Muhammad Ali: 15 Toughest Fights of the Greatest's Career

Briggs Seekins@BriggsfighttalkFeatured ColumnistJanuary 16, 2012

Muhammad Ali: 15 Toughest Fights of the Greatest's Career

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    On Tuesday, January 17, Muhammad Ali turns 70. The Greatest's professional record was 56(37)-5(1) and he fought some of the most grueling ring wars of all time. Indeed, in the second part of the champ's career, he made an entire art of out endurance and attrition.

    Not surprisingly, this list is comprised largely of fights from Ali's career after his return in 1970. Before he was persecuted out of the sport for three years in 1967, Ali was undefeated and virtually untouchable. 

    But even as a young rising star, Ali met some stumbles. 

    Boxing is a brutal sport and an extremely tough way to earn a living. Even when an athlete is as naturally gifted as Ali was, nothing is accomplished without excruciating hard work, and the slightest mistakes or oversights can cost a competitor dearly. 

15: Karl Mildenberger, September 10, 1966

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    Karl Mildenberger was a skilled and tricky German southpaw who held several European and Continental titles. He challenged Ali for the world title in 1966. It was Ali's sixth defense and it proved to be a tough one. 

    Mildenberger's style gave Ali trouble through most of the fight, though Ali began to take his measure late and won by TKO in 12. 

14: Henry Cooper I, June 18, 1963

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    If you simply looked at the entries, this first bout against Henry Cooper would not seem to warrant inclusion: Ali won by TKO in five, just as he had in fact predicted he would.

    However, those familiar with Ali's career will expect to see it here. This is the night that could have ended it all before it had even begun.

    Cooper was a tough, skilled veteran of the European boxing scene, holding the British, Common Wealth and European titles. He had a very effective left hook, as he demonstrated to the entire world on this night against Ali.

    Ali cut Cooper early, but a possible lack of respect for the talent of the smaller Brit got him in trouble in the fourth. Battling gamely through the quicker of Ali's flurries, Cooper began to lock on target with his left hook. At the round's closing bell, Cooper struck pay dirt and knocked Ali senseless.

    Ali went down hard and was fortunate to have the ropes catch him. If not for that, his head would quite likely have struck the canvas hard, putting him out cold.  

    Ali managed to get to his feet, but as can be seen in this video his corner illegally guided him the full way to his stool.

    Ali's corner worked furiously to bring him back around. Angelo Dundee has admitted to having used smelling salts, a violation of British rules, and to having cut Ali's glove deliberately, to buy a few more precious seconds while he wrapped it with tape.

    By the time the ref had called time back, Ali was once more ready to go and the shock of what Cooper had done to him caused him to focus in with deadly intensity. He unleashed a string of punches to Cooper's already cut eye, shredding the skin around it.

    The fight ended in five, just as Ali had predicted it would.  

13: Doug Jones, March 13, 1963

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    In 1963 the rising phenom and No.2-ranked contender Cassius Clay met No.3-ranked Doug Jones, 30(20)-10(3)-1, in Madison Square Garden. The result was a closely contested 10-round decision.

    Jones was able to do what few could during the early part of Ali's career, make him pay for backing up. Jones used a crouching stance to make his shorter stature something of an advantage and had great success changing levels on Ali as he moved inside. 

    It would be exaggerating to say that Ali really came close to losing here. The judges' score cards read 8-1, 5-4, 5-4, and it seems pretty clear the second two judges gave every close round to Jones while the first judge gave every close round to Ali. 

    This fight took place directly before the Cooper fight profiled in the previous slide. With tough performances like this back-to-back, the young Ali's stock temporarily took a dip, and this probably contributed to him being a heavy underdog against the imposing Sonny Liston. 

12: George Foreman, October 30, 1974

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    This is the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" fight, held in Zaire, Africa. It was at least 85 degrees in the ring. In the end, Ali became just the second man to reclaim the world heavyweight title when he knocked out George Foreman in eight. 

    It was a victory that cost Ali dearly in sweat and pain. This is the classic "rope-a-dope" fight. In preparation, Ali had practiced absorbing and catching punches on the ropes in sparring, becoming an expert at shifting and deflecting ever so slightly, absorbing mere punishment to avoid outright disaster. 

    Ali showed that you can win that way, but it makes for a brutally tough night's work. Even in the decisive eighth, Ali had to go through hell before turning the tide on Big George. 

11: Jimmy Young, April 30, 1976

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    Some might rank this fight higher on a list like this. It was late in Ali's career and he came in at a whopping 230 lbs, heavier than he had ever been and heavier than he would ever be again for any fight until he fought Trevor Berbick in his last bout. 

    Ali was clearly out of shape and many felt he did not deserve to retain his belt. But while it was a terrible night for Ali, it was also a rare fight late in his career when he did not take a ton of punishment.

    Young mostly played a pitter-patter, hit-and-run game. He ran from Ali all fight, even flaunting the rules by deliberately ducking out of the ring. 

10: Earnie Shavers, September 29, 1977

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    Earnie Shavers is the man Ali has called the strongest puncher he ever faced. Ali beat him by unanimous decision, with the judges scoring 9-6 twice and 9-5 once. 

    Shavers kept coming hard for Ali through the late rounds, wining 13 and 14 on most cards. Ali came out hard and closed out the fight in the 15th. 

9: Joe Frazier II, January 28, 1974

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    The second fight in their classic three fight series, this is generally considered the least exciting of the three, but that is merely proof of how thrilling the other two were. This fight, like the two it is sandwiched between, is every bit an all-time classic. 

    Ali won by unanimous decision in a hotly contested fight. The judges turned in cards of 6-5, 7-4 and 8-4, leaving four rounds dead even on two cards and three on the other. 

8: Ken Norton III, September 28, 1976

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    In their third and final fight, Ali beat Norton by unanimous decision, but the cards could not have been closer, reading 8-7 twice and 8-6 once. 

    Norton was one of the top heavyweights in the golden era of heavyweight boxing, but he is clearly outside of the top 10, and maybe even the top 20, heavyweights of all time. Nevertheless, with the help of his trainer Eddie Futch, he always had the right blueprint for Ali.

7: Ken Norton II, September 10, 1973

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    The second Ali-Norton fight took place six months after the first, when Norton had broken Ali's jaw and upset the former champ with a split decision victory. 

    Ali avenged his loss with a split decision win of his own. The cards were 7-5, 6-5, 5-6, but this fight (like the third one) is a case where many fans believe Norton should have won. 

6: Leon Spinks I, February 15, 1978

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    This has to be viewed as the biggest upset in the history of the heavyweight division, even above Douglas-Tyson. Although Leon Spinks had won an Olympic Gold Medal as part of the legendary 1976 team, this victory over Ali was only his eighth professional fight. 

    Ironically, Ali had taken the fight because he wanted an easy one after surviving the tough Earnie Shavers. Instead he got thoroughly out-hustled by the young challenger. He left with a bruised, swollen face and without the world championship. 

5: Trevor Berbick, December 11, 1981

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    This is one of those fights I like to pretend never happened. Although it was a somewhat competitive fight, I can't view it as anything other than one last chance for Ali to absorb a bunch of punishment and trauma. 

    It was just so unnecessary. Ali had already been thoroughly demolished by Larry Holmes the previous year, demonstrating conclusively that he was done as a heavyweight contender. 

4: Joe Frazier I, March 8, 1971, "The Fight of the Century"

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    In 1967, the undefeated Ali had been stripped of his world titles for refusing to be inducted into the army. Ultimately, he was forced out of the sport for three years. 

    By the time he returned in 1970, Joe Frazier had risen to the top of the heavyweight ranks. And so it was then in March of 1971 that two undefeated world champions clashed in New York City's historic Madison Square Garden.

    Boxing fans today simply cannot imagine how big this fight was, not just in the sports world, but also in the culture at large. 

    It was Smoking Joe's night, as he won by unanimous decision with scores of 11-4, 9-6, 8-6 and capped the night by dropping Ali in the 15th. 

3: Ken Norton I, March 31, 1973

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    Ken Norton was legendary trainer Eddie Futch's ultimate project, a great natural athlete with all the raw materials required for building a heavyweight champ.

    In their first engagement in March of 1973, the rising young contender shook up the boxing world by taking a split decision from Ali, breaking his jaw in the process.

2: Larry Holmes, October 2, 1980

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    After winning his rematch over Leon Spinks and capturing the heavyweight crown for a record third time, Ali retired on top in 1978. 

    Meanwhile Larry Holmes beat Ken Norton in one of the great heavyweight title fights of all time and became the new champ.  By 1980, Ali had grown bored sitting on the sidelines and announced that he was returning to challenge Holmes. 

    It turned out to be nothing but a case of tilting at windmills. Only in Ali's case, the windmill could hit back. 

    Holmes has a skill set that would have given Ali serious problems even in his prime. At 38, Ali was way over-matched, and the results were painful to watch. 

1: Joe Frazier III, October 1, 1975, "The Thrilla' in Manila"

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    Ali won this fight when Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, stopped the fight after the 14th. Nevertheless, it was among the most brutal heavyweight bouts of the modern era in boxing, and Ali took a terrible beating en route to victory. He has famously called it the closest he ever came to death. 

    Once again, Frazier pushed the pace, driving inside and throwing brutal hooks and uppercuts, pounding Ali's body in the middle rounds. But by the later rounds Ali had closed Frazier's right eye. In the 14th Ali summoned the strength to unleash a furious attack on Frazier, nearly dropping him.

    Eddie Futch had seen enough. Convinced things could only get much worse, he called the fight to a halt prior to the last round.