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Ali: Still the greatest ever

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Tom Fordyce | 18:10 UK time, Monday, 16 January 2012

The man himself told us as long ago as February 1964: "I am the greatest!" Forty-eight years later, as Muhammad Ali celebrates his 70th birthday, is his place atop the pantheon of sporting heroes still secure?

Numbers alone can only take us so far. There is no logic in comparing Ali's 56 professional wins to Pele's two World Cup triumphs and 1280 career goals, Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France yellow jerseys, Martina Navratilova's 59 Grand Slam titles, Michael Jordan's six NBA championships or Usain Bolt's 9.58 and 19.19 seconds for the 100 and 200m. You may as well attempt to assess the relative musical abilities of John Lennon and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Ali's incendiary adventures in the ring, from his Olympic gold of 1960 and debut pro fight against Tunney Hunsaker all the way through to that final defeat by Trevor Berbick 21 years later, were built not so much on raw win-loss stats as how those were conjured up: snatching the world heavyweight title from Sonny Liston at odds of 7-1; ending the rematch with a right hand so fast, or 'phantom', even television could barely see it; baring his talent and soul in three of the greatest fights in history; winning back the world title three times against both physical and sporting reason.

All great sportsmen must have defining moments on their elevation above us toiling mortals. Just as Ali had the 'Fight of the Century', 'Rumble in the Jungle' and 'Thrilla in Manila', so Tiger Woods had his astonishing debut Masters win of 1997 or US Open triumph on one leg in 2008, Jordan the NBA finals of 1997 and his scarcely believable 'flu game', Pele the opening goal in the 1970 World Cup final as the stand-out icon in football's most iconic team.

Others have also made unscriptable comebacks. Armstrong's resurrection from cancer ward to king of the Champs-Elysees made life-long disciples of many. Jordan did it twice, winning a second 'three-peat' with the Bulls after his strange sabbatical with baseball's Birmingham Barons, raging against the dying of the light with the Washington Wizards after an even longer break.

Ali drove his sport to new heights and new corners of the world. So have other stellar names. Jordan took the NBA and branded trainers to the masses. Woods changed not just the physical shape of golfers but the profile of the entire game. Fanny Blankers-Koen showed a patriarchal world that women's sport counted. Bolt has pulled athletics back from the abyss with his demolition of records and exhibitions on the blocks.

Ali beat Henry Cooper for a second time at Highbury in 1966. Photo: Getty

In matters of style, too, Ali is not unique. His speed, his reflexes and guile set him apart from his peers, but so did Roger Federer's bull-whip forehand and sublime court coverage, or Jack Nicklaus's driving distance and accuracy with his irons. Ali might have had his shuffle, but Jordan had his air.

Many would even question his status as greatest boxer of them all, awarding Sugar Ray Robinson or even Joe Louis the title on points.

To be sport's greatest, however, must perversely be about more than sporting achievement. For running or jumping or scoring or fighting to matter to us, we have to be touched by the human soul behind the biomechanics. And this is where Ali truly moves into a realm of his own.

There were showmen before, and there have been copycats since. But no-one else will ever display the combination of charisma, wit and pure joie de vivre that Ali did at his peak.

He was PT Barnum crossed with Stokely Carmichael, Dorothy Parker with a wrecking-ball.

The early braggadocio might have been borrowed from wrestler 'Gorgeous' George Wagner, but Ali redefined how a sportsman could behave. At the distance of almost 50 years his best quotes still tickle and provoke, that infamous US Army IQ test result of 78 rendered laughable by the endless one-liners and inventive rhymes.

He gave phrases to popular parlance - 'float like a butterfly', 'rope-a-dope' - and aphorisms by the hundred. So mean he made medicine sick, so strong he threw thunder in jail, Ali entertained from daybreak to dusk, and frequently kept on going all night long.

Jordan could be a showman. His press release to announce his first comeback read simply "I'm back". Bolt's archer is the iconic pose of this young century. But can you remember a single quote from Tiger, or inspirational line from Federer?

With his deeds and decisions outside the ring, Ali's impact transcended sport's gaudy jamboree.

It wasn't always as neat as time might make it appear. His famous comment on being drafted ("I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong") was such a throwaway line that Bob Lipsyte of the New York Times, interviewing him outside his house, initially missed it.

Yet his stance hardened, and his opposition to the Vietnam War would both sum up the mood of an alternative generation and provide a figurehead for those fighting only for change.

"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform," he famously asked, "and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?"

Billie Jean King's on-court brilliance and bravery off it won similar battles for feminism and, later, gay rights. She is one of the very few sports stars before or since Ali who have also been prepared to speak out against the political orthodoxy. Today's big names would be prevented by their agents even if they wanted to.

This was not rebellion packaged to sell clothing, iconoclasm for the sake of posturing. It cost Ali three and half years just as he was approaching his peak. Woods went into self-imposed exile after a string of lurid revelations about his private life and subsequent loss of sponsors. Ali did it for his political and religious beliefs.

Because we're all so well versed with Ali's story, it's easy to forget how seismic an impact his stances made on the world around him.

"The fight racket, since its rotten beginnings, has been the red-light district of sports. But this is the first time it has been turned into an instrument of hate." That was the view of top sportswriter Jimmy Cannon when Ali joined the Nation of Islam and swapped Cassius for Muhammad.

Ali was knocked to the canvas by rival Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in 1971. Photo: Getty

Ali had his faults. His three failed marriages were the result of serial infidelities. His taunting of Joe Frazier belittled a great fighter, and his more extreme statements about racial segregation are impossible for most of his millions of fans to condone.

"Put a hand on a Muslim sister, and you are to die," he told an interviewer from Playboy. "A black man should be killed if he's messing with a white woman."

"And what if a Muslim woman wants to go out with non-Muslim blacks - or white men, for that matter?' asked the reporter. "Then she dies," said Ali. "Kill her, too."

Why have these flaws, far from wrecking him in the public eye, left Ali "a benign venerated figure", as his biographer Thomas Hauser puts it?

There is the adrenaline and adoration generated by his greatest wins, like the impossible defeat of George Foreman in Kinshasa, and the emotions stirred by watching a man in the grip of Parkinson's syndrome stand tall to light the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta.

Other greats have touched us deeply - Jordan, raw from the death of his dad, weeping on the locker-room floor on Father's Day 1996; Tiger in tears on the 18th green at Hoylake after losing his own father; Armstrong coming back from the dead to live strong. Ali seems to have gone deeper.

Other names have also topped polls to find the greatest athlete of all time. An ESPN survey rated Jordan the greatest North American athlete of the 20th century, while the Associated Press's corresponding list had Ali third, behind both Babe Ruth and Jordan. Both Sports Illustrated and the BBC's Sports Personality of the Century saw it differently. Ali received more votes from BBC viewers than the other four contenders combined.
There's another way of looking at it. If you could sit down with any sports star in history, who would you choose?

Across the globe, Ali remains revered like no other. "I shook up the world!" he yelled after beating Liston in 1964. It was both accurate and prophetic.

Lots of sporting legends have films made of their lives. Ali was so big that even the story of a guy he beat, Chuck Wepner, could inspire an Oscar-winning movie and five sequels.

When Cannon said Ali was "part of the Beatle movement" he meant it as a disparaging comment. Unwittingly he had nailed another truth. There could never be another to touch Ali, partly because the circumstances that allowed him to flourish - an explosion of popular culture, television taking its heroes into every home, the rise of post-colonial black power - can never again be repeated.

"I'm the king of the world!" Ali had declared in that same victory speech in 1964. "I can't be beat!

Half a century on, he's still right.


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  • Comment number 1.

    Aye, he is yet to be beaten as the greatest sportsman to have graced the field. M Navratilova should pip many of her colleagues to the title of greatest sportswoman.

  • Comment number 2.

    Yes, unquestionably one of the 20th Century's top bananas.

  • Comment number 3.

    Sheer perfection as a heavyweight, compared to the rest, he moved like a middleweight, I remember watching the Clay, Liston fight on the beeb in black and white. I knew then, he was ultra special, he just stood out. Great is over used but never for this guy.

    Controversial, well yes but real greats often are. Did he ever shirk a challenge? NO

    A once in a lifetime heavyweight.

  • Comment number 4.

    "I have wrestled with an alligator. I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. That's bad! Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick! I'm so mean I make medicine sick!... Bad, fast! Fast! Fast! Last night I cut the light off in my bedroom, hit the switch and was in the bed before the room was dark." Ali

  • Comment number 5.

    I beat a bear!!!! I'm the greatest!!!! What a living icon, not just for the sport of boxing but as a human being!!!

  • Comment number 6.

    Very good article, surprisingly american-centric though.
    Ashame no mention of Sir Steven Redgrave. Five Olympics - gold at all of them, surely peerless? Memorable quotes, incredible achievement, battled illness and age, but no-one could stop him from glory.

    No mention of Alan Hutton the Aston Villa right-back either - but you got that right!

  • Comment number 7.

    Really good read Tom.

    I'm glad you mentioned the dark as well as light sides of Ali, many are unaware of his political and religious stance. But it seems make little or no difference to most people (me included) who have followed his life and career.

    I was lucky enough to see some of his later fights on TV as a child, and I firmly believe that he (in his prime) would have too much for most if not all the current HW boxers of today.

    For me he is the greatest.

  • Comment number 8.

    In an era of bland, marketed sports superstars Ali stands out a mile for his willingness to jeopardise his career for his moral convictions. He wasn't prepared to lie down and be quiet at a time when segregation was still the norm in the Sourthern States. But, lets not forget that he wasn't very nice - vain, arrogant, sexist, racist, cruel. I like heroes a bit quieter and polite: Bjorn Borg, Don Bradman, Bobby Moore, Tim Henman (only kidding).

  • Comment number 9.

    Good article. Glad you touched on some of Ali's controversies, don't think many will as the rapturous praise comes in.

    And yet, he still deserves that rapturous praise. As the overall package, and for what he meant outside the ring, one of the greatest athletes ever and THE greatest heavyweight of all time.

  • Comment number 10.

    "For running or jumping or scoring or fighting to matter to us, we have to be touched by the human soul behind the biomechanics." Great writing and absolutely true.
    So many great sporting heroes, but the number that we REALLY care about and that are universally respected are much fewer. Ali up there with Jessie Owens, Carl Lewis, and Navratalova for me.

  • Comment number 11.

    Not gonna argue but...

    anyone ever heard of a man called Kelly Slater? 11 world titles in 20 years, three of them absent. Has taken surfing by the horns, seen what the new kids are doing & upped his game to better everyone on the tour. For anyone to be at the top of their discipline for that long they have to be mentioned.

    And for those of you who don't think that surfing is a proper sport? Try it, probably one of the hardest sports to learn. Keanu may be getting his 'first tube this morning!' after 2 weeks but no-one else will!

  • Comment number 12.

    What a shame that with its extensive archives of interviews and documentaries relevant to Muhammad Ali, the BBC's tribute to this great man has been so anaemic.

    One measly documentary! And broadcasted on the neverzone that is BBC4!

    Ali isn't just a sports figure, sociologically and politically, he was an icon that shaped an era! And certainly his contributions deserve more than what the BBC has presently offered up.

    Looking at the BBC's programming, it's embarrassing that they have failed to mark this significant moment with the substance it was due.

  • Comment number 13.

    Greatest sportsman - maybe.

    Greatest sports personality - undoubtedly.

  • Comment number 14.

    @2 sagamix

    Care to explain the term "bananas"?

  • Comment number 15.

    To 11 - Who? That is the point. He may be the best at what he does but then so is Phil Taylor and would you consider either to be the greatest sportsman ever or even in a top anything? You seem to completely miss the point and peddle your own love of a non-popular sport like surfing, irrespective of how difficult it is.

    Ali is and always will be the greatest, As you say Tom, the timing was right and todays sportsmen and women will never be allowed to be so controversial or full of character because there are too many do-gooders and too much political correctness for anyone to do or say anything non-sterile. Ali is known the world over, like Pele and Michael Jordan, and his name alone conjours up images of greatness like very few others, hence why he is there at the head in the pantheon of true sporting greats.

  • Comment number 16.

    Wayne Gretzky probably dominated a sport like no other. Bill Russell also won five more titles than Jordan.

    Agree with the Kelly Slater comment, altho if anyone could catch a tube after two weeks it would be Johnny Utah

  • Comment number 17.

    Top Banana .... Is a Metaphor for performance of high quality ... V appropriate .

  • Comment number 18.

    Nice article. I liked the reference to Dylan Thomas in how you described Jordan's return to the Wizards. For me, the two greatest sportsmen would have to be Senna and Ali. They both did unbelievable things in their respective sports, they both suffered for their sports and for their beliefs. Their is much that current stars can learn from both of them. You can win as many titles as you want, but these guys showed you that this is not what makes them the icons they are today. For example, no one will be talking about Stephen Hendry in the same light as they do for Ali, Jordan and co when he turns 70. And that's no offence to Stephen Hendry, it's just these guys seem to transcend sport like no others.

  • Comment number 19.

    This sounds crazy but I can justify it: Ali isn't the greatest boxer of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson is. Ali isn't the greatest Heavyweight boxer of all time, surely Joe Lewis takes that crown. Boxing isn't even the most popular sport, although as an individual sport it is one of the pinnacles.

    Despite this though and despite his many personal flaws as a hot-headed and at one time bigoted young man, Ali transcends his great sporting achievements, his sport and sport itself. His quotes get the headlines but the civil rights and anti-war stances and his iconic status as the ultimate sporting showman mark him out above the great sports icons named above and those not named. When his back wasn't up against the wall any more he also became more reflective, more thoughtful and to be honest a better person. Let's not forget of course in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that Ali made the world listen about it being a terrorist act, not representative of his religion. With his heartfelt tributes to former bitter enemies like Frazier and his racial and religious conciliatory efforts, Ali continues to fascinate into his 70s.

  • Comment number 20.

    good write up, Ali was the best, in his prime the best there ever was or will be, even not in his prime he beat better, stronger boxers by sure force of will, he would put todays heavyweights to shame and todays sports stars to shame personality wise, he was the right guy born at the right time with the physical, mental and heart to achieve the most amazing things, shook up the world? damn right he did, Shook it up more than any sportsman has or ever will, truly truly a legend..

  • Comment number 21.

    @15 Phil Taylor? A sportsman? Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

    Sorry, I'll be serious. Ali transcended his sport, like all greats. Many people who know nothing about boxing would still recognise his name because of who he is as much as what he achieved. Kelly Slater may have achieved great things in his discpline, but people with no interest in surfing would most probably ask "Who's she?"

    Although my argument falls down easily because many people who know jack about football would still know who David Beckham was... Darn.

    Back to the jibes: Phil Taylor?! Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

  • Comment number 22.

    A great Write up Tom.

    Ali understood the position that he was in as an elite athlete, he knew that he was in a position to be able to bestow a positive influence upon those that looked up to him, and equally to alter the opinions of those that perhaps looked at him only on face value as a man of colour during an era in history where racial tensions where rife. He stood up for what he believed in with great valour and determination.
    A legend amongst sportsmen, an entertainer of the highest calibre and quite simply the greatest professional athlete there has ever been. His influence surpasses age, race, and gender, and I am certain there will never be another to walk a mile in his shoes.
    Was he the best heavyweight fighter the world has ever seen? There are many more people out there who are better placed to answer that question, but he was a supreme advocate for the world of boxing, and in the words of my Dad: “You could never call Mohammad Ali, just a boxer”

  • Comment number 23.

    @12 - Why not show the documentary on BBC4, it shows more interesting TV programmes than any other channel.

  • Comment number 24.

    I do not think Ali could have been at his peak today as the modern media would have ruined him if he dared mention any of his views.

    My point is, as a generation, are we being denied great characters in the sporting world not because agents prevent controversial freedom of speech but because they are protecting their clients from being ruined by the press for courting the slightest hint of controversy.

    Ali is the greatest.
    Probably Eddie the Eagle at number two.

  • Comment number 25.

    I certainly respect Ali for taking a stand against Vietnam but I, as a man that respects also the sacrifices that draftees made in Vietnam in the most difficult of situations, do wonder at these people in effect needing the financial contributions of those making such sacrifices. Green Day outside of the sports arena is another example.

  • Comment number 26.

    The greatest sportsman ever ?
    You must be having a laugh...

    Boxing is a relatively low skilled sport compared to almost any other sport, and boxers themselves are rarely as athletic as other sportsmen.

    Ali was certainly a great boxer, one of the best. But even to call him the greatest boxer would be contentious - not just on ability in the ring, but also out of the ring - things like his treatment of Joe Frazier were truly disgraceful. I feel really sorry for "Smokin' Joe" who so sadly died recently, and without the true recognition he deserved.

  • Comment number 27.

    Ali for me was without questions the greatest boxer to have ever lived. he was so great that he transcended boxing. I often wonder how good he would have been had it not been for his enforced 3 year lay off. His dismantling of George Foreman was stuff that legends are made of. He simply destroyed george in his prime, at a time when many thought ali would be seriously hurt. I think even george would admit, ali took something from him that night that he could never get back.

    others have tried to follow ali, with trash, brash talk, but none have been able to carry it off. In all honesty, I think sportsmen like ali come along once in a lifetime. I'm so glad he came along in mine

  • Comment number 28.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 29.

    my two favourite sports are boxing and basketball. While it is unquestionable that Ali is one of the greatest sportsmen of all time I urge all BBC writers to make no reference to any basketball players until the BBC employs someone who knows anything about the history of the game. I am guessing you just referenced to the only basketball player you have ever heard of. Would have been better to reference the greatest player of all time, Bill Russell and his 11 championship rings! Apologies to bring this up in an article about a true genius of his time in an era full of legends, but I find the BBC's reserch on some things shocking

  • Comment number 30.

    Firstly a terrific article, thank you Tom.

    Secondly @ 26 Owen Goal, I can only pass your comment off as ignorance as opposed to stupidity. If you truly believe boxers are "rarely athletic", why don't step into a ring for 12 rounds of enlightenment.

  • Comment number 31.

    @30 Here Here.

    Owen Goal, I have never heard such nonsense. Are you Soul_patch from premier league related blogs in disguise???

  • Comment number 32.

    @26 "Boxing is a relatively low skilled sport compared to almost any other sport, and boxers themselves are rarely as athletic as other sportsmen"

    WHAT?!?!? clearly you have never stepped foot in a ring!

  • Comment number 33.

    A great sportsman obviously but well done for reminding people about some of his less than palatable views. You also mention his defeat of Cooper but no mention of their first fight.....Ali himself freely admitted that he only managed to recover from Enry's Ammer by strategic re lacing of his gloves immediately afterwards (and no this does not mean Cooper was a better boxer)

  • Comment number 34.

    Ali is the Greatest simply because his name transcends everything. Many people who aren't sports fans recognise Ali's name simply because he connected with people in many ways - and anyway, you don't measure greatness by stats alone - after all, Ian Botham is considered to be cricket's greatest all rounder but his stats don't reflect his greatness. And anyway, what constitutes greatness is really a subjective matter.

  • Comment number 35.

    Great article Tom, yes there are a few who can claim to have reached even greater heights in sport & possibly even boxing, and yes Ali had his bad side, but he is the greatest because he is so much more.

    His fights were televised worldwide live. He took Americans to parts of the world most hadn't even heard of. His showmanship turned his fights into a world event on parr with a world cup final. He was a superstar, even though he was black, such a rarity that his picture hung along side Martin Luther King & Christ is most UK West Indian homes.

    @26 Owen Goal - you may have your views about boxing but try asking someone anyway in the world for their top 10 greatest sportsperson ever & he'll be in there.

    Boxing and the world were blessed to have 3 giants of the sport in the 70's, in Ali, Fraser & Foreman. It would not have been such a golden era without them but only Ali had an impact and reach well beyond his sport.

    Hopefully as & when his time comes not only will the BBC offer more coverage but I anticipate the worldwide coverage will reflect his importance.

  • Comment number 36.

    #26 Owen_Goal

    If you think the greatest boxers are not as 'skilled' as other top sportsmen and women, it is with respect that I would suggest your knowledge of boxing is lacking, not the skill levels required to succeed in the sport.

    Floyd Mayweather is colossally gifted, both in terms of tactics, movement and speed of delivering blows. I would easily rank his 'skill' if such a ranking existed, alongside any other sportsmen.

    As for Ali, I find a slight contradiction/hypocrisy in what is otherwise an excellent blog. We talk about how Ali was so much more than a sportsman with a number of titles, wins and achievements. The article argues that to be the greatest you need to transcend your sport with what you say and do in life. You need to inspire. So the article draws on Ali's undoubtedly masterful use of language, his (at times) strong principled stands on truly contentious issues. The author is right to say such stands and statements would not be seen today.

    However if you bring these into account when it comes to measuring the man then you must give equal place to his comments about racial segregation and the way Muslim women should behave. For the witty joker, you have the (at times) nasty, bitter man. For the staunch anti-war protester, you have the (at times) racist sectarian. For the man who demanded respect, he (at times) showed little to no respect to those who clearly deserved it, his wives.

    One of the greatest boxers undoubtedly. The greatest? I don't know, but anyone who says he is is hardly miles off, so that's fine by me. But the man? More inspirational than most, but equally more flawed.

    Call me old fashioned but I prefer that the person we decide is 'the greatest' didn't have quite so many question marks.

  • Comment number 37.

    We do not have to look far from the ring to identify another hugely charismatic sportsman who exhibited great personal courage, talent and a predilection for controversy. As Ali himself acknowledged, John Arthur ("Jack") Johnson's life greatly influenced and inspired him.

  • Comment number 38.

    As a young boy in boarding school in Kenya I remember waking up at some ungodly hour to listen to the "rumble in the jungle" on the radio. That night a sporting god was born to me and many others. His political and social stands further elevate him above the mere physical - Yes he has flaws but paradoxically that is what makes him believable and totally real

  • Comment number 39.

    #26 owen goal

    you have obviously never sparred or trained with boxers or been anywhere near a boxing ring. low skilled sport compared to nearly every other sport - I would love to hear any form of argument for that outlandish statement

  • Comment number 40.

    As a sportsman there is no doubt he is one of the best.
    As a human being, the more I learn about Ali the more I dislike.
    His treatment of Fraiser was disgusting.
    Some of his views and his preaching leave a lot to be desired.
    Not someone I would look up to or admire due to the way he conducted himself.

  • Comment number 41.

    It is a shame that so many on here are quick to condemn Ali for his political views without acknowledging that he was a product of his era. Yes, if he said some of the things he said today he would be jumped upon, and rightly so. But then today you are a lot less likely to be hung as a black man looking at a white woman, or be tarred and feathered for being in the wrong part of town.

    As he has aged, and as society has changed so have his views. Perspective is needed when looking at his beliefs and statements.

  • Comment number 42.

    It is interesting that for all the eulogising going on, the racist and bigoted comments he was want to spout (a la Parkinson show) seem to be "conveniently forgotten"........great boxer maybe but great man definitely not.

  • Comment number 43.

    As for the blog - very interesting and very well balanced in all the evidence you give Tom, however the only thing for me that then lacks balance is your judgement.

    Similar to Joe G I personally cannot label him the greatest ever in sport. He is a legend in boxing, but I think Sugar Ray Robinson was the best ever boxer for me for a start.

    Although in many ways he did transcend the sport and will be remembered for many other things than boxing, for me too many of the other things are of extremely bad taste. Yes with age he has mellowed but his treatment of Joe Frazier and his extreme sectarian views cannot be part of the make-up of the greatest sportsman ever.

    Tiger Woods for me is the greatest techincal golfer of all time, but he isnt the greatest golfing sportsman because of his behaviour and attitude on and off the course.

  • Comment number 44.

    A lot of people don't seem to understand what the term "the greatest" actually means, out its not about being the best, it's about the impact you have, Ali didn't just fight boxers, but injustice both racially and religiously, he stood up for the innocent victims of the Vietnam war, he stood up to governments that though it ok for a black man to win olympic gold medal but not sit down on a bus, even now, with out even meaning to he is fighting to raise awareness for a horrible illness that effects millions of lives around the world, that's why for me he's the greatest sportsman ever

  • Comment number 45.

    Even after all these years people still have a very romantic take on who Ali was. He was one of the greatest boxers of his generation (note generation not all time) and a very egocentric human being. So the greatest ever? Not in his own field and not in all sports, not by a long shot. I pity him because of his state, and I am certain part of the general public's valuation of the man is influenced by pity.

  • Comment number 46.

    I think #26 scored an Own Goal with that comment

  • Comment number 47.

    Well thought out article- he definitely stood out among the best sportsman.

    "raging against the dying of the light "

    and you even included a great line from a famous non sportsman- excellent work!

  • Comment number 48.

    @ 36 very nicely put

  • Comment number 49.

    A small matter but Pele won three World Cup winners medals....

  • Comment number 50.

    Why do people still say Ali suffers from Parkinson's Disease? He does not. He suffers from Parkinsonism, which is caused by repeated blows to the head. The symptoms are similar, hence the similarity in naming. The cause is decidedly different. Remarkable how this has been kept quiet under the misinformation of publicists. And yes, actually I AM a doctor.

  • Comment number 51.

    the pathetic figure that Ali has cut over the last 20 odd years is testament to the sheer barbarity of this so called sport. We are a civilized society in the 21st century. Boxing has no place in such a society and should be banned forthwith. Alternatively, the rules might be adapted to make it 'non-contact'. Any thoughts on this idea?

  • Comment number 52.

    How does Tiger Woods make it into an article about Ali, or Federer, or any of the other sportsmen listed, for that matter? Ali was loved, put simply. He was loved because he was the best at what he did, he did it with elegance, grace, beauty and flair, then he made everyone laugh their heads off. Personality, they used to call it in those days. McEnroe had it. A handful of others, too. But Ali? He just knew how to make us love him.....

  • Comment number 53.

    M'Ali was probably the first global superstar, probably the only sportsman who you could take a photograph of to China/Africa/Middle-East etc and be recognised by most. Other greats eg Pele, Jordan, Bradman, Maradonna, Woods, Nicklaus are known to limited audiences.

  • Comment number 54.

    51 - You are joking? I hope so otherwise you are a monumental idiot.

  • Comment number 55.

    @51 would you then make every sport non contact? an individual entering into such a sport knows the risks and I'm sure it wont be long before the health and safety gang get onto boxing and ruin the sport. Would you also make matial arts non contact? and would you also ban motor racing? and what about the dangers of shark attack when surfing? every sport comes with its own risk on injury weather that be brain or any other part of the body

  • Comment number 56.

    There will always be people who dismiss boxing as a sport because of the violence, just as people dismiss darts or golf as 'games not sports', surfing or angling as 'hobbies' and baseball, basketball etc as 'minority sports' because of the limited global appeal (for example there only being one country they're big money sports in). This is all down to opinion, not facts. Judging someone's greatness on their relative achievements in sport or their worldwide fame inside and outside sport will always be subjective. I still stand by my statement that although Ali wasn't the greatest boxer and boxing isn't the most popular sport, Ali was the greatest sportsman. Yes, he had monumental character flaws but he outgrew them. Ask him now about segregation, about his opinions on people of other races or religions, about the men he so cruelly insulted and the older, wiser Ali is full of regret and atonement. Ali since retirement is still iconic and inspirational, just in a different way. How many people say that about other former great sportsmen or women, many of whom you wouldn't recognise if you saw them outside their sporting prime.

  • Comment number 57.

    @55 All sport comes with inherent risks, I agree. In my own sport, darts, there is the risk of a dart taking an unforseen rebound or miraculous richochet and causing pototentially debilitating injury. However, the fundemental difference between boxing and say three day eventing is that it is the principal aim of the participant to hurt/injure his opponent.

    Non-contact boxing would generally lead to points decisions thus giving the fan a guaranteed 12 rounds of action, rather than these massively hyped fights that end in a matter of seconds or a few minutes. Furthermore, the participants would be at no risk to their well being. A win/win situation, I hope you will agree.

  • Comment number 58.

    @57 sorry totally disagree. as previously stated if you enter to take part in such a sport you understand the risks involved. I am a keen boxer and I can make my own decision on taking part in such a sport or not, I would not want the health and safety brigade making this decision on my behalf. This would make professional boxing followed as much as amature boxing, suck all the revenue out of the sport and subsiquently professional boxing would no longer exist. I would suggest any form of motor racing is far more dangerous than boxing. In this day and age it seems other people want to make decisions for us, I know the risks involved when I put my gloves on, its my choice, no one elses

  • Comment number 59.

    "Ali isn't the greatest boxer of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson is." - Maybe.

    "Ali isn't the greatest Heavyweight boxer of all time, surely Joe Lewis takes that crown." - Absolutely not.

    Ali dominated boxing with sheer skill. Then we were deprived of 3 prime years. And then a transformed Ali came back to dominate a whole new generation; this time with his mind, heart and just pure will (for reference look no further than the 'Thrilla in Manilla' & 'The Rumble in the Jungle'). I'm not so sure anyone else could have done that. But I guess that's just my opinion...

  • Comment number 60.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 61.

    Whether Ali is suffering from 'pugilistic parkinsonism,' or classic progressive Parkinson's disease will not be concluded with anything approaching diagnostic certainty until autopsy. Statements to the contrary are therefore 'opinion', whether informed through clinical observation or otherwise. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is of course commonly associated with contact sport athletes.

  • Comment number 62.

    @57 - Clearly you were not joking. Boxing is actually one of the most medically aware sports nowadays due to the plethora of medical experts around a ring at every fight. It has come a long way in the last 20 years as a result of the injuries to Michael Watson, Gerald McClellan etc. The risks are still there but what risks are not there in sport? Rugby is just as violent. Would you make that a no contact sport? Would you remove contact from all sport? It is people like you that want to ban children from climbing trees and playing on school fields for fear of hurting themselves or their feelings in case they lost. Boxing has been around for centuries and has social and health benefits. Many a boxer credits boxing for getting them off the street and away from a life of crime. Never heard that about darts.....

  • Comment number 63.

    @62 here here. well said, same as the PC gang. none of the things you mention held me back in my life as a child. I feel sorry for children these days! play parks will be banned soon!

  • Comment number 64.

    Sorry Red-Manc - I bet I came across all big headed. I meant that in my opinion SRR was the greatest and Joe Louis the greatest HW. Like you said, just my opinion. As for so many top class victories against so many top class opponents, coupled with effectively changing the sport by upping the ante - only a select few could conceivably stand a chance. That Ali was robbed of his peak years and effectively had 2 top class boxing careers just adds to his greatness. One thing's for sure - Ali will always epitomise boxing for most people.

  • Comment number 65.

    @63. This is a sporting nation and the imbeciles who want to change it because of their own PC agendas or H&S regulations are ruining sport and the nation for future generations. I let my kids play and hurt themselves so they can learn to do it better. They lose at games so they know what it feels like. They get into something knowing the consequences. Wrap them up in cotton wool and they become pathetic and socially inept. We need to breed winners in every walk of life, not just sport. We don't want a nation of tippy toes who are scared to do anything for fear of hurting someone.

  • Comment number 66.

    @ 41 - Best most thought out comment yet. The Ali of today is not the Ali that was a member of the Nation of Islam. They breeded hate and violence; since he left and learnt more about his religion, his views and beliefs have also changed.

  • Comment number 67.

    @ 64 - Agreed!

  • Comment number 68.

    To understand his chrisma one must entirely think beyond the camparison. During his time there were many things like .. specially racism, segregation etc and specially media were not so independent like now. So what he achieved in that time no one even can dream about that. I also would like to appreciate the BBC that have a unique way of judgement that other media of the world are unable to achieve. Muhammad Ali is name that will be remembered as a icon in the world because of his love for humans.

  • Comment number 69.

    Great article but for me the 'greatest' has to be Don Bradman in terms of dominance over all peers. Sportswoman? I minded to go for Fanny Blankers-Koen. I am not old enough to have seen either but from what I read their exploits were tremendous. Politically, I would also have Jesse Owens above Ali but hey, that's just me.

  • Comment number 70.

    Ring Magazine's 90th anniversary celebratory edition lists the top ten pound-for-pound boxers as: Ray Robinson, Harry Greb, Henry Armstrong, Ezzard Charles, Roberto Duran; Willie Pep, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Louis and Pernell Whitaker.

    It's hard to imagine that Ali's not its greatest star though. He seems to have displayed immense courage for his entire life...

  • Comment number 71.

    Anyone who doubt's that Ali is 'The Greatest', do yourself a favour and read 'Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times' by Thomas Hauser. The fact is that he achieved all of the feats Tom sets out above, and yet never boxed in what many consider to be his prime, due to his ban. Ever other athlete mentioned above, has not had that handicap in their pursuit of greatness, and that's a fact.

  • Comment number 72.

    Nice article. Ali is most definitely the greatest, in my humble opinion. Those judging his political statements need to understand the context in which they were made. And I agree with #71 - Thomas Hauser's book is worth a read. But I'd read Malcolm X biog as well, for an at times different perspective on the influence that some in the Nation of Islam had on Muhammad at that time. He's a different man now, as we all are, but he's still the greatest.

  • Comment number 73.

    I am fortunate to just remeber Ali if not in his prime then still as world champion and a wonderful entertainer in and out of the ring. I am not a boxing expert so will let others decide if he was or was not the greatest time.
    That he is the greatest sports personality of all time can be in little if any doubt, no other sprotsman or woman will ever be able to count so many fans, never will any sportsman or woman ever be so instantly recognisable across the globe, and never will any sportsman be able to make such brash and brazen statements without being vilified.
    As a man he had and has flaws as a boxer he had at least equals, foreman and frazier to name but two, but as a personality he had, has, nor will ever have in my opinion, NO equal.

  • Comment number 74.

    my greatest 10 sportsman of all time for their ability and the impact they had on their sport

    ray robinson
    micheal jordan
    jack nicholas
    tiger woods
    don bradman

  • Comment number 75.

    Ali isn't the greatest Heavyweight boxer of all time, surely Joe Lewis takes that crown."

    thats for people who try to create a debate where there isant one, louis supporters will always try to justify why they think hes the best hw ever, while ali supporters dnt bother and let the evidence speak for itself

  • Comment number 76.

    For me, the greatest sporting figure was a contemporary of Ali. And this champ never said a negative thing, except perhaps "Neigh". I am talking about the phenomenon that was Arkle.

  • Comment number 77.

    Firstly I wasn't around to see him in his prime and only have documentaries and articles to go by. However I am a huge boxing fan so obviously I was very interested in learning about 'The Greatest'. What I found for myself was very interesting. As a boxer he was gifted with some great physical gifts and could come up with some great game plans based upon those gifts (rope-a-dope was genius, as was making the fight take place outside in Zaire, all designed to tire out Foreman). He had a great chin in his prime (possibly leading to all his problems nowadays) and had excellent footwork and speed. However, I don't believe he is the best boxer that has ever lived as his skills weren't the best. Just ask Larry Holmes how overrated Ali was!

    HOWEVER, as a person I don't think Ali is as great as people believe he was. Most people are vaguely aware that he didn't fight in Vietnam because of religious reasons and put him forward as someone who stuck by their beliefs. However these are some lesser known facts about Ali that make me cringe when I hear about all this glorification of Ali:

    1) You criticised Woods for his private life but Ali was as bad as a womaniser. Famously he left his wife back in the US for the Thrilla in Manilla and was parading his girlfriend around, even introducing her to the ruler of the Philipines at the time.
    2) As post 6 pointed out his treatment of Frazier (and others) was disgusting. One black man calling another Uncle Tom and gorilla are amongst the worst insults imaginable.
    3) Ali was incredibly racist. Watch some of his interviews (even the one mentioned in the article with Parkinson). This is above and beyond fighting for black rights. He was manipulated by the Nation of Islam and believed such things as:

    - "All Jews and gentiles are devils… Blacks are no devils… Everything black people doing wrong comes from [the white people]: Drinking, smoking, prostitution, homosexuality, stealing, gambling: It all comes from [the white people]"
    - "You got the white racists who believe in separation such as I believe: One day the black people of America must go to self, clean up self, help self, do for self. I recognize [the white racists]."
    - "No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters."
    - Teachings of the Nation of Islam:

    The original black race of man is superior, especially to the white man.

    Yakub (a scientist from 6600 years ago) is responsible for creating the white race, a "race of devils".

    Allah who came in the person of W. D. Fard Muhammad (founder of the Nation of Islam, pronounced Farad), and the 24 Black scientists that selected him to be God. The 24 Black scientists (or 24 Black elders) have the supernatural ability to write the history of the universe.

    The Honorable Elijah Muhammad told us of a giant Mother Plane that is made like the universe, spheres within spheres. White people call them UFOs… It took $15 billion in gold at that time to build it. It is made of the toughest steel… Because of its circular nature it can stop and travel in all directions at speeds of thousands of miles per hour.

    Like post 6 states, 'Sometimes you have to look beyond the image, the myths, and get to the bottom line.'

    I'll leave you with a quote from Martin Luther King:
    "When Cassius Clay joined the Black Muslims he became a champion of the racial segregation and that is what we are fighting against."

  • Comment number 78.

    Pele actually won three world cups, 58,62 and 70

  • Comment number 79.

    for those questioning his stance on the war.

    like the great man said "no vietcong ever called me n*****"

    nuff said

    you wanna lose yo money then bet on sunny.

  • Comment number 80.

    oh! and his treatment of frazier.

    they were friends for a long time, ali knew frazier was probably his toughest opponent he would face at the time and had to get to him. although it only "just" worked. ali inside would have had massive respect for joe

    RIP Smokin Joe

  • Comment number 81.

    You forgot to add Oleg Luzhny

  • Comment number 82.

    what 44 said.

    also i think he was brainwashed by elijah muhammad and that crew, they seen an outspoken intelligent man and used him. he should have stuck to being himself he still would have made the same impact on race and whatnot at the time.

  • Comment number 83.

    at the end of the day out of all the great sportsmen you have in your head who are you most likely to watch a documentary or be interested in?

    only one for me.

  • Comment number 84.


    or maybe he went on that show too often. lol

    i had to.

  • Comment number 85.

    Post 78

    Pele did only win 2 World Cups, he did not feature in the 1962 Final due to injury.

    PS Ali was and is The Greatest!

  • Comment number 86.


    no he won 3, he took part in 62 for a couple games which was enough for a winners medal. dont matter if he was in the final or not.

    just to clarify

  • Comment number 87.

    Great boxer and biggest personality in boxing but greatest sportsman - no. One name you failed to mention despite your cricket background is Syd Barnes. All the great cricketers agree he was the best bowler of all time but add to that a personality which transcended the game by telling the authorities where to go - even when they were Lords and he was meant to doff his cap. He would be my choice. A mind and personality as strong as Ali without the doubt over his sporting pre-eminence.

  • Comment number 88.

    There is no doubt that Ali was a great boxer, but I would rate Sugar Ray Leonard as the greatest boxer that ever lived. As to the greatest sportsman - no, a long way off.

  • Comment number 89.

    87, the most appropriate YAWN iv ever had.

    88, who has made more of an impact in there sport? another appropriate YAWN

  • Comment number 90.

    Meido, probably starting with someone who can spell!

  • Comment number 91.

    89; comment from knowledge, not ignorance, and your contributions may be taken more seriously.

  • Comment number 92.

    90, oh my im going to lose sleep now. where will my yawns come from now?

    91, appreciated

  • Comment number 93.

    75 united_kaz

    What a well thought out argument - you're right because you say you are basically. The trouble with something as subjective as who the greatest is and pitching people from different eras together is that which evidence you use is subjective too. Louis arguably achieved enough in boxing to be regarded as the greatest and is generally regarded the greatest HW among boxing historians but that's their opinion and just as you can't conclusively prove who's best out of SRR, SRL or FMJ for example, there isn't 'evidence' that Louis or Ali was the greatest in the ring.

  • Comment number 94.

    end of the day people will still be talking about ali in another 50 years compared to your(ahem) syd barnes.

    oh and gaz!! how much do you think ali influenced sugar ray leonard?

  • Comment number 95.

    Sounds like Meido needs a sleep, so that he doesnt have to engage his brain (if he has one). 93 is spot on - what criteria are being used here? If it were the most confident sportsperson, then Ali would be up there. Perhaps some blogs on criteria - is it personality, "winning" record, impact across the entire globe, what?
    Forget all the racist/historical blurb - who cares?

  • Comment number 96.

    anyway for me "o fenomeno" ronaldo is the greatest sportsman in my eyes.

  • Comment number 97.

    This, although better than david bonds blog still seems very pc.

    Tiger woods and jordon and no where near greats in there sports. Jack nickaluas and larry bird have achieved far greater heights against far better opposition.

    Mohammed ali was a nasty piece of work.

    Overated boxer who lost to norton 3 times, and robbed a lightheavyweight(in todays standards) in henry cooper of a knock out.

    Vitali klitscko would destroy mohammed ali.

    Boxing was worse then because the eastern europeans and cubans were banned due to communism. So only the americans and brits really participaTED, certainly at heavyweight level. Even though the russians dominated the olympic boxing.

    Also vitali had better ko ration than every heavyweight boxer ever...Hes never been down on the score cards or on the canvas.

    If ali in his prime could get clocked by henry cooper, goodness knows what wlad and especially vitali would do to ali.

    Imagine if calzaghe was a member of the bnp while having his reign of greatest ever super middle weight???

  • Comment number 98.

    true i have limitations and try to sound like i know stuff, it obviously doesn't work.

    why resort to criteria when it's as plain as the nose on your face.

    people think too much into what is obvious.

  • Comment number 99.

    Meido; sorry if I was a bit touchy. Sticking to boxing, why so little support for Henry (Homicide Hank) Armstrong. Simultaneous holder of 3 titles at different weights when only the main weight categories existed. General view that he won a 4th at middleweight and was robbed. Used his fame for good in retirement at a time when that was uncommon. Style wise I wonder if Marciano based his style on Armstrong which would make him even more significant.

  • Comment number 100.


    no worries dude im open to criticism and understand im not the sharpest knife in the drawer. ; )

    sorry but i cant comment on henry due to lack of knowledge although i will look him up.


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