This image provided by Sports Illustrated on Saturday, June 4, 2016 shows the newest Sports Illustrated Cover Tribute to Muhammad Ali. The portrait was shot by Neil Leifer while Ali trained at 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach on Oct. 9, 1970. This will be the June 13 issue cover on stands June 8. Ali, the magnificent heavyweight champion whose fast fists and irrepressible personality transcended sports and captivated the world, has died according to a statement released by his family Friday, June 3. He was 74. (Sports Illustrated via AP)
The heart-breaking news of boxer Muhammad Ali’s passing sent shockwaves not only through the sports community but also the world. Ali’s defiant spirit was appreciated by many and his overwhelming popularity made him “the champ” to every fan and citizen – even when he wasn’t. Ali, the boxer, was a bad man. Several noteworthy wins and a mesmerizing charisma left permanent impressions in every boxing fan’s life. Although he was constantly referred to as “the greatest,” there is some dispute over whether that was actually the case. Other boxers had better records and more skill, but Ali’s confidence and coolness made him a living legend. There have been a handful of great boxers but was Ali the greatest? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley, of the AFRO Sports Desk, debate this question.
Riley: You’ll never find a better packaged professional athlete than Ali. He was controversial, competitive and cool. His accomplishments in the ring are almost secondary to his huge following and fame. As the most iconic boxer through the 1960s and 1970s, Ali emerged as a political icon when he was needed the most. Even if you just kept it in the ring and took his social dominance out of it, he was still spectacular. The footwork and quick hands were trademark but the trash-talking was impeccable. He took a few extra losses in the twilight of his career that he probably wouldn’t have suffered in his prime but so what? Ali’s success was two-fold and his range in both areas made him a megastar boxer that we’ll probably never see anything close to again.
Green: The social aspect for Ali obviously elevated him past the sports arena so I’m definitely on board with him being the best boxer outside the ring. But, in the ring, there were a number of talented and special fighters that deserve their credit too. How many great fighters have there been beside Ali? Several: Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Leonard were arguably the greatest of their era. If we’re talking about combinations of social impact and ring performance then what about Mike Tyson, Roy Jones and Floyd Mayweather? Or, even if we go back further, names like a Jack Johnson and Henry Armstrong would have a place in the conversation. At least 10 fighters could have a claim to being “the best boxer of all time” and all 10 of them would have legitimate reasoning. I personally believe Mayweather is the greatest because of his unmatched defensive boxing skill and accompanying undefeated record.
Riley: There have been several fighters that were the best in their era but the reason why many acknowledge Ali as the best of all time is because his greatness spilled over into other boxers’ eras. When Tyson emerged as a dominant force we argued if Tyson was better than Ali. Mayweather’s brash attitude and defensive skill are often compared to Ali. So, even when we talk about other fighters, we’re still talking about Ali. Green, every boxer you named had their own unique skill set so even if we agreed that skill-wise they were all equal, then we would still have to give the edge to Ali based on outside factors. Robinson, Marciano and Louis are highly regarded as great fighters even today but we haven’t seen a boxer transition into an icon like we did with Ali. What he stood for and the pillar he became for Black people was something we haven’t seen from any fighter. He was so much more than a boxer and that’s why he deserves to be mentioned as the greatest.
Green: Again, it depends on the criteria list. Louis’ bouts during the World War were critical to the social and political climate at that time, and Johnson was the first Black heavyweight champion. There are too many great fighters to name just one as the best fighter of all time. Certainly, fanfare and social impact were big traits of the Black boxers at the time and nobody was a bigger force than Ali. But let’s not give short shrift to the accomplishments of other great fighters because they weren’t the media magnet that Ali was. Ali may have been the greatest showman, the greatest trash talker and maybe even the greatest competitor but you can’t overlook the other great fighters of boxing’s evolution who possess the same skills and even better records than the boxer we know as “The Greatest.”