Few will disagree that the heavyweight division was noticeably present in the American sporting lexicon before Muhammad Ali’s emergence in the 1960s.
After all, the link of heavyweight champions — dating to the early 1900s — usually featured a titleholder who gained immediate acceptance and recognition from fans.
Jack Johnson, though not universally admired but nonetheless recognized as champion, was noted for his early 20th century dominance. Jack Dempsey personified heavyweight supremacy in the 1920s, while Joe Louis’ graceful and inspiring 12-year reign was a rallying cry for many Americans before and during World War II. With the advent of television, Rocky Marciano penetrated the public consciousness in the postwar period.
There was identity with many heavyweight champions through the Marciano era. But when Ali “shocked the world” in his title-winning performance against Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center in February 1964, his victory not only made a mark on boxing, it transcended the sport.
Ali, who died Friday, became the world’s most recognized athlete. And, consequently, boxing and the heavyweight division benefited from his legacy.
Ali headed what became the division’s golden era. Even during his three-year exile for refusing military service in the late 1960s, Ali towered over the division as fighters, including eventual rival Joe Frazier, won the titles that were stripped from Ali because of his suspension.
Before Ali, heavyweights didn’t display his speed and boxing skill. Although he lacked the power of Marciano, Liston, George Foreman or later Mike Tyson, Ali repeatedly peppered and wore down opponents with volume punching.
Ali’s riveting rivalry with nemesis Frazier, dethroning Foreman and becoming the first heavyweight to win the title three times were among Ali’s ring accomplishments that will remain topics of conversation for future generations.
“Ali was a man of the people,” said promoter Don King, who helped promote the Ali-Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire in 1974. “He worked for the betterment of mankind and that made his fights universally relevant.”
King also promoted the third Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manila” fight in the Philippines. The grueling bout, which Ali won after Frazier failed to answer the bell for the 15th round, remains one of the top heavyweight bouts in history.
“Ali’s fights were backed by people power,” King said. “And this was during an age without the capability of the technology we have today. Can you imagine the attention his fights would receive nowadays?”
As Ali elevated the heavyweights’ status, seven-figure purses became the norm for the elite fighters and eventually the top athletes in other sports.
“He was the tree that bore the fruit of what athletes earn today,” King said. “When we put together the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ Ali and Foreman made $5 million each. If that fight happens today, it wouldn’t shock you if his purse reached $500 million.
“Fighters like [Floyd] Mayweather and [Manny] Pacquiao owe a lot to Ali. Because of Ali, they have benefited from lucrative paydays.”
With Ali’s huge presence, the letdown seemed inevitable after his retirement in 1980. Larry Holmes is now considered one of the sport’s greatest heavyweight champions, but following Ali denied Holmes the recognition he deserved. The talent depth also slipped during Holmes’ seven-year title run.
Knockout menace Tyson came the closest to matching Ali’s international recognition when he burst onto the scene in the mid-1980s.
Tyson’s quick victories were popular highlight reels on the growing cable sports landscape. And Tyson cleaned up what was a watered down division of multiple champions beginning with his second round knockout of Trevor Berbick to become the youngest fighter to win a heavyweight belt.
But noteworthy champions who followed Tyson, particularly Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, couldn’t capture the public’s appeal like Ali. Although Holyfield and Lewis enjoyed successful reigns, the division began slipping in significance.
Only Foreman’s ring return, following a 10-year- retirement that was punctuated by his title-winning performance at age 45 in 1994, did the heavyweights enjoy brief mass appeal.
The Ali influence continues to overwhelm a division, which currently is at its lowest level of acceptance by American fight fans. Forget about crossover recognition exemplified by Ali and the champions who preceded him. The modern heavyweight division is lost deep in the wilderness with no captivating savior in sight.
Friday (11 p.m., CBS Sports Network): Demond Brock vs. Jesus Gutierrez, 10, lightweights.
Saturday (9 p.m., Showtime): Ruslan Provodnikov vs. John Molina, 12, junior welterweights; Demetrius Andrade vs. Willie Nelson, 12, junior middleweights.
Saturday (10 p.m., HBO): Roman Martinez vs. Vasyl Lomachenko, 12, for Martinez’s WBO junior-lightweight title; Felix Verdejo vs. Juan Martinez, 12, lightweights.