Legendary boxer and cultural icon Muhammad Ali, known simply as “The Greatest,” passed away on Friday at the age of 74, and tributes have poured in from every corner of America and around the globe for the man who transcended sports to become, at his peak in the 1970s, the most famous person on the planet.
— ABC News (@ABC) June 5, 2016
Ali was a celebrity, showman and political activist whose very name became synonymous with the battle for civil rights — and human rights. But most of all, Muhammad Ali was a boxer, arguably the single greatest boxer ever to step into a ring, so the most fitting way to remember his greatness would be to watch his greatest, most history-making fights.
Scroll down this page for video of five of the greatest fights in Muhammad Ali’s two-decade pro boxing career.
Ali, at the age of 18 and still known by his birth name of Cassius Clay, exploded into worldwide fame when, as a virtual unknown, he dominated the light-heavyweight boxing competition at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy, easily defeating Poland’s Zbigniew ‘Ziggy’ Pietrzykowski on September 5 of that year, to win the gold medal.
After just 19 professional fights, all of them victories including 15 by knockout, Ali — still known as Clay — was granted a shot at the heavyweight title against reigning champ Sonny Liston, a brutal, hard-punching ex-convict who came in to the fight a seven-to-one favorite.
But Clay unabashedly boasted that he would knock Liston out. And when the 35-1 Liston quit on his stool after the sixth round, Clay declared, “I shook up the world!” Shortly after the fight, Clay converted to the Muslim religion and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 5, 2016
Here are full videos of the five greatest fights in the 61-bout career of Muhammad Ali, starting with the historic defeat of Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964 at the Convention Center in Miami Beach, Florida.
THE FIGHT OF THE CENTURY
In 1967, Muhammad Ali refused to submit to the military draft and fight in the Vietnam war. While he managed to avoid prison, he was stripped of his heavyweight title despite a 29-0 record, and banned from boxing.
On March 8, 1971, after just two tune-up fights, Ali faced off against the heavyweight who won the title in his absence, undefeated 27-year-old Philadelphia knockout specialist Joe Frazier, who had won all but one of his 26 fights by KO.
The magnitude of the event is difficult to imagine today. The Ali-Frazier fight — which would turn out to be the first of three between the arch-rivals — was far more than a sports event. The fight at Madison Square Garden in New York became an American cultural phenomenon and was widely seen as a referendum on the rebellious decade of the 1960s that had just come to a close.
In the end, it also turned out to be Muhammad Ali’s first defeat.
RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE
Though he was no longer heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali remained boxing’s biggest attraction and still “The Greatest.” Over the next three years he fought 14 times, including a brutal loss to slugger Ken Norton in which Ali suffered a fractured jaw — Ali then beat Norton in a return bout — and a rematch victory over Joe Frazier.
Then on October 3, 1974, in Zaire, Africa — a country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo — a 32-year-old Muhammad Ali faced another, Liston-like opponent in George Foreman.
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Seven years younger than Ali, the unbeaten Foreman had won 38 of his 40 fights by knockout — including merciless pummellings of both men who had beaten Muhammad Ali: Joe Frazier and Ken Norton.
But using a gutsy and unheard-of technique he called “Rope-a-Dope,” Ali somehow endured a battering from Foreman to come back and floor the formerly fearsome puncher in the eighth round. Ali was once again on top of the boxing world, regaining the heavyweight belt.
THE THRILLA IN MANILA
By 1975, both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were somewhat past their primes when they met in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, for a third fight to break their 1-1 deadlock.
While not much was expected of the fight, which started at 10 a.m. local time to accommodate the American live broadcast audience, and took place in an Araneta Coliseum arena described as a “sauna,” the “Thrilla” is now considered by many boxing fans to be the greatest, most exciting — and most violent — fight of all time.
In the end, an exhausted Frazier failed to emerge from his corner after 14 torturous rounds, and Muhammad Ali had another legendary victory.
The “Thrilla in Manila” was historic for another reason, as well. Carried live by the three-year-old pay-cable TV service HBO, the October 1, 1975 fight was the first television event broadcast live via satellite, and the first American pay-per-view broadcast, allowing fans to watch the third Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight as it happened, in their homes rather than in theaters by closed circuit TV.
ALI VS. SPINKS II
On February 15, 1978, the 36-year-old Ali was humiliated by a lightly regarded — despite his 1976 Olympic gold medal — St. Louis brawler named Leon Spinks, who sent an unprepared and out-of-shape Ali home with a badly bruised and swollen face — and without his heavyweight championship.
Ali’s career appeared to be over, but determined to avenge the defeat, Ali trained much more diligently for the rematch with Spinks, which took place eight months later in the New Orleans Superdome, in front of a record crowd 63,950.
Unlike many of Ali’s previous title fights which were broadcast live only on closed-circuit or pay television, the ABC network shelled out what in 1978 was an astonishing sum of $5.3 million to carry the fight live in prime time. It was a smart decision, as more than 90 million people gathered around their sets to watch a once-again masterful Ali paint his final masterpiece, dominating Spinks over 15 rounds and becoming the first man ever to win the world heavyweight championship three times.
After the rematch against Leon Spinks, Muhammad Ali announced his retirement from boxing. Sadly, however, like so many fighters, he couldn’t stay away. Defying doctor’s orders, two years later Ali fought champion Larry Holmes.
Holmes was a masterful boxer and Ali was worse than a shadow of his previous greatness. He suffered a terrible beating and could not continue after 10 rounds of a scheduled 15 — the first and only time the great Muhammad Ali was stopped in his history-making career.
[Image via Associated Press File]