Why Muhammad Ali Is Still Bigger Than Boxing
Today is the living legend’s 70th birthday and in a news cycle that barely lasts 24 minutes, let alone 24 hours, the day’s blogs and newspapers and newscasts will pay homage once again to The Greatest. This is as it should be.
It is impossible for any of our current sports stars to approach the magnitude of Muhammad Ali’s status in the 1960s and 70s. In the entire history of professional sports, let alone boxing, no one was bigger, no one had more impact. Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Jim Brown, Pelé, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan — all icons of sport whose names will live on, but the shadow they each cast is dwarfed by that of the man who became a great boxer, a sporting legend, a political lightning rod, and a force for cultural change all at the same time.
For the purposes of this brief tribute, we will limit our focus to Ali’s impact on the sport of boxing. His relevance to the social changes which shook the world in the 1960s, and the courage he displayed in forging his own identity as a Muslim and refusing to be drafted into the Vietnam War, will be discussed by many today, but time and space are limited and this website is about, first and foremost, the squared circle. Ali liked to boast that not only was he “The Greatest,” but that he was “bigger than boxing.” And indeed it was true. In fact, it’s a sobering thought to realize that Ali remains bigger than boxing, that the sport would be vastly different without the mark he left, and that the champions of today have a long way to go to live up to the example he set.
First of all, every single boxer since 1980 who has attained the status to command a major payday is in debt to Ali. Before Muhammad there were big fights to be sure, but until “The Greatest” got his “Gorgeous George” act going, boxing had yet to really tap its true financial potential, or pass on a rightful share of the dough to the fighters. For example, the first battle between Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971 achieved an unprecedented degree of worldwide attention and was in fact the most watched sporting event in history up to that point. The boxer’s purses of $2.5 million each, at a time when top baseball and football players were happy to be earning five figures for an entire season, left people shaking their heads in wonder.
More than any other fighter, before or since, Ali made boxing a popular, mainstream attraction. Unlike today, it was regular fare for the cover of Sports Illustrated and the front pages of the newspaper’s sports sections, while Ali appeared frequently on live, prime-time television. And as his career approached its end — a conclusion years too late to avoid the ravages of Parkinson’s syndrome — the public’s fascination with Ali then naturally shifted to a younger generation of fistic talent and new stars such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Larry Holmes. The truth is, without Ali’s immense influence and popularity, you simply don’t have almost weekly broadcasts of major fights on live television in the 1980s, or the huge megafights which attracted mainstream attention and earned their participants millions of dollars. Even now, the vast sums which Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao command would not be possible without the precedent set by Ali. For his superfights with Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton, Ali set earning records that paved the way for the massive purses of later years.
No current champion comes close to Ali in terms of global renown and influence. But people sometimes forget that Ali’s fame was not just about his stand against the draft, or the provocative statements he made every time someone showed him a microphone. It also had to do with the fact that Ali was one of the most active heavyweights in history. Unlike so many of today’s boxers, Ali maintained a busy schedule, competing regularly against the top fighters in the division and traveling the globe to do so. Instead of avoiding challenges, he sought them out, determined as he was to prove himself the best. His immense pride meant boxing fans got to see him take on every deserving contender and challenger available, which is the principal reason why many regard Ali as the best heavyweight champ of them all: he fought and beat everyone during a time when the division was stacked with formidable talent.
Of course Ali had fate working for him. It was his good fortune to be able to compete against three of the most fearsome heavyweights ever — Liston, Frazier and Foreman — along with a lengthy list of excellent contenders. But the fact that current champions do not enjoy the same level of competition hardly justifies the fact that today’s fans consider themselves lucky if the sport’s most popular stars stop tweeting long enough to compete more than once a year.
Ali is still bigger than boxing. And if you doubt it, all you have to do is consider the fact that the most attractive match-up the sport has to offer hasn’t been made for going on three years, the same span of time over which Ali, from 1973 to 1976, faced Frazier twice, Norton three times, plus dethroned Foreman in Zaire to forever cement his boxing legacy. It’s hard to believe, but it’s a testament to Ali’s achievements that after all these years he still humbles today’s champions, and even at the age of 70 makes an entire sport look bad by comparison.
Happy Birthday, Champ. And man, do we ever miss you. – Michael Carbert