Combat sports are an ever-changing landscape of fighters, with new names popping up constantly. All fighters have heart, and all fighters have talent, yet of all the fighters who have stepped up over the years, there are some who stick in our minds, who changed the way we think about the sports we love, and who are truly inspirational to today’s generation of martial artists.
In this new series we wanted to take a moment to appreciate some of the true legends of fighting, looking at some of the most inspirational, most influential, and the most fearsome fighters out there. In the first post of the series, we showed you Ramon Dekkers, one of the first western Muay Thai fighters to beat the Thais at their own game. For this post, we’re going to look at somebody from the boxing world who is likely a much more familiar face; “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali.
So who was Muhammad Ali?
Chances are, if you have any interest in the sport of boxing, you’ll know the name Muhammad Ali. His legacy is so great that even people who weren’t even born until 10 or 15 years after his retirement still respect the man’s genius both inside the ring and out. There’s very little we can say here that hasn’t already been said about Ali before, through the countless videos, films, books and articles about him, but we couldn’t write a series about inspirational fighters without mentioning the one person who has likely influenced more boxers than anybody else ever has.
Ali, then known by his original name Cassius Clay, began training as a boxer at the age of just 12, and by 18 years old he went on to win a gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, before making the jump into professional boxing later that year. In his pro days, Ali amassed a total of 61 fights, winning 56, with 37 of those through knockouts. It wasn’t his strong record which set him apart from the crowd though, that was down to his confidence and cockiness, both inside and out of the ring.
In the ring Ali used a lot of movement and footwork, dancing circles around his opponents and teasing them into exposing the openings for him to take advantage of. He would glide around the ring in a way almost never seen in the heavyweight division at the time, and not often seen since. In many fights, Ali would even avoid throwing obvious punches in the early rounds, as if to make a statement that he had all the time in the world, and play with his opponents psychologically. Many try and incorporate the techniques seen by Ali in the ring, imitating his movement and style somewhat to add the element of unpredictability.
The video below is a brilliant breakdown of how he used his footwork to break the usual rhythms of boxing.
But outside of the ropes the cockiness didn’t stop. While most boxers would hide behind their managers, Ali was almost addicted to the spotlight. He would wind up and antagonise his opponents. He would often use rhymes and poems in his trash talking, uttering some of the best known quotes in the boxing world.
“Float like a butterfly sting like a bee – his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”
– Muhammad Ali
The fights that will never be forgotten
There are various fights worthy of mention. From the first fight with Sonny Liston which helped secure his fame, to the fights with Joe Frazier, the third of which (Titled Thrilla in Manila) is considered by many to be one of the greatest bouts of all time.
Our favourite however is the bout nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman. Foreman was considered one of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history. Almost nobody really thought Ali – who was by this point 32 and losing some of his energetic spark – would even stand a chance against Foreman, who had knocked out some of Ali’s toughest opponents with ease
But as usual Ali showed as confident and witty, telling interviewers “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ’til I whup Foreman’s behind!” and showing his cockiness with the brilliant statement “I’ve done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”
Ali opened the fight moving and scoring with right crosses to Foreman’s head. Then, beginning in the second round he retreated to the ropes and invited Foreman to hit him while covering up, clinching and counter-punching, all while verbally taunting Foreman. The move goes against conventional logic, but Foreman began to tire. Even the punches he did land were turned into an excuse for Ali to demoralise Foreman more.
“I thought Ali was just one more knockout victim until, about the seventh round, I hit him hard to the jaw and he held me and whispered in my ear: ‘That all you got, George?’ I realized that this ain’t what I thought it was.”
– George Foreman
Midway through the fight, as Foreman was tiring, Ali started to counter more frequently and effectively, and slowly the pace of the fight started to change. By the eighth round, Ali managed to knock Foreman down with a combination, and he failed to make the count. Against the odds, and amidst pandemonium in the ring, Ali had regained the Heavyweight title by knocking out the hardest hitters in the game.
Inside and out of the ring, Ali was a trend setter, with many boxers, kickboxers, MMA fighters and martial artists looking up to him and taking aspects from his game and personality as inspiration. We haven’t even touched on the real accomplishments outside of boxing! If you want to see more about Ali, watch the motivational highlight video below from Mateusz M, looking at some of the best moments from his career and presence.
If you liked this article, let us know. We’d love to hear the things you remember most about him, and which other inspirational fighters you think deserve to be featured in an article like this.