Very few professional athletes have impacted their sport the way that Muhammad Ali impacted boxing. The three-time heavyweight champion of the world may have been the most charismatic athlete the world has ever seen, and despite his unrivaled standing a civil rights and pop culture icon, it was his prowess in the ring that deservedly earned him the title of “The Greatest.”
With the recent passing of Ali after a hard-fought 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, we wanted to pay homage to “The Greatest” by re-visiting the best moments of his legendary boxing career. Here’s what we came up with, listed in chronological order.
1. Gold medal victory at Summer Olympics in Rome – 1960
Despite having a strong fear of flying, Ali, still known as Cassius Clay at the time, traveled to Rome, Italy with the U.S. Olympic team to compete in the light heavyweight division of the 1960 Summer Olympics. And as a relatively unknown 18-year-old amateur, Clay burst onto the boxing scene with authority by cruising through his weight class and knocking off Zbigniew Pietrzykowski in the tournament final. At that moment a star was born.
Clay was widely viewed as a celebrity throughout his time in Rome, and was met with a similar response when he returned to the U.S. He turned pro shortly after returning from the Olympics, and the rest, as they say, is history.
2. First heavyweight title win – 1964
This matchup, between Ali and Sonny Liston, remains as arguably the most-anticipated fight in boxing history. At the time of the fight, Liston was the reigning heavyweight champion of the world and was widely viewed as unbeatable by most boxing experts. Very few people were giving Ali a fighting chance in this bout, including Liston.
In what would become one of his signature tactics, Ali psychologically taunted and challenged Liston in the weeks leading up to the fight, which ultimately threw the “Big Bear” off his game. After being thoroughly punished by Ali in the sixth round of the fight, Liston threw in the towel at the start of the seventh round, meaning Clay had officially captured the first world title of his professional career.
Two days after the fight, Ali announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, and less than a month after that, he discarded the name Cassius Clay for Muhammad Ali.
3. Ali vs. Liston Part II – 1965
Just three months after their much-ballyhooed first fight, Ali and Liston took the ring again, and provided one of the most memorable, and controversial, fights in boxing history. At just 1:44 seconds into the first round, Ali knocked Liston out with a right-handed counter punch that was so quick that most spectators in attendance missed it.
This fight will forever be remembered for producing arguably the most iconic photograph in sports history, and for the controversy that followed which alleged that the fight was fixed.
4. “What’s my name?” – 1967
Leading up to this fight, Ali’s opponent, Ernie Terrell, opted to refer to Ali as “Clay” rather than his newly adopted Muslim name. Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with the three-time heavyweight champ. And if that weren’t enough to fuel his fire, there was also the fact that Terrell had been awarded Ali’s heavyweight title after the World Boxing Association had vacated it following his refusal to enlist in the U.S. Army.
Ali would go on to thoroughly dominate the bout, while also viciously taunting his opponent by yelling “what’s my name?” at Terrell throughout the eighth round of the fight.
5. The Rumble in the Jungle – 1974
This bout, which took place in Kinshasa, Zaire, will forever be remembered as one of the greatest boxing matches of all-time. Ali was considered to be a heavy underdog to George Foreman, who at the time was the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world.
This fight would prove to be Ali’s unveiling of a new style of boxing which he coined as the ‘Rope-a-Dope’ technique. Using this new style, Ali allowed Foreman to pound away at him during the early rounds of the fight — proving that in addition to his speed he was one of the greatest boxers ever when it came to taking a punch — before eventually capitalizing on his opponents’ exhaustion, knocking him out in the eighth round.
6. Thrilla in Manila – 1975
This bout was the third and final match in the epic rivalry between Ali and Joe Frazier with the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world on the line. The fight took place at the Araneta Coliseum in Quezon City, Philippines in absolutely brutal conditions. Due to the time of the fight – 10:00 am locally – the arena turned into something that closely resembled a sauna with temperatures in the ring reaching an estimated 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Both fighters pushed their bodies to the limit and following the 14th round, Frazier’s corner ended the fight.
In an interview shortly after his victory, Ali went on record saying, “Frazier quit just before I did. I didn’t think I could fight any more.” He also added, “Frazier brings out the best in me. I’m gonna tell you, that’s one hell of a man. And God bless him. He is the greatest fighter of all times, next to me.”