Right now, it’s all about Anthony Joshua. Nevertheless, it wasn’t long ago that 90% of the world’s boxing posters featured one face and one face only:
The face of Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali Portrait London 1966
An icon to end all icons, Muhammad Ali was and always will be the greatest. It’s often said that Muhammad Ali became ‘bigger than boxing’, which is perhaps the best way of describing his accomplishments.
What was it about Muhammad Ali that made him the greatest of all time?
Ali created the mould for athletic perfection, before immediately going on to break it. Every time he peaked, he broke his own barriers to do something even more impressive.
Muhammad Ali continues to be regarded as the greatest heavyweight in history. His evolution was simply astonishing, transforming from grinning youth into Olympic champion and ultimately into a fast, frenzied and fierce heavyweight nobody could touch.
What made his achievements even more impressive was the way they took place during the all-time peak for heavyweight boxing. Pitted against the likes of Sonny Liston in 1964 and George Foreman a full decade later, Ali also chalked up victories against Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and more big-hitters.
Of course, it takes more than athletic ability alone to transcend the barrier between champion and legend. In the case of Muhammad Ali, his prowess in the ring was surpassed perhaps only by his charisma everywhere else. He was as loose-lipped and wise-cracking as any sports personality has ever been. The difference with Ali being that he had the talent to get away with it.
He quickly became one of few sportsmen in the world to be able to silence a room full of people, simply by walking through the door. He was known for his rather frenetic way of baiting opponents, throwing street parties for local kids and generally serving as a pillar of the community. He was also no stranger to sharing his thoughts on religion and politics, despite the fact that his remarks routinely didn’t make a great deal of sense.
Not that anyone cared – he was Muhammad Ali.
If you want to win over the widest possible audience, a little humour goes a long way. What made Ali’s sense of humour so appealing was the way in which it was never forced or false. He was a genuinely funny man – one who could get away with saying just about anything.
In the space of a single five-minute interview, you could quickly forget you’re listening to a heavyweight boxer, as opposed to a professional comedian. Even if you didn’t particularly like the sport of boxing, you couldn’t help but like Muhammad Ali. In a sense, he created the very definition of what we know a sports personality to be today.
For these reasons and countless others, Muhammad Ali always has been and always will be bigger than the sport of boxing itself.