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The Men Who Could Beat Ali

By Monte D. Cox


This article is based on lengthy phone debates with boxing writer Frank Lotierzo


April 2005


      Muhammad Ali is considered by many to be the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. Ali had amazing, blinding speed of hand, great footwork, exceptional head movement and an uncanny ability to judge distance. His superior physical attributes of natural speed, ability to absorb punishment, and reflexes are undeniable. His quality of opposition and what he accomplished are without dispute. There is little argument that Muhammad Ali is one of the very greatest, if not “The Greatest” heavyweight champion in boxing history. But was he unbeatable?

      The trouble when analyzing Ali is that many today refuse to even admit his flaws. Hardcore Ali fans are so taken with the legendary status of the fighter that they view him with rose colored glasses. Even the greatest of fighters have troubles with certain styles and opponents. This is true for Ali the same as any boxer. One person once wrote to me that Ali was a “demi-god.” But Muhammad was not a god, nor was he the “black superman” as his 70’s cartoon suggested. He was not bulletproof. And he was not invincible. He was for all of his ability and success still a human being with two arms, two legs, and a human heart.

      As a boxer Ali was physically gifted, but fundamentally flawed. He did not hold his hands properly, he often held them low and he held his right hand out to the side when he jabbed making him vulnerable to a counter jab. He was also vulnerable to a left hook throughout his career with his rear guard out and away from his face. To make matters worse he dropped his right hand before throwing his right uppercut from the outside making himself even more vulnerable to the left hook, something exploited by Joe Frazier. Muhammad leaned away from punches, a stylistic flaw that could be exploited by a master at feinting, which is something Ali never had to face in his career. Ali never punched to the body except with a very rare jab. Defensively Ali did not know how to block punches. He did not know how to block a jab, as he did not hold his rear hand in proper position. He did not know how to block punches at all except to cover up against the ropes. He did not know how to block a left hook. Anyone doubting this need only watch the tapes of his three fights with Joe Frazier. Ali knew the left hook was coming. Yet he did not block them. He did not know how. Ali also did not know how to fight as an aggressor and was at his best taking apart opponents with lightning quick combinations as they came to him.


The Men Who COULD NOT Beat Ali

      The slow big bruisers, no matter how hard they hit, could never beat Muhammad Ali. This is true for 3 reasons.

  1. Ali had too much speed of hand and foot and could hit slow handed sluggers at will easily beating them to the punch. Fighters who tried to knock out Ali were made to miss with his quick feet and head movement and countered with rapid-fire combinations.
  2. Ali had perhaps the greatest chin ever and could absorb punishment to the body better than any heavyweight in history and was unlikely to lose by a knockout.
  3. Stylistically Ali fought at his best as he caught his opponents coming in. He could move away, pick his spots and land with quick jabs, right hand leads, and multi-punch combinations as he ripped slower opponents to shreds.

      A review of his record against fighters of this type is more than enough to demonstrate that slow handed punchers could not defeat Ali. He beat Sonny Liston, Cleveland Williams, George Foreman, Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers all who would rate among the greatest power punchers in heavyweight history. Ali’s results with such fighters speak for themselves. The slow big punchers were no match for Ali and he was at his absolute best against them. Indeed Ali’s reputation is made off his victories against such men.

      Huge punchers are the fan favorites and the fact that Ali beat some of the best heavyweight hitters of all time, and usually rather easily, made him look unbeatable. But Ali did have trouble with certain styles. In this article we will take a look at some of the styles and fighters that would give Ali the most problems.


Part 2

STYLES MAKE FIGHTS

      Ali was primarily an “out-boxer”, that is he liked to box his opponents from long range and catch them moving towards him. For this reason certain styles give him the most trouble. The first of these is the swarming style of the pressure fighter.

The Great Swarmers

      The swarmer always creates problems for the boxer because he smothers him, makes him uncomfortable and forces him to fight at a pace where he may not be able to dictate the action and tempo of the fight. Many examples of this style contrast can be seen in boxing history. Jake Lamotta was not in the skill class of Ray Robinson but he always gave him a tough fight and did beat him once. Harry Greb beat Gene Tunney and arguably beat him twice in their five fights. Stylistically the great swarming heavyweights pose a serious challenge to Muhammad Ali.

      Joe Frazier was a crowding, pressuring fighter who came in low, worked the body and cut the ring on Ali. Joe Frazier was one of the 4 greatest swarming style heavyweights in history. He gave Ali three very competitive fights including a victory in the first fight. The swarming style of Joe Frazier gave Ali all kinds of problems because he did not allow Ali to “out box” and keep the fight at long range.

      In Superfight 1 Ali, who had just turned 29, actually fought a very good fight. He looked strong; he swept the early rounds and fought evenly most of the way. There is little doubt that the Ali of March 8, 1971 would defeat many a great heavyweight. But Ali’s lack of boxing basics hurt him in this fight. He was hit time and again by left hooks. In the 11th with his hands down he was badly staggered and as Bob Waters wrote was “doing the dance the puppets do when the guy with the string is drunk.” In the 15th round a left hook floored Ali as he dropped his right hand to throw an uppercut. We don’t have to wonder whether Joe Frazier could beat Muhammad Ali. He did.

      Due to styles Rocky Marciano would give Ali a very tough fight because like Frazier, once he warmed up to his task, he set a relentless pace. Marciano would go to the body as Frazier did and Rocky's punches were known to bust the blood vessels in his opponent’s arms, so any rope-a-dope type tactics would be sure to fail. The George Chuvalo film is very revealing. Chuvalo was a limited fighter, who was slow of hand, and lacked real power. Yet he does manage to get Ali to the ropes, although he lacked the ability to effectively work him over and keep him there. Chuvalo also managed to catch Ali flush with a right cross to the chin in the 13th round. If George Chuvalo could do it so could Marciano, and the consequences would be much greater. Make no mistake Marciano would be a very tough fight for Ali. In three fights it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Marciano would win one just as Frazier did.

      Some modernists think of Jack Dempsey as being crude, but he was more of a heavyweight Roberto Duran at his peak, than a raw Arturo Gatti. He could box, punch and take a punch. He had the speed, power and ability to trouble Ali in the ring. Dempsey also had perhaps the best explosive left hook in heavyweight history, coming in faster than the hook of Frazier. Dempsey was a perpetual bob and weave fighter similar to Smokin’ Joe. Dempsey was as tough as they come, rarely cut and could fight well when hurt. Dempsey was quick on his feet and would pressure Ali in a manner similar to Frazier, cutting the ring, bobbing and weaving slipping the jab and firing left hooks to the head and body. Dempsey was also a better two handed puncher than was Frazier. Ali would likely win a decision against the sturdy chin of Dempsey, but it is not inconceivable that if they fought several times Dempsey would win one, just as Duran did against Ray Leonard.

      The one great swarming heavyweight that I would give little chance to beat Ali had they both met in their primes is Mike Tyson. Ali had the perfect ring psychology to defeat Tyson. In Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser, all five people associated with Tyson picked Ali in a dream fight over Tyson. That list included Tyson trainers Kevin Rooney and Teddy Atlas, former manager Bill Cayton, and former D’Amato champions Floyd Patterson and Jose Torres. In the Sept 1988 Ring when Tyson was undefeated and at the peak of his popularity, I had a letter published, "Tyson Versus Heroes of the Past" where I noted Ali's "amazing speed and footwork would easily frustrate Tyson." When Tyson was finally defeated for the first time it was the stick and move tactics of Buster Douglas that defeated him in Ali like fashion.

      Tyson was at his peak at a young age while Ali hit his peak as he matured physically. What if Ali and Tyson both met at age 20? The story here might be different. Tyson peaked early, had the explosive, speed, power, head movement and good defense to get inside on the fighter then known as Cassius Clay. The young Ali had not filled out yet and his ability to take a punch was not quite what it would be later. The left hook of Sonny Banks and also the left hook of Henry Cooper dropped Clay. Tyson was far and away superior over those men in speed, power, punching accuracy and combination punching. Against a young prime Tyson, Clay/Ali is going to get hit with consecutive power shots after being rocked. The 20 year old Tyson knocks out the 20 year old Clay who had not yet reached his prime years.

      The title of this article is "The men who could beat Ali." Certainly any of the great swarming heavyweights by crowding Ali's effective range, setting a fast pace, and capitalizing on mistakes could beat him on a given night, just as Joe Frazier did.


The Defensive Boxers

      Ali was at his best against the big, slow power punchers who came to him. He had a lot more trouble stylistically with the faster, smaller men who could punch with him. The primary reason for this is Ali did not know how to fight as an aggressor, did not block punches and did not punch to the body.

      A clear example of Ali’s inability to fight as an aggressor is the Jimmy Young fight. Yes, Ali was past his prime, and yes he was out of shape. But the lesson from this fight, is not Ali’s age or lack of conditioning, it is the fact that Ali was forced to fight as the aggressor for the first time in his career and he was clueless on how to go about approaching him. It does not matter that Ali was not in shape. What matters is that he did not know how to fight when he was forced to be the aggressor against a pure defensive boxer. Even an in-shape younger, faster version of Ali would have trouble with Jimmy Young due to styles. Ali simply did not know how to attack him. Young was very slippery, and hard to hit with a clean punch to the head. What Ali needed to do was go to the body, but he didn’t know how. Going to the body would give Young more to think about it, brings his hands down and allow Ali to reach his head more frequently. But Ali did nothing but stalk Young in a vain attempt to track him down. Ali did not know how to cut the ring on Jimmy Young. Judging this fight on clean punching, defense and ring generalship one would have to score the fight for Jimmy Young. The prime Ali would defeat Young, but it would have been an ugly fight to watch all the same. Ali would have had the same trouble fighting as the aggressor. It was just not Ali’s type of fight.

      Ali had more trouble in his career with smaller guys than he did with monsters that came at him. Ali could slay the dragons of the heavyweight division with minimal effort. He had more problems with the court jesters who were smaller and came underneath, or moved and offered less of a target and made Ali fight as an aggressor. Less than great boxers such as Doug Jones who weighed less than 200 pounds, Jimmy Young and Ken Norton, a solid but not spectacular fighter, gave Ali technical problems to solve. And he never did solve them. He was forced to win close decisions on points, never winning decisively against them.

      One of Ali’s fundamental flaws is that he held his right hand out to the side when he jabbed and did not hold his rear right hand in position to block a counter jab. He relied primarily on leaning away from jabs to avoid them. This was a technical error exploited by Ken Norton. Norton’s trainer Eddie Futch said, (In The Corner p. 233-235), “The jab was a big reason Muhammad Ali never figured out why he had so much trouble with Ken Norton in their three fights.” Futch instructed Norton, “Keep your right hand high. His jab will pop into the middle of your glove and then your jab will come right down the pipe…that is what destroyed Ali’s rhythm.” It does not matter if Ali was slightly past his peak against Norton. Norton would always give Ali trouble because of the jab.

      The best defensive heavyweight of all time was Jack Johnson. Johnson was the best heavyweight of all time in his ability to block and counter a jab. Johnson was the best heavyweight ever at picking off and blocking punches. In the July 2, 1910 San Francisco Chronicle Stanley Ketchel described Johnson as “clever, fast, and the best blocker the pugilistic world has ever seen.” Nat Fleischer and others also described Johnson in this manner. The best way to counter a fighter who is great at blocking punches is to do what? Go to the body. Which is something that Ali did not do. From a technical aspect Jack Johnson would give Ali more problems than any opponent in heavyweight history. Ali would have far more trouble with Johnson than he did with Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Earnie Shavers, all who were fighters who came to him.

      Jack Johnson would compound the stylistic problems Ali had with Jones, Norton and Young. Historian Charley Rose, who saw both Johnson and Ali in their prime years said, (July 1966 Ring), "Johnson would have caught Clay's jabs like Willie Mays catches a baseball." Jack would block and counter Ali’s jab and neutralize, at least to some degree, his primary weapon. To make matters worse for Ali, Johnson would slide back and fight out of a defensive stance. Ali would be forced to fight as an aggressor, which is something he did very poorly. He would have no strategy to attack Johnson because had no body punching. His jab would be ineffective to the point that Ali would be confused. He would find himself in with an opponent who could counterpunch very accurately and had hand speed to nearly match his own. Jack Johnson is the one boxer who could win a decision over Muhammad Ali through near equal ability and superior technical skills.

      Another fighter that would really give Ali problems is Jersey Joe Walcott. Ali once admitted in the 1970's that he would have trouble with Walcott's particular style. Walcott had slick footwork, and with his slips, jukes, and feints and defensive nature would frustrate Ali. Ali forced to fight aggressively would be stalking looking to score with his quick hands, but Walcott would be hard to pin down. Walcott would feint Ali as he came in, Muhammad would lean away from the punch as he was fond of doing and then Walcott might be able to nail him with a precisely timed counter. Moving forward against a retreating foe, Ali would be like a headless chicken moving around but unable to see what to do. Prime for prime if they fought 5 times Walcott would give Ali problems in every single fight. Ali would win 4 of 5 because of his speed, but it is possible that Walcott could score an upset in a close fight mimicking the successes of Norton and Young.

      Ali would likely face problems with James J. Corbett, Billy Conn, Ezzard Charles and Chris Byrd for the same reasons. Ali would be the aggressor and not fighting the way he liked to fight. Being smaller is actually an advantage for the clever defensive boxers against Ali, not a disadvantage. They are a smaller target and moving backward while Ali is forced to look for them as he tried to do in the Jimmy Young fight. He would not be going to the body. He never did. He would be headhunting only against very clever and elusive fighters who would not be forcing the fight. Ali would be out of his element against these types of boxers.

      James J. Corbett, for example, is not going to be the aggressor against Ali. Ali is going to have to look for him. Corbett had better technical skills than Ali. He held his hands in proper position and he blocked punches and could counter with good hand speed. He weighed 190 pounds about the size of men like Doug Jones or Henry Cooper. Corbett would likely have no chance against Joe Frazier or Sonny Liston, but he would have a chance to frustrate Ali as Doug Jones and Jimmy Young did by fighting defensively, offering a small target, slipping and countering an Ali who would be head hunting only. This is one of the reasons that some “old-timers” preferred men like Corbett to Ali. On the other hand, Ali might catch the small, defensive heavyweights with something along the way, but it would be simply boring until he did.

      A modern heavyweight who would simply frustrate Ali at times would be Chris Byrd. Byrd was very good at slipping punches aimed at his head. With no body attack Ali would probably miss more punches aimed at Byrd than any other opponent in his career. Ali's speed and maneuverability would likely be the difference but it would not be one of Ali's better fights.

      Although I would favor Ali in most of these match ups, it is certainly plausible they would be distance fights. If Ali doesn’t land the big artillery he could wind up losing a decision in some very boring fights to watch.


The Technicians With Punching Ability

      The fighters who were good technicians and also possessed a strong punch could also give Ali trouble. The two most likely to have a chance to defeat Ali are Joe Louis and Larry Holmes. Ali would have one advantage over these fighters stylistically in that they would be the aggressors. The technicians however have the advantage that their technical skills match up precisely to take advantage of Ali’s fundamental flaws. Joe Louis had a certain range that he liked to work in and if Ali could keep the fight outside and pick his spots to fight he would win a decision. However, Ali made a lot of mistakes in the ring. Louis had very fast hands at mid range and in tight spots (like his opponents against the ropes). It is difficult to imagine Ali not getting tagged by Louis fast hands somewhere along the way. Whenever you see Ali hurt in his fights, it was always by one or two big punches from slow opponents. Louis threw quick and devastating combinations. He never threw them one at a time. It would be no easy fight, as some Ali worshippers would like to think.

      Louis said how he would fight Ali in Feb. 1967 Ring, “The kid has speed and there’s no one around to outbox him, and the opponent who tries is in his grave, especially in the middle if the ring. I’d see to it that Clay didn’t stay in ring center. No. He’d be hit into those ropes as near a corner as I could get him. If he stayed on the ropes he would get hurt. Sooner or later he’d try to bounce off, when he did he would get hurt more. I’d press him, cut down his speed, and bang him around the ribs. I’d punish the body. “Kill the body and the head will die”, Chappie use to tell me. It figures. Sooner or later he’d forget about that face of his and he would start dropping that left hand like he did against Mildenberger and Chuvalo. Those fellows got their openings by accident, and fouled it up. I would work for it and wouldn’t reckon to miss when it arrived. Cassius Clay is a nice boy and a smart fighter. But I am sure Joe Louis would have licked him.”

      Joe Frazier fought this battle plan mapped out by Louis in 1967 almost to perfection in 1971. Frazier began working the body early. He punished Ali along the ropes, and when his opening finally came (in the 11th and again in the 15th) Frazier took advantage. Smokin’ Joe failed to score a knockout that day but his victory was decisive. The plan almost worked in the third fight as well. Ali absorbed such a beating he said it was “the closest thing to death” that he had ever experienced. Louis would use the Norton strategy of catching and countering Ali’s jab, upsetting Muhammad’s timing and rhythm. Louis would punch with him as Doug Jones and Norton did. He would drive him to the ropes by using the jab as Norton did. Norton was slow on his feet, even dragging his rear foot, but yet he gave Ali three very close fights.

      Ken Norton had the style to give Ali fits; a right parrying hand to block Ali's jab-a good left jab in return, pressure on the inside, a strong body attack and a good left hook that Ali was susceptible to. Joe Louis had all these attributes and was a faster and far more powerful and explosive puncher than Ken Norton was. Louis was 10-0 in rematches. Louis was also the greatest finisher in ring history. Once his opponents were hurt they never survived. If Louis had Ali in the trouble that he was in against Frazier in Super fight 1, it’s over. In 3 fights he would be sure to knock out Ali at least once.

      Larry Holmes was a mirror image of Ali in many respects. They had about the same height and reach. Ali had the greater speed and movement and better overall ability to absorb punishment. One of the biggest factors in this fight, if they both met in their primes, is going to be Larry Holmes jab. Fighters who could jab with Ali absolutely destroyed his rhythm. Fighters who came to Ali were no problem as he could pick his opportunities to counter while gliding out of danger. But opponents with a good jab could bewilder him at times. His fights with Doug Jones, Jimmy Ellis, Ken Norton and Jimmy Young all demonstrate this fact.

      Both Ali and Holmes had great chins so the fight would go the distance. Over 15 rounds Larry Holmes jab would give Ali a lot of difficulty. Ali’s greater hand speed might play a role, but Holmes also had very quick hands, especially with his long jab so this would be a very frustrating fight for Ali. In a series of fights I see Holmes winning at least once.

      Is Muhammad Ali the greatest heavyweight of all time? He may well have been. He would likely come out ahead in a series of bouts against all of the opposition who could beat him. I would favor Ali in a trilogy against any of the opponent’s mentioned in this article. I would give Joe Louis the best chance of capitalizing on mistakes to knock Ali out. Ali had enough tools and resourcefulness to overcome most of his mistakes, but he was definitely not unbeatable. On a given night he could lose against the right style of opponent. His competition post Liston and pre-Frazier was nothing special. Yet Henry Cooper, even in the second fight, was able to hit him without much trouble. George Chuvalo hit him flush on the chin, and Mildenberger frustrated him. Ali was a human being and as such had human weaknesses. He was perhaps “The Greatest” heavyweight boxer in history, but there are other great heavyweights who could beat him.