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21 APRIL 2018


The Greatest: in name, in fact

By Anthony Evans: I believe Muhammad Ali to be the greatest fighter of all time as well as the greatest sportsperson of all time, and while I have the utmost admiration for the exceptional and outstanding achievements of Ray Robinson, I cannot accept that “Sugar” did more in his career than Ali.

Robinson’s seemingly unquestionable status as history’s best boxer has become a tradition, and like all traditions virtually none of those revelling in it today have any clue why it began in the first place. At the risk of been tried for boxing treason, I believe Robinson’s status of the greatest of all time is based upon fudge and fable more than fact and visible fight footage.

Sadly, Robinson’s reign as welterweight champion (five defences from 1946-1951), said to be when this genius was at the vertigo-inducing height of his powers, went unfilmed. That is a great tragedy for prosperity, but without seeing these performances how can we accept that they were greater than what Ali (or any number of fighters) has achieved in the squared circle? And what of the three years which were shamefully stolen from Muhammad’s prime (March 1967 – October 1970) because he was a man of principal? Can those equally lost years be considered, too?

To take into account those lost welterweight virtuosos and thieved Ali years is an addition would be greatly unfair - yet unfairness reigns supreme in many arguments of pound-for-pound status.

Perhaps to subconsciously counterbalance the attention that has always been lavished on the heavyweight division, hardcore followers of the sport have always had a bottom-up approach towards the mythical pound-for-pound merits: when a P4P discussion comes up, fight fans go large on the smaller guys.

The point that the smaller guys have more skill is a disingenuous one. One or two genetic wonders aside the big guys simply cannot make their bodies do what, say, a welterweight or super-featherweight can. However, Ali was one of those rarer-than-rare heavyweights who could fight as though he were a middleweight. His speed, working in concert with his soaked-in to the soul self-belief, enabled him to attempt to fight as though he were a much less cumbersome man. In terms of pure athletic prowess, Ali is almost peerless.

Robinson’s facts and figures make for impressive reading: 175-19-6 (110), undefeated world welterweight champion, five time middleweight champion. Next to those stats, Ali’s 51-5 (37) tally and three-time heavyweight champion status make the Kentucky legend look as though he was part of some fistic job share scheme.

However, there are facts and figures for Ali, too: like 7-1. Ray Robinson, at least not a peak or upper plateau Robinson (and that’s all that counts here), never entered the ring as a 7-1 underdog. Ali did so twice, against defending world champions Sonny Liston in 1964 and a decade later against George Foreman, and both times he shocked the world and won the Richest Prize in sport within eight rounds.

Robinson beat a great many superlative fighters: yet he never beat anyone he wasn’t supposed to.

Much is made of the fact that Ali himself idolised Robinson – modelled himself on Sugar Ray’s style - the point being, I guess, that the copy is seldom the superior of the original. But Ali was no Robinson facsimile. To suggest that he was not only ignores Robinson’s unique style but also flies in the face of my next point: Muhammad was faster than Sugar Ray.

The heavyweight was faster than the middleweight. And not “pound-for-pound faster”, either. Physically, scientifically: Ali’s punches were faster than Robinson’s: despite a weight disadvantage of over some 60lbs.

Bill Cayton, the man who has done more to preserve the sport’s history on film than any other, has timed the average speed of Ali’s and Robinson’s punches: the bigger man was notably faster. Once again, this indicates while Robinson was great, Ali was greater still.

I also believe Ali was the bravest fighter of all time. Boxing requires courage as urgently as a swimming gala requires water, but even in the arena of the brave Ali’s courage stands supreme. From fighting blind at age 22 for a full round against the terrifying Liston, to taking Ken Norton’s best shots on a broken jaw, to actively encouraging Foreman, who hit with the power of a thunder god, to wail away at him in one of the most daring and inventive battle-plans since the Trojan horse: Ali’s heart is unsurpassed.

Again trying to compare like with like, Ali also edges his historical rival when you consider their performances in the blistering heat they endured in New York (Robinson v light-heavyweight champ Joey Maxim) and Manila (Ali v Joe Frazier). At the time of these epic bouts, both icons’ were in decline, but Ali, who adapted his style much more effectively as youth ebbed from his muscles, triumphed where Robinson failed.

Robinson quit that scorching hot New York summer’s day in 1952. He gave up on a fight he was winning: something Ali claims he was about to do in the Thriller in Manila, but never actually did. Famously, the Greatest described “being close to death” before nemesis Joe Frazier pulled out before the final round. I’m sure Robinson was, too, when he was in the furnace 23 years before, yet the historical fact is Ali was ready to go where Robinson would not.

That should never, ever, be used as a criticism or slight on the man born Walker Smith – whose courage stretches fair beyond the compass of normal men’s souls – rather as the highest form of praise imaginable for Ali.

The point of this piece is to debate who was the greater fighter of the two, not who was the greater man or had the greater impact on the world. I believe Muhammad Ali to be superior on all counts, and also believe the later two ascertains require no evidence here.

Despite his great efforts in the political and religious spheres, it was in the squared circle that Muhammad Ali truly found his life’s work and indelibly etched himself a sort of immorality on the collective consciousness of the entire globe. Could have really done all that if he were not truly the Greatest?

It isn’t much more than a gut feeling and a few anecdotes, but it is enough for me to accept Muhammad Ali at his word.

When he was fighting, now, and maybe forever, Muhammad Ali is The Greatest.

Read Patrick Kehoe arguing that Robinson was sweeter than Ali >>

Was Ali the best of all time, or was Sugar Ray just that much sweeter? Tell us your thoughts:

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