Sonny Liston, TKO (7) — Feb. 25, 1964, Miami Beach Convention Center: Cassius Clay fought, bragged and trash-talked his way into this fight. He played with Liston’s mind by acting crazy at the weigh-in. Still, Ali later admitted this was the one fight he wasn’t sure he could win. Hardly anybody else thought he could. Clay’s body and head movement caused Liston to chase and miss punches, both of which drained the undertrained, overconfident champion. Meanwhile, Clay’s rapid combinations brought blood to Liston. After Clay survived being blinded by liniment on Liston’s gloves in Rounds 4 and 5, he resumed taking apart Liston in Round 6. Liston quit on his stool, claiming a sore shoulder. To cap a historic upset, Clay roared two all-time quotes: “I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” and, “I’m a baaaad man!”
Sonny Liston, KO (1) — May 25, 1965, St. Dominic’s Hall, Lewiston, Maine: Enough conspiracy theories, you expect the fight film to be shot by Zapruder. Did Liston get hit? Or, did he take a dive inspired by death threats from black Muslims, to win a bet against himself, to satisfy some Mafia debt? Boxing politics and shady characters got the fight run out of Boston and into a small fishing town’s hockey rink. Rumors of hit men ready to avenge Malcolm X’s assassination by taking out Ali filled the media. Ali rarely scored knockouts via one punch and never in the first round. Liston faced bazooka-blasters such as Cleveland Williams without falling. Yet, when Ali landed a chopping right to Liston’s head, Sonny went down. Ali stood over him, yelling “Get up, you bum!” an image Sports Illustrated’s Neil Leifer caught for history. Then, Ali ran around the ring with arms raised while referee Jersey Joe Walcott failed to pick up a count or give Liston a count. Liston eventually got off the floor. Walcott restarted the fight, then went to the timekeeper, who said Liston was down for longer than 10. Walcott stopped the fight as cries of “Fix” shot through the arena.
Cleveland Williams, TKO (3) — Nov. 14, 1966, Houston Astrodome: Ali respected Williams’ punching power and age. Both out of business and mercy, he swiftly punched Williams into four knockdowns while unveiling The Ali Shuffle. CompuBox calculated Ali landed 62 percent of his punches while Williams landed only 10 punches total. Most boxing historians — including Mike Tyson — point to this fight when identifying Ali’s peak as a fighter.
Zora Folley, KO (7) — Mar. 22, 1967, Madison Square Garden: How good was Ali in his last fight before his exile for refusing the draft? Folley, an expert technical boxer with a good punch, knew every slick trick. He said afterwards Ali confounded him. Ali dropped Folley twice earlier in the fight before a chopping right hand ended things in the seventh.
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Oscar Bonavena, TKO (15) — Dec. 7, 1970, Madison Square Garden: Crude and ruggedly strong, Bonavena usually made for a long, hard night. And he took Ali, still rusty from three years out of the ring, into the 15th round of Ali’s second post-exile fight. Ali shattered Bonavena’s world with a left hook. The Argentine got up, but Ali dropped him twice more to stop the fight. In a solid career that included a fight with Jimmy Ellis, two with Joe Frazier and two with Folley, nobody knocked out Bonavena. Except Ali.
Joe Frazier, L (15) — Mar. 8, 1971, Madison Square Garden: The Thrilla in Manila was better. This was bigger, a cross-cultural event that stopped the world. Undefeated former champion Ali vs. undefeated current champion Frazier. Boxer vs. Slugger. Ali painted Frazier, a friend who had loaned Ali money during his exile, as a favorite of The Man. Ali landed more punches, Frazier landed heavier ones and dictated the pace. An 11th-round left hook knocked Ali halfway to Brooklyn but didn’t knock him down. Another massive left hook in the 15th round did. Ali rose, ending any questions about his chin. Frazier won more rounds, then spent more time in the hospital. Ali and Frazier each made a record $2.5 million.
Ken Norton, W (12) — Sept. 9, 1973, The Forum, Los Angeles: Arms folded just below his eyes in a modified peek-a-boo defense, with a well-timed jab and hard money shots, Norton was The Nemesis. Nobody gave Ali more problems. Norton broke Ali’s jaw in winning a split decision in their first meeting. The rematch came down to the 12th round. Lose the round, lose the fight, lose contender status for a year, maybe forever. Ali won it and took a split decision.
George Foreman, KO (8) — Oct. 30, 1974, Zaire: The Rumble in the Jungle. Foreman won and defended the title by destroying Ali conquerors Frazier and Norton, each in two rounds. But matchups decide fights, including matchup of venue. Africa discomforted Foreman. With that, the local support and a sense of cultural history, Ali drew strength from the locale. He also improvised the “Rope-A-Dope.” Instead of his famed “dancing,” Ali lay on the loose ropes with arms up and head leaning far back to seduce Foreman into punching himself into exhaustion. Foreman rarely landed to the head or cleanly to the body. Occasionally, Ali exploded off the ropes with counterpunches to Foreman’s head. Foreman looked ready for bed at the seventh-round bell. Near the end of the eighth, Ali knocked out the sleepwalking Foreman with a five-punch combination. Jack Newfield’s book, Only In America: The Life and Crimes of Don King, quotes Ali as saying the peak of his career was getting the heavyweight title back in Africa.
Joe Frazier, TKO (15) — Oct. 1, 1975, Manila, Phillipines: The Thrilla in Manila. What did Frazier have left? Not much, it seemed, as Ali treated him like a T-ball through the first three rounds. Then, Frazier’s body shots and fury-fueled hooks to the head bludgeoned Ali to “the closest thing I’ve felt to death.” Frazier’s strength ebbed. Ali’s seemed to wax. He pummeled Frazier into blindness during the 13th and 14th, knocking Frazier’s mouthpiece into the crowd in the 13th. Frazier refused to fall, but his inability to see the right hands raining on his head caused trainer Eddie Futch to stop the fight before the 15th round. Ali nearly collapsed rising from his stool to celebrate. It’s axiomatic in the boxing world that both should have retired after this fight.
Earnie Shavers, W (15) — Sept. 29, 1977, Madison Square Garden: Former Miami Herald writer Pat Putnam, considered the premier boxing writer of his era, pointed to this fight as showing Ali’s great heart. Nobody hit harder than Shavers — ever. Ali, then 35, survived a Shavers right in the second round by playacting to fool Shavers. With flurries and charisma, Ali built enough of a lead after 12 that he could lose only by knockout. That seemed possible as Shavers pounded Ali through the 13th and 14th. Ali wobbled unsteadily before the 15th. According to Putnam’s Sports Illustrated story on the fight, Angelo Dundee said, “You don’t look so good. You better go out and take this round.” Which Ali did with a closing flurry that almost floored Shavers.