his pulse rate rocketing up to double his norm, showered Liston with verbal taunts at the pre-fight weigh-in, resulting in a $2,500 fine for the challenger, further riling the moody champion.

In the ring, Clay bamboozled his opponent with his movement before opening a cut under Liston’s left eye and bruising under his right eye. Following the fourth round, Clay complained of his vision being impaired — Liston and his corner were accused of using an illegal substance on his gloves, but Angelo Dundee later suggested it may have been the remnants of a solution used on Liston’s cuts.

Clay followed instructions to ‘run’ during the fifth before regaining his vision. In the sixth, Clay took over and Liston quit on his stool after the round.

The defeated champion blamed his retirement on a shoulder injury. A subsequent FBI investigation failed to find any solid evidence for allegations of a fix.

Despite the iconic imagery associated with their second bout and Ali’s victory thanks to the infamous ‘phantom punch’, his performance in the first bout better portrayed his skills.

Clay:

“I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face and I upset Sonny Liston and I just turned 22 years old. I must be The Greatest! I told the world, I talk to God every day, if God’s with me, can’t nobody be against me… I’m a bad man! I shook up the world!”

Liston:

“I still say the kid can’t fight. I’ll shut him up in the return when I’m fully fit.”

3) October 1, 1975: Joe Frazier was retired after 14 rds (WBA/WBC world heavyweight titles; Araneta Coliseum, Manila, Philippines)

After suffering his first ever pro defeat to Frazier in 1971, Ali finally gained revenge nearly three years later in their rematch. The ‘Thrilla in Manila’ became one of the most legendary fights in history.

One of the most unsavoury aspects of Ali’s career was his taunting of Frazier prior to their clashes and the animosity between the pair exploded during 14 rounds of brutal conflict.

A 10.45am start meant the bout took place in scorching conditions and the momentum of the contest swayed between both fighters as the fight progressed,

By the 11th, Frazier’s face had started to swell; by the 12th, Ali was finding his target more often as he defied logic with a second wind. In the 13th, Ali knocked Frazier’s mouthpiece to the ground as the latter struggled to see. While the Frazier continued to competitively battle on despite his lack of vision, his trainer Eddie Futch opted to pull his man out of the fight after the 14th round. Ali later said “Frazier quit just before I did’ .

Ali:

“If God ever calls me to a Holy War, I want Joe Frazier fighting beside me.”

Frazier:

“Man, I hit him with punches that’d bring down the walls of a city. I can’t stand the man. There was no need for all those insults… but I got to say he’s got a giant heart and a strong chin.”

4) February 6, 1967: Unanimous-decision points win over Ernie Terrell (WBA world heavyweight title; Astrodome, Houston, Texas)

Possibly as famous for his turns of phrase and principled stands as he was for his boxing, this is a prime example of how vicious Ali could be at his day job.

With his stance against the Vietnam War overshadowing his trade, Ali was forced to tour Europe as he defended his world crown away from the building hysteria in his native country. For his first fight back home after four bouts outside the US, Ali took on Terrell, who was undefeated over the previous five years. Ali was offended by his opponent’s insistence on calling him ‘Clay’ in reference to the birth name he had abandoned after his conversion to Islam.

Early on, Terrell suffered bad facial injuries — including a fractured bone — which he later blamed, without proof, on Ali thumbing his eye and rubbing his head on the ropes. Ali gradually battered his opponent in merciless fashion as he screamed at Terrell: “What’s my name?”. For the final eight rounds, Ali maliciously pummeled his game but outclassed foe but held back from delivering a knockout punch.

Ali:

“I’m not denying I tried to make him say my proper name. I was bad that night where that was concerned.”

Terrell:

“Clay is a very good fighter, but I think all of those who watched him in this fight now knows there is a side to him that is extremely nasty.”

5) November 14, 1966: Third-round TKO of Cleveland Williams (World heavyweight title; Astrodome, Houston, Texas)

In the fight prior to his beating of Terrell, Ali delivered one of his greatest ever performances as he dismantled Cleveland Williams, a respectable fighter who was past his peak and apparently reluctant to get in the ring .

The first round epitomises Ali’s graceful movement and his trademark ability to float and sting as he launched blistering attacks while on the move.

Forcing Williams to the canvas three times in the second round, the bout produced one of the most iconic pictures of Ali as Neil Leifer captured an aerial shot of the champion towering over his flattened opponent.

Williams was saved by the bell but referee Harry Kessler later had to call a halt.

The most fitting example of Ali’s speed and movement which was possibly diminished during his years out of the ring while suspended due to his Vietnam War draft refusal.

Ali:

“Is there anybody anywhere in the world now who does not believe I am The Greatest?”

Williams:

“He moves so fast that all I did was give his shadow a good hiding.”

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