Masters of the Sweet Science: Muhummad Ali
By Mohummad Humza Elahi: – Twitter: @MHE_1985 – The People’s Champion. The Louisville Lip. The Greatest. In my last article, I trawled through the archives to find whatever I could on Gene Tunney; reports, old footage, other biographies or articles on his style and influence.
With Ali (56-5, 37 KO’s), there are no such problems. Most of his career is captured on film and makes the boxing highlight reels every time, alongside the superb showmanship and entertainment he brought to the ring. However, in pure boxing terms, Ali’s genius, his true mastery, was in being able to do what normal convention (or the then accepted convention at the time) advised not to do. Dance. Shuffle. Taunt. Rope-a-dope.
In choosing Ali for this article, I’ve picked the almost antithesis of Gene Tunney. Tunney was erudite, a thinker, logical and methodical in the construction of his strategy in order to deconstruct an opponent. He worked and toiled for the perfect plan and would have found Ali impossible to contend with. How do beat Ali? Several have, but those losses aren’t a reflection of Ali’s mastery of the sport and it’s also correct to state that his victors deserved their wins.
Just as with Tunney, I thought long and hard about the example I would give in order to demonstrate just how good Ali was. There’s Liston, Cooper, Patterson, Frasier, Norton, Spinks and Foreman, a veritable who’s who of heavyweight legends. Except that there is one fight in particular that showcased the man at the very peak of his powers. At that time, he was a prodigious blend of speed, power and smarts and in some ways a very different Ali from his later years.
The 1960s were a turbulent time for Ali, events I won’t recount here, but his opponents also had their fair share of troubles. A year and some months prior, Cleveland Williams (78-13, 58 KO’s) had been shot by a police officer and had to have 10 feet of small intestines and a kidney removed. He returned to fight Ali at the Houston Astrodome on 14th November 1966 and was dazzled.
One may give Williams his due respect (as I do) in facing a young, prime and hungry Ali after having escaped death but it didn’t end well for him. Over 35,000 spectators crowded inside the venue that night to see Ali face Williams and what they were treated to is what boxing experts still consider being one of the finest displays of ring craft by The Greatest.
The first round may not have alluded to that in the eyes of the casual fan, but on closer inspection, you could see the cogs in Ali’s brain start to get to work, slipping an opening double jab from Williams, he moves left and right, feinting inside and out, hands low and dancing round the ring as Williams throws and misses.
Ali does what all great boxers do in the opening stages of a bout, assessing the distance, pace, speed and tactical plan of his opposite with raking jabs to the head and body. Williams looked baffled, primarily because Ali didn’t sit on his punches at all; everything he threw was on the move, finding those angles to exploit with consummate ease.
Ali knew this and began to steadily up the work rate, letting his combinations go as Williams stood strong, stepping forward to shut the ring off and failing as Ali danced around him. Another attribute of a master boxer is patience; Ali didn’t storm out in the second to try and put his man away, instead he continued at the same pace as Williams’ frustration built and became more aggressive in his hunt.
This paid a small dividend as he caught Ali on the ropes with a right hand and Ali tied him up, obviously respecting Williams’ power. From then, Ali shows what truly makes him a phenomenon, powerful raking jabs to the head, snapping it back and bloodying the nose of the advancing Williams.
Only a handful of fighters exist that could generate such power from the backfoot and this was clear as a retreating Ali threw a straight right that put Williams to the canvas, who takes his standing 8 count before Ali sensed blood and let his hands go on a cowering Williams, all manner of lefts and rights punishing their target as Williams fell again and got back up for an 8 count.
Ali goes on the attack again and it’s clear the Williams’ bravery is greater than his condition as a sharp put him down for a third time and Ali stands still with his arms raised, sure of victory. Some confusion results as the bell interrupts the count and Williams’ team haul him up and onto his stool and get to work.
Williams knew he had to go for broke and comes out all guns blazing at the start of the third round, before an Ali right checks him and it’s clear now that Williams has resigned to defeat. He slows right down as Ali picks off his shots, twos and threes and fours all hit their targets. He tumbles for a fourth time but Ali remains composed and continues to launch savage combinations after the count, cutting Williams to ribbons as he wobbles under the power.
The referee, who must have also been in awe as the fight should’ve been waved off at the end of the second, finally steps into to save Williams from further punishment. Many cite Ali as their favourite boxer and inspiration (rightly so, although my favourite boxer is Thomas Hearns) and on this occasion it’s clear to see why. I was reminded of this again as Adil Anwar attempted the same tactic against Darren Hamilton recently in Hull, the only problem being that Anwar is no Ali.
It’s to this depth that Ali has influenced the sport, through his charisma and showmanship but this fight, for me, is the fight that really gives us the glimpse into Ali’s ability, measured, controlled, powerful and patient. Although his later bouts would go down in boxing lore, it’s his shuffles in Houston that define Ali for me. Fluid strength and blurring speed made many fighters great. In this case of Muhummad Ali, it made him The Greatest.