Better Than Ali?

A quick list of 6 Heavyweight boxers who could have beaten Ali.

Illustration by Cassidy Lee Phillips

With the recent passing of Muhammad Ali there have been countless tributes to the man (including my own). Ali truly may have been ‘the greatest [athlete] of all times’ in terms of his overall cultural impact.

However, while praising the man’s achievements, some may be tempted to say Ali was the best boxer of all time.

In my mind, ‘best boxer’ reads as an assessment of Ali’s skill in the ring, measured against every other fighter who has ever lived. It is a bold statement, and one that Ali himself argued against.

We’ll get to Ali’s own argument later. First, let’s have a look at six heavyweights across the ages who could trouble Ali in the ring…

“The Lion” Lennox Lewis

41 wins (32 KO), 3 losses, 1 draw

Ali and Lewis present at a fundraiser for The Ali Center in 2005

At a lean 6’5", 240 lbs, with an 84 in reach, Lewis had all the physical advantages against Ali, except speed.

We can watch Ali’s fights with taller men like Ernie Terrell (who was 6'5"), and Lewis’ fights with Evander Holyfield (6'2" and mobile), for an idea of how this would look.

The taller Ernie Terrell jabs at Ali
Lewis vs. Holyfield

It is not likely that Ali could hurt Lewis, but Lewis could hurt Ali.

Lennox Lewis KOs Hasim Rahman

An aggressive Lewis could even win a decision against Ali, if the judges favored the harder punches of Lewis.

“The Real Deal” Evander Holyfield

44 wins (29 KO), 10 losses, 2 draws, 1 no contest

Evander Holyfield and Muhammad Ali

Watching those same Lewis vs. Holyfield fights gives you an idea of how Holyfield matches with Ali (with Lewis’ reach substituted for Ali’s speed). But you have to go back to Holyfield’s fights against Foreman and Barkley to see the best of “The Real Deal”.

Holyfield’s combinations on display against Foreman

Extremely durable, technically sound, and capable of throwing 16-punch combinations… Prime Holyfield might out-hustle anyone, in the eyes of the judges.

“Iron” Mike Tyson

50 wins (44 KO), 6 losses, 2 no contests

EA Sports Fight Night Round 4 trailer featuring Tyson and Ali

The best Tyson is like a more complete Joe Frazier, and Frazier deeply troubled Ali.

Ali is dropped by a Joe Frazier hook

Imagine if Frazier could throw each hand the way he threw that left hook- but harder [1].

Tyson cuts off Biggs with both hands
Tyson intercepts Johnson

Tyson himself has said that Ali would have tired him out over the stretch and stopped him late…

Tyson’s reasoning being that he never had the psychology or the cardio to stay with Ali for 12 rounds or more [2]. This is unlike Frazier, who willed himself to victory over Ali in their 1971 Fight of the Century.

“The Easton Assassin” Larry Holmes

69 wins (44 KO), 6 losses

A past-his-prime Ali lost to Holmes in 1980

The best “Easton Assassin” poses an interesting problem for even the best Ali: Holmes could jab with Ali, and Holmes’ jabs were harder punches. Ken Norton was able to give Ali fits by fighting through Ali’s jabs.

Norton frustrates Ali by punching through Ali’s Jabs
Holmes controls the taller, longer, Cooney with strong jabs

You may be aware that Ali and Holmes fought in 1980. What you may not know is that Holmes acted as Ali’s primary sparring partner for years in the early 1970's. Granted, they weren’t the most athletic years of Ali’s life, but this was still the Ali who beat Frazier and Foreman.

“The Brown Bomber” Joe Louis

66 wins (52 KO), 3 losses, 1 no contest

Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali

Old timers have been pulling out the Joe Louis card for generations:

Study the best Louis as he crushed Max Schmeling:

Or pulled off a “seek and destroy”, against the running Billy Conn, in the 13th round:

Billy Conn was able to hit and run for 12 rounds, but he couldn’t hide from Joe Louis

Joe Louis was a complete boxer and the prototype of a modern 200-pound Heavyweight. He didn’t float like a butterfly, but he could move, and he had precise power in every punch. He was one of the greatest “finishers”, in that he could KO a man who was hurt. More importantly, he was excellent at setting up finishes by constantly working to hurt his opponent.

Ali may have been able to finish the marathon that Conn never could, but Louis could catch Ali with footwork[3].

The “ Livermore Larupper” Max Baer

68 wins (59 KO), 13 losses

Max Baer, who passed away in 1959, may never have been photographed with Ali.

The wildcard of my six. Max Baer makes the cut over Rocky Marciano due to his size, strength, and skill. Baer, though, often lacked motivation to fight. The best version of Baer was rarely seen. Against Primo Carnera and Max Schmeling, Baer wanted to make an example of his opponents, and we saw glimpses of what might have been.

Baer (left) successfully fights forward, backward, and backhanded against Schmeling

Baer was 6"2’, a lean 210lbs, with one-punch power and polished skills. It is said he often pulled his punches, for fear of injuring his opponents.

Baer would pose a real physical threat to Ali, and may even have engaged in some clowning with The Greatest.

Max Baer: champion poultry catcher?

So who is the best boxer of all time?

I stuck to the heavyweights because, to me, Ali would have a bit to prove against each of these men. Looking at the blemished career records above, remember that Ali retired with 56 wins (37 KO) and 5 losses, don’t let the numbers distract you too much.

Beyond the heavyweight division, there are more fighters than I can count who were more complete than Ali, in terms of boxing skill.

The debate never dies in the boxing community, with blurred lines between “greatness” and “boxing ability”.

Ali was the fastest heavyweight of all time, rivaled only by Roy Jones, Jr.’s single appearance at 200 pounds. But, as with Jones, Ali got away with many technical flaws thanks to his incredible speed.

He often brought his ankles too close together or punched off one foot, robbing his punches of power and putting him off balance.

Ali makes it look good against Cleveland Williams

In clinch range, he focused on wrestling and trash talk, rather than solid uppercuts launched from planted feet.

Ali holds and talks to Frazier

He rarely returned his punches to a blocking position, leaving him open for counter-punches. We all know how he pulled his head straight back (see earlier Joe Frazier knockdown gif).

No fighter is perfect. Boxing is a masochistic game of speed chess mixed with rock/paper/scissors. Perfection is impossible. But for over 70 years the educated consensus has agreed with Ali’s own nomination for “best boxer of all time”

“That man was beautiful. Timing, speed, reflexes, rhythm, his body, everything was beautiful. And to me, still, I would say pound for pound…I’d say I’m the greatest heavyweight of all time, but pound for pound, I still say Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest of all time.”
-Muhammad Ali [4]

Sugar Ray Robinson

Robinson shows a little of everything against Rocky Graziano

Look him up. Watch him on YouTube.

Sure, there’s competition for the title, but pound-for-pound it doesn’t get much sweeter than Sugar.

Robinson and Ali

Keep watching the fights, and keep thinking beyond the hype!

Twitter: @Cazzbot

http://cazzbot.com/

Postscript: There are numerous incredibly skilled heavyweights who may have beaten Ali in fantasy match-ups. A few, like Joe Frazier, could overcome skill deficits with intangible will. My list was cut down to six men for ease of enjoyment and is intended to start new conversations on the topic. I’d love to read your thoughtful opinions.

My picks for the fights? The best and most active Lewis gets the nod from the judges, for his power. Then a young Ali achieves Billy Conn’s dreams and runs circles around everyone else, jabbing his way to victory. But remember, styles make fights, and the same Lewis that could outpoint Ali might not see the final bell against Foreman. Boxing is a complex sport.

Footnotes:

  1. Frazier relied on his left more than his right. Interestingly, he states that his left arm was never even 100 percent healthy, after an accident in his youth.
  2. Jack Slack’s breakdown of Ali vs. Tyson.
  3. Monte D. Cox provides a thorough technical analysis of Joe Louis vs. Muhammad Ali.
  4. Ali’s quote was pulled from this video.
  5. I break down a list of the few challengers Ali avoided.