Muhammad Ali: Why He's Not the Greatest

Robert Aaron ContrerasContributor IIIApril 21, 2013

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Echoes of “I am the greatest!” still run through the annals of boxing history.

Muhammad Ali inspired his fans; Muhammad Ali inspired nations; he proclaimed himself "the greatest"—and the world believed him. Outside the ring, he was brash—inside, dominant. He conquered his opposition: Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks—they all tasted defeat at the hands of Ali.

But he is not "the greatest"—and it's not even close.

But this author isn’t here to claim Ali wasn’t great—he just isn’t the greatest of them all. But that's no fault of his own—he defeated everyone he had to during the deepest heavyweight era of all time. It’s what other boxers of yesteryear did that dwarfs him by comparison.

Muhammad Ali compiled a very respectable record of 56 wins and five losses. But 56 wins pale in comparison to, say, Sugar Ray Robinson’s 173 or Harry Greb’s 262. Still, the list of Ali’s prominent opponents is a virtual who’s who of boxing Hall of Fame representatives, including 11 wins over six different inductees.

Who can top that? 

Well, let's see. Henry Armstrong holds 13 wins over 10 different Hall of Famers. Benny Leonard holds 16 wins over seven. Sugar Ray Robinson? Twenty-one wins over 10. Harry Greb? Twenty-three wins over 12.

Starting to catch the drift?

Now, boxers can’t be ranked solely on number of wins (or wins over Hall of Famers)—the records need some context.

Henry Armstrong finished his career with a record of 150-21-10, with 101 KOs. Incredible, correct? But the real mark of a great boxer is that the closer you look, the greater they tend to become. The depth of Armstrong’s résumé is unreal; he defeated champions ranging from featherweight to middleweight (and everything in between), and he is also the only boxer to hold three universally recognized titles—simultaneously!

This is a feat that Muhammad Ali could never match. 

So does "the greatest of all time" debate start and end with Henry Armstrong? Not even slightly. Between 1940 and 1952, Sugar Ray Robinson would defeat Sammy Angott (the No.1 lightweight in the world), win the World Welterweight title, the World Middleweight title, and defeat a slew of other top-ranked contenders and champions, past or present. During this 12-year time period, Robinson tore through three divisions—and made it look easy, accumulating an unbelievable 131-3-2 record over that stretch. 

Sugar Ray Robinson. Is he the greatest?
Sugar Ray Robinson. Is he the greatest?Associated Press

 Fine, so is Muhammad Ali third, behind Armstrong and Robinson? It dependsdid Ali outbox the boxers and outpunch the punchers like Sam Langford did for over 20 years, defeating Hall of Famers from lightweight (Joe Gans) all the way up to heavyweight (Harry Wills)? He didn’t.

Sure, the heavyweight division Ali fought in was the deepest ever—but was it deeper than the “golden age” of boxing Benny Leonard reigned over with an iron fist (defeating Jack Britton twice, Freddie Welsh twice, Johnny Kilbane, Lew Tendler twice, Willie Ritchie, Rocky Kansas four times and Johnny Dundee four times)?

It wasn’t.

Ali’s top wins came against Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston—are any of these wins greater than Harry Greb thrashing Gene Tunney, Mickey Walker, Tommy Loughran or Tommy Gibbons? They aren’t.

So just who is "the greatest?" That’s a debate best left for another time. But it surely isn’t Muhammad Ali—not any way you cook it.


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