As MMA starts to eclipse boxing as the premier combat sport, comparisons are being discussed between boxing legends and up and coming MMA stars. One recent comparison was made between Jon Jones and Muhammad Ali. Noted photographer, Michael Muller stated that Jon Jones was the "21st century Muhammad Ali". I think he was swayed by the photo shoot he was doing, but now the question has been posed, "when will MMA have a Muhammad Ali".
The short answer to this question is probably never, but why not? Jon Jones has become champion at the tender age of 23 while Ali became champion at 22. Ali used speed and distance to overwhelm opponents, Jones uses a similar combination of the same attributes to win fights. Jones has been described as articulate, brash and cocky. Ali was the definition of cocky and his poetic predictions before fights are legendary. You can easily see where the comparisons come in.
However to compare the two, you have to look at what Muhammad Ali meant on a social level. Sure Muhammad Ali started as Cassius Clay, a boxing phenom and became a pioneer in the area of hyping fights with his use of the press. He became a pioneer in psychological warfare. He won fights before he got into the ring by getting into his opponents heads and getting them out of their game. Clay/Ali fought and defeated the best while the best were in their prime.
Cassius Clay transformed into Muhammad Ali, an other-worldly figure that transcended the sport by what he meant socially and to popular culture. Ali was stripped of his title for taking a stand against the Vietnam war. He was prohibited from obtaining a boxing license for three years because of this. This coupled with the public opposition to the war made Ali the "People's Champion".
Ali has become one of the most famous people, not boxers, in the world. Ali lit the flame at the 1996 Olympics, attempted to negotiate the release of hostages with Saddam Hussein, and even received a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Those are extremely large shoes to fill.
The likelihood of anyone in MMA having the social impact on the consciences of the United States the way Muhammad Ali did during that time period is very, very slim. Sorry Jon Jones. Nice picture, but there's only one Muhammad Ali, and any comparison is likely an insult.
To Jon Jones' credit, he embraces the history, but he appears to want to create his own legacy. He wants to leave a mark on the sport similar to the one Muhammad Ali left, but in his own way. If he can get past his own Joe Frazier-ish opponent in Rashad Evans, he'll be on his way to legendary status.
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