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Was he really 'The Greatest'? Muhammad Ali's complicated legacy

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.

It's important, then, to remember that Ali wasn't necessarily crowned "The Greatest" for what he did in the ring. It was what he did outside the ropes that earned him the love he garnered from his adoring public.

As a boy, my father frequently took me up to Ali's training camp in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. Deer Lake is still a name that conjures up sweet memories of youth for me, of watching and meeting the most brilliant showman the sport has ever seen.

I will never forget seeing him as he trained for George Foreman.

There was a moment—Ali sparring with a boxer big enough to play defensive line for any NFL team, slowly backing towards the ropes, absorbing blow after blow as he perfected his "rope-a-dope" strategy.

Suddenly, Ali lifted his left arm, leaving his midsection exposed. His sparring partner began pummeling Ali with repeated blows. Ali never flinched. My dad looked down at me with awe in his eyes. We knew, before anyone else, that Ali was going to take down the fearsome Foreman.

I admired and occasionally adored Ali as a kid, finding it easy and convenient then to ignore his refusal to serve and embrace of radical Islam. As an adult, the relationship became more complex.

What could have been

Watch HBO's "Thrilla in Manila" documentary chronicling the epic match between Ali and Joe Frazier. It's a reminder of how cruel Ali could be as he painted Frazier as an Uncle Tom, even after Frazier defended Ali for dodging the draft and campaigned for his reinstatement. It also is a reminder of how close Ali came to losing; had Frazier gotten off his stool for the 15th round, Ali (according to his cornerman Ferdie Pacheco) would have quit, forever altering boxing history.

There were other significant blemishes on Ali's ring record: He officially lost to Ken Norton once and probably lost twice, though Ali got a disputed decision in their rematch. Ali also got a big break in his bout against an underdog named Jimmy Young, again winning what many boxing watchers called a horrible decision.

His loss to Leon Spinks was nothing short of an embarrassment, only partially mitigated by a rematch win by decision, a fight during which Ali was stripped a round for holding.

It was a different time for boxing: Championship matches were on regular TV, not on obscenely overpriced pay-per-view events, creating an accessibility that big-name fighters simply do not provide today. Ali knew the medium, and used it to make himself the people's champ even when he wasn't the official champ.

In his later years, the indelible images of him were not the glory days in the ring, but of a shaking former boxer carrying the Olympic torch in 1996, or traveling around the world promoting humanitarian causes, and as an ambassador for humanity.

So when assessing Ali's "Greatest" claim, it is actually more productive to examine those later years, after his ring glory had ebbed and with his body wracked by an unrelenting foe. For all the conflict he stirred up in the national psyche during his younger years, his acts of charity, inspiration and his very public battle against Parkinson's erased all that.

The assessment, then, is complicated. Was Ali "the greatest" in the ring? It hardly matters at this point. His final lesson to the world was that greatness comes not just in the world of sport, but rather in life.

The life of Muhammad Ali

Source: Stanley Weston | Getty Images

Early years

Boxing legend Muhammad Ali was born on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky under the name Cassius Clay. He began boxing at the age of 12, and quickly found success as an amateur fighter.

Source: CBS via Getty Images

America's Olympic champion

During the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy, Clay captured the gold medal for the U.S. team in the light heavyweight division by defeating Poland's Zbigniew Pietrzkowski in the final.

Source: Tony Triolo | Sports Illustrated | Getty Images

"Sting like a bee"

Following the Olympics, Clay became a professional boxer and stormed through the heavyweight division capturing the title by defeating Sonny Liston in 1964.

Shortly after, the champ joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.

Source: David Fenton | Getty Images

Refusing the draft

Ali was drafted into the military in 1967, but refused to go to war. As a result, he was arrested and found guilty of draft evasion.

"The Greatest" was stripped of his title and missed several years of fighting until his conviction was overturned on appeal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971.

Source: The Ring Magazine | Getty Images

Fight of the Century

Following Ali's return to the ring, he fought in a legendary series of matches against the undefeated Joe Frazier.

Frazier won the first fight, but Ali came back to win both the second and third fights. The final battle in the trilogy was best known as the "Thrilla in Manila."

Source: The Ring Magazine | Getty Images

Ali vs. Foreman

One of the most notable matches in boxing history, better known as the "Rumble in the Jungle," Ali regained his title by defeating heavyweight champion George Foreman on October 30, 1974 in Zaire.

Source: Douglas A. Sonders | Getty Images

After boxing

Following the end of his boxing career, Ali became heavily involved in philanthropy and public service even as he battled Parkinson's disease.

In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded Ali the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a ceremony at the White House.