The old saying, “different fighters make different fights against different fighters,” just means “it’s all about the matchup.”
Ali’s greatness lay in being an unorthodox, horrible matchup. Only Ken Norton, The Ali Nemesis, could claim to beating an Ali who wasn’t rusty (first Joe Frazier fight) or should’ve-been-retired (Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes, Trevor Berbick).
Ali combined 6-3 height, long arms and a darting mobility to ghostly elusiveness. A clean strike on Ali, even by the heavyweights’ nuclear powers, guaranteed nothing — in 71 rounds over seven fights against fabled sluggers Earnie Shavers, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman, Ali hit the deck once. His only KO or TKO loss came against a prime Holmes in a comeback fight at 38 while already showing early signs of Parkinson disease.
His hand speed and reach made his jab a perfect defensive and offensive weapon, as well as setting up combinations. His knockouts rarely came from a single lightning bolt but a combination storm. Or just an accumulation of punishment. In the “championship rounds,” 10 thorugh 15, Ali tended to close like a champion.
Finally, Ali was a thinker. His mind games unsteadied as many opponents as his right cross. During fights, he could improvise deftly as Miles Davis. And many a believer draws strength from their faith. Ali often created a sense for himself that he was fighting for something more than just a win.
ALI vs. JIM JEFFRIES (champion 1899-1904)
At 6-0 and 210-220, Jeffries was the first modern-sized heavyweight champion, incredibly huge and strong for his era. He lost only when coming out of an almost six-year retirement to fight Jack Johnson as the original Great White Hope. Ali called Jeffries “history’s most slow-footed heavyweight,” but fighting out of his crouch, Jeffries would have given Ali defensive problems similar to those that Ken Norton did. An early 1900s referee wouldn’t have broken them from clinches quickly, allowing Jeffries to bang on the inside with a free arm. Ali didn’t have an inside game other than pulling down on an opponents’ neck. Still, Jeffries nearly got undone by Jim Corbett’s boxing ability. With similar ability, Ali punched faster, harder and with combinations, something rare in Jeffries’ single-shot era. Look for an Ali TKO sometime around the 12th or 13th round.
ALI vs. JACK JOHNSON (champion 1908-15)
This match looks better on the marquee than in the ring. Boxing connoisseurs enjoy two big men showing off “the manly art of self-defense,” but to everyone else, it’s like watching two shy people trying to ask each other on a date. Ali preferred facing aggressive sluggers. Johnson possessed power, but liked showing off his defense, the original heavyweight “cutie with a kick.” Each dispenses with his usual trash talk, knowing the other guy’s a master at getting into heads, too. In a contest filled with subtle feints and blocked punches. Johnson would hurt Ali with a shot or two, but doesn’t follow up quickly enough. Ali’s greater volume of punches gets him a decision.
ALI vs. JACK DEMPSEY (champion 1919-26)
At his peak, Dempsey might have been the most entertaining heavyweight ever — a pouncing attacker and very good puncher whose defense was his offense. He would have forced Ali to fight at a breathtaking pace the first few rounds and might have dropped Ali with a left hook over Ali’s low hands. Meanwhile, Ali’s jabs and counters give Dempsey’s head the bongo treatment. Unless Dempsey scored a knockout early, Ali’s endurance advantage would come into play around Round 6 or 7. As The Manassa Mauler’s charge slows, it turns into target practice for the Louisville Lip. Ali punches out a stoppage around Round 10.
ALI vs. JOE LOUIS (champion 1937-49)
Like Ali, Louis’ boxing intelligence often gets underrated. And when Louis got you in trouble, he got you out with power shots fired at breathtaking speed. Louis’ offense reduced his mediocre defense to irrelevance. Even at his peak, slick boxers (Bob Pastor, Billy Conn) flummoxed Louis. Ali uses his length, foot speed and torso movement to do the same. Also, the same right hands Conn and Max Schmeling fired over Louis’ famously lowered left strike with greater volume from Ali. Each time Louis hurts Ali with two-punch combinations, Ali dips and dodges before Louis’ fires his knockout flurry. They make it to a decision, which goes to Ali.
ALI vs. ROCKY MARCIANO (champion 1952-56)
Even Ali said he wasn’t sure how he’d fare against Marciano, who went 49-0 (43 KOs) during a pretty arid heavyweight era. Marciano possessed many similar elements to Ali archrival Joe Frazier — big punch, relentlessness — but with a better chin. Marciano cut much more readily and his free-swinging style could leave him wide open. Also, Ali wouldn’t just be Marciano’s fastest opponent, but his biggest — 4 to 5 inches taller than The Rock, 10 inches longer in reach and 25 pounds heavier. The Brockton Blockbuster could be a slow starter against savvy boxers. Marciano’s body attack gets going around Round 4 or 5 as he starts to get inside by rolling under Ali’s punches. After that, the fight starts to look like The Thrilla in Manila painted with slasher flick blood, all of it Marciano’s. Marciano’s got Ali gasping in the late rounds. But Ali lands more punches, and the bloody visuals help Ali land a unanimous decision if ringside doctors don’t stop it.
ALI vs. LARRY HOLMES (champion 1978-85)
Forget the 1980 fight in which a peak Holmes battered an Ali who shouldn’t have been allowed inside a ring. Holmes, a former Ali sparring partner, always said he was prouder of getting a black eye from Ali when Holmes was young than beating Ali when Ali was old. Holmes’ writes in his autobiography that Ali’s No. 1 among heavies in his mind. But they mirrored each other in skills, height, length, ring smarts and ability to handle in-fight adversity. More long-range fencing duel than slugfest, neither draws blood although they do draw a few chuckles from each other with in-fight banter. A tough fight to judge that Holmes might win in the ring and lose to Ali’s charisma on the judges’ scorecards.
ALI vs. MIKE TYSON (champion 1986-90, 1995-96)
There’s a school of thought that says you’d take Ali over his whole career, but for one night, you’d want the summer 1988 Tyson who destroyed Michael Spinks in 91 seconds. Everybody knows Tyson’s offense — fast, tight power shots up and down, doubling and, sometimes, tripling hooks and uppercuts. But pre-1989 Tyson well-deployed peek-a-boo defense and head movement “makes you special,” manager Jim Jacobs told him. Ali finds Tyson harder to hit than expected. Once Tyson’s inside, Ali takes some brutal shots in Rounds 2-4. Tyson can’t quite cut the ring off, so Ali’s reach advantage emerges as a dominant element. Tyson keeps running into combinations that rattle more than hurt. Ali’s running rap before and during the fight mentally uproot Tyson. Mad and tired around Round 10, Tyson sloppily misses an overhand right against a dodging Ali. Off balance, Tyson gets his mouthpiece sent sailing by an Ali left hook. The ensuing fusillade floors Tyson. He gets up but Ali’s now coronary serious. Tyson goes in the next two rounds.