For an athlete widely regarded as "The Greatest," the ultimate irony is that we will never know just how great Muhammad Ali might have been.
Ali, who died late Friday after a valiant battle against Parkinson's Disease—an opponent far more fearsome than any he faced in the ring—lost 3½ years that likely would have been the prime of his career.
The history is well documented: As the reigning heavyweight champion, Ali refused to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. Boxing authorities subsequently stripped him of his belt, throwing open a boxing division he had dominated.
The years he didn't fight took him from age 25 to the cusp of his 29th birthday, prime time for any pro athlete but particularly a heavyweight boxer. During Ali's time in limbo, Joe Frazier ruled the boxing world, setting up three epic matches after Ali returned.
However, could it be said that Ali was "The Greatest," as in "the greatest fighter of all time," as he so frequently liked to proclaim?
Maybe. Probably. Yet the main reason he took on that unofficial title had at least as much to do with his incessant proclamations — ultimately parroted by an adoring media — as they did with his actual, exceptional skill.
There are others with perfectly legitimate claims to being the greatest: The two "Sugar Rays," Leonard and Robinson; Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Jack Johnson, Henry Armstrong, Roberto Duran, Julio Caesar Chavez Sr., and even Floyd Mayweather. There are at least a dozen whose names can be easily mentioned in the same breath as Ali's as the greatest pound-for-pound fighters. Heck, Ali may not even have been the greatest heavyweight.
Larry Holmes dominated a way-past-his-prime Ali but, with the greatest left jab in heavyweight history, Holmes may well have dominated an in-his-prime Ali. Mike Tyson in his prime also would have given Ali fits.