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Muhammad Ali: Why is he considered the greatest sportsperson of all time?

04 Jun 2016, 17:08 IST

The famous fights

Ali Frazier
Frazier and Ali in 1975

Ali's next “big” fight came in 1971 against Joe Frazier, who dealt a blow so hard in the “Fight of the Century” that not only did Ali receive his first defeat, he got a broken jaw as well. The defeat to Frazier was followed by a legal victory for Ali as the Supreme Court overturned his conviction and said that his claims were religious. Things still did not look good for Ali though as he was dealt another defeat by Ken Norton in 1973.

Ali was set to face Joe Frazier again in 1974 and without a trace of nervousness, he went on to win the bout with a decision in 12 rounds. The winsome hero was back and he produced some stunning moves to knock out George Foreman in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” which was held in Zaire (now known as Congo). There was something about Ali that attracted attention, popularity and opinions. He would never be out of action.

If there is one fight that Ali fans would not mind watching again and again, it would be the “Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier in 1975. The destruction caused by Ali on Frazier symbolised what the former could do when on song, and that too to a seasoned boxer – and not some gym rookie from Brooklyn. Such was the pulverization caused by Ali in this victory that Frazier’s coach refused to let his fighter go for the 15th round. 

And to think that Ali had said before the fight, “It will be a killer and a chiller and a thriller when I get the gorilla in Manila.” Such was the gall of the man that before the most important fight of his career, he publicly predicted the destruction of his opponent. Thus, it is no surprise when you heard him say, “I can make medicine sick.” He could certainly have done it.

An unprecedented legacy

Ali walked towards the end of his career with a premature retirement, which he came out of briefly, and a record of over 50 victories and five losses. From what it seemed like, God had probably decided to turn Ali’s entire life into a boxing match, sometimes against people and other times against situations. Though it came as a sad shock to his fans across the world when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, everyone knew poor old Parkinson had no chance. 

Come to think of it, Ali being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease was a bit like Bruce Lee being diagnosed with diabetes or Ludwig van Beethoven losing his ability to hear. It was almost unthinkable that the man who openly said “I am the greatest” would suffer from a slur in his speech, the very thing that set him apart from the usual sportspersons. However, not even Parkinson’s disease would be able to stop Ali from going to Iraq or lighting the Olympic torch in the 1996 Atlanta Games.

Honours came thick and fast for Ali in the second half of his life but they were all too small to define him, which is what makes him stand out as a sportsperson. There are some people in history who follow already trodden paths and do really well, becoming legends. But there are those like Ali, who truly define their own medium to set unprecedented benchmarks for those to follow.

There was a sense of class and nobility in whatever Ali did, be it holding a press conference or landing an upper cut on his opponent’s face. No one, just no one has been able to replicate the legendary Muhammad Ali.

No matter which great sportsperson you talk about – Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher, Pele, Roger Federer, Rod Laver, Martina Navratilova, Carl Lewis, Nadia Comaneci, Serena Williams or Sir Donald Bradman – all of them were defined by their heroics in their sport. Ali, on the other hand, defined himself by the man he was and the sheer impact he made on the times he lived in.


Unlike all other legendary sportsmen who will be spoken about even a thousand years from now due to exploits in their respective sports, Ali will be remembered as someone who made an impact beyond sport and on the very lives of people. In fact, a large number of people talking about him following his sad demise have not even seen Ali fight once, but their tributes are earnest and genuine; such is the legacy of the man.

The word “great” is often misused by a lot of people, including and especially us in the media, to describe something that needs to be appreciated. Muhammad Ali was not ‘great’ in the conventional sense, because you would have then to place him alongside a whole set of people and performances that did not even stand the test of a decade, let alone a lifetime or generation. He, unlike all of them, has left an impact, like an Abraham Lincoln, a Nelson Mandela or a Mahatma Gandhi, by touching people’s lives.

He proved to be the new face of a community that, despite being supremely talented and not inferior to anyone in any aspect, did not get its due in society. He provided the world with a hero whose words would be used in commercials forever, and his moves would make people earn their livelihoods. To put it in simple words, it took Muhammad Ali’s death to make A-grade annoying personalities like Mike Tyson and Donald Trump come across as gracious.

Rest in peace Muhammad Ali. You are the greatest.

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