The Greatest vs. TBE: How the Muhammad Ali and Floyd Mayweather Legacies Compare
By Alden Chodash: Floyd Mayweather’s brazen 2017 claim that he is “greater than Muhammad Ali” was very controversial, if not untimely, given the sad 2016 passing of the man once regarded as “The Greatest”. However, an objective comparison between the legacies of the man self-referred to as “TBE” (the best ever) and the man who once self-referred to himself as “The Greatest” has quite a bit of dimension to it, and often invokes heated debates against old-timers and new age boxing fans.
Floyd Mayweather’s claim that he is “greater” than Ali doesn’t hold much weight when you consider the differences between what makes a fighter the greatest, and what makes a fighter the best. Greatness in the ring is defined by more than a spotless record, astonishing compubox statistics, and multiple titles in multiple different weight divisions. What makes a fighter great is the impact he had on the fight game, both in and out of the ring. Quite simply, Muhammad Ali was the most influential boxer in pugilistic history, if not one of the most influential athletes in sports history. Ali rose to prominence in the heavyweight division at the same time the Civil Rights Movement was coming to a crescendo, and unlike many athletes, Ali did not let his professional sporting career get in the way of his commitment towards racial justice. Ali’s most notable display of his religious and racial commitment was seen in 1967, when in the prime of his career, Ali refused to serve in the Vietnam war and was subsequently forced to relinquish both his heavyweight title and boxing license, while facing a five year prison sentence. Ali would not be able to return to his profession for another three and a half years.
Mayweather, on the other hand, was forced into a temporary 60 day recess from the ring in 2012 when he took a plea deal for a domestic violence charge. On top of his own domestic violence incident, Floyd has been public in defending Ray Rice for his recorded assault of Rice’s then-fiancée, implying that the NFL overreacted to the incident. Additionally, Mayweather has not been the outspoken hero for racial equality that Ali has been. Mayweather has stirred significant controversy for his criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, in addition to his statement that 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick should “stand up” rather than kneel. Mayweather has never been one to be politically correct on social issues, but Floyd’s actions have not allowed him to transcend the boxing world to become the same global figure that Ali became. While Floyd’s global influence is restricted to becoming the wealthiest athlete in boxing history, Ali’s influence has led him to be recognized as one of the heroes of the Civil Rights movement, an icon to the oppressed in Zaire during “The Rumble in the Jungle”, all culminating in being invited to light the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympic games in Atlanta, Georgia.
Debating whether Mayweather or Ali will go down in boxing history as the better fighter is a more complex debate, involving a discussion of each fighter’s opposition, performances, and boxing skill. Muhammad Ali’s dossier is quite extensive, having wins over many hall of fame fighters including Archie Moore (while past his prime and out of his division), Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Bob Foster (also past his prime and out of his division), and George Foreman. Additionally, Ali made history by becoming the first man to regain the heavyweight title twice when he dethroned Leon Spinks as a shadow of the fighter he once was. Make no mistake that Ali was at his best before his 1967 forced hiatus from the ring, as evidenced by his impressive nine dominant title defenses which followed his shocking upset of feared heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, who retired on his stool after six rounds. However, Ali came back from his layoff to engage in some of his most legendary fights, including then “Fight of the Century” against Joe Frazier, his stunning upset over George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle”, and his brutal life-or-death rubber match victory against Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila”. By the time Ali retired, he had engaged in a record six Ring Magazine Fight of the Year fights, more than any other fighter in history. Ali was also named the Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year more than any other fighter in boxing history, an amazing six times.
Mayweather has quite a resume in his own right, with victories over then pound-for-pounder Diego Corrales, Genaro Hernandez, Jose Luis Castillo, Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton, Juan Manuel Marquez, Shane Mosley, Miguel Cotto, Canelo Alvarez, and Manny Pacquiao. Comparing the likes of De La Hoya, Mosley, and Pacquiao to Liston, Frazier, and Foreman is not a straightforward apples to apples comparison, to say the least. The welterweight division of today is nothing like the heavyweight division in general, especially the heavyweights of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Liston and Foreman, in particular, didn’t possess the dimension and quickness to their game that a De La Hoya and Pacquiao do, for example. However, what made Ali’s victories over Liston and Foreman so significant was the fact that hardly any man was able to stand up to their power previously, as Liston and Foreman blew past hall of fame heavyweights such as Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, and Ken Norton. Frazier, a big puncher in his own right, presented a whirlwind volume punching style reminiscent of Rocky Marciano with quicker punches and head movement, but also lacked the same dimension that a De La Hoya or a Mosley presents. Additionally, the boxing game is continuously evolving in a way that makes skill based comparisons of fighters 40 years apart very difficult. For these reasons, it’s not easy to assess whether Mayweather or Ali was more skillful or more impressive against top opposition given the generational and divisional differences discussed above.
Unlike Ali, Mayweather has shown far less vulnerability in his biggest victories, coming out of fights against Mosley, Canelo, De La Hoya and Pacquiao exactly as he came into them, calm and composed. However, many have questioned whether Mayweather faced the best versions of Mosley, Pacquiao, and De La Hoya in Floyd’s signature victories. Although Mosley, Pacquiao, and Oscar were all impressive in recent outings preceding Floyd against Margarito, Bradley, and Mayorga, respectively, Mosley and Oscar’s primes were at least a decade prior to fighting Mayweather, and Pacquiao’s prime came about six years prior to the Mayweather mega-fight when he dominated Miguel Cotto in 2009. Muhammad Ali’s greatest victories come against a prime and feared Sonny Liston and George Foreman, and although his big win in the “Thrilla in Manila” came against a slightly shell shocked version of Joe Frazier, both fighters performed in a manner which would make it difficult to conclude that Frazier was too worn to be credible. While Ali did show vulnerability in his biggest victories, the quality of his opposition as well as Ali’s ability to make adjustments under adversity make it difficult to criticize his struggles. On the other hand, Mayweather hardly showed any sustained vulnerability in fights, being able to make adjustments so quickly that he could mount a counter-attack quicker than one could observe any noticeable advantage his opponents were able to find. And although some critics are quick to point out that Floyd’s biggest wins came against lesser versions of Oscar, Mosley, and Pacquiao, the manner in which Mayweather controlled the fight makes it hard to imagine him losing to a peak version of either man.
Perhaps Mayweather’s greatest influence on the sport is the fact that he was able to dominate his generation without taking substantial punishment. Floyd, unlike many other top fighters before him, was able to walk away from the sport on his own volition without having to take the same unnecessary beatings that Ali took in his later outings against Leon Spinks (in their first outing) and Larry Holmes. While Ali fought so hard to deliver for his fans, the punishment he took, particularly later in his career, served to be very consequential to his health. Ali would eventually be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome in 1984, a diagnosis Ali’s physician Dr. Dennis Cope would attribute to the punches Ali took in his extensive boxing career. In a brutal and dangerous sport which has recently featured two tragic injuries in Magomed Abdusalamov and Prichard Colon, along with the dark trail of history left by Gerald McClellan, Ernie Schaaf, and Leavander Johnson, boxing needs fighters like Mayweather to inspire the next generations that you can make it to the pinnacle of the sport without having to sacrifice your health.
Whether or not you favor the legacy left by Floyd Mayweather or Muhammad Ali really comes down to what you appreciate from the sport. There are no wrong answers. If you appreciate fighters as role models who transcend the sport by fighting for social change, standing up for their views, and using their celebrity status to influence the course of history, then Muhammad Ali is clearly “The Greatest”. If you prefer flawless ring execution, pristine boxing skills, a near impeccable defense, and astonishing ring statistics, you may prefer Floyd Mayweather to Muhammad Ali. In the end, it’s all a matter of opinion, as both fighters have transformed the sport in ways very few have.
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