1. Muhammad Ali: Who would have ever thought in 1960 that the loquacious Kentuckian who told everyone within earshot that he was the greatest of all time was indulging in truth in advertising – at least eventually? His extraordinary self-belief combined with his supernatural speed regardless of size propelled him to the mountaintop at all levels of his chosen sport but it was his charisma and political courage that vaulted him to icon status.
While others on this list boast similar feats inside the ring, Ali’s intangibles are beyond everyone else’s reach. He is at the top because he is one of the few people on earth who remains universally recognizable more than three decades after his retirement. No athlete has ever been the subject of more books, movies and specials than Ali and despite his story being told in countless ways the public at large can never get enough of it. Even after the ravages of Parkinson’s stole his ability to speak, his mere presence is enough to capture everyone’s undivided attention. Such will be the case until the day he dies, and even then his legacy will be everlasting.
Olympic career – During the Rome games, Ali – then known as Cassius Clay – was virtually untouched. He destroyed Belgian Yvon Because in two rounds, then followed with shutout decisions over the Soviet Union’s Gennadiy Shatkov (the 1956 middleweight gold medalist) and Australia’s Anthony Madigan (a light heavyweight quarterfinalist in 1956) to set up the gold medal match against Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrzykowski.
Pietrzykowski is among the best amateur fighters Poland ever produced. He took part in three Olympics, winning bronzes at light middleweight in 1956 and light heavyweight in 1964 as well as four European amateur golds between 1955-1963. In all he lost just 14 times in 350 amateur fights. One of those losses was to Clay/Ali, who struggled somewhat with Pietrzykowki’s southpaw style in the first two rounds, dramatically pulled away in round three to earn a 5-0 sweep and the gold medal. Future middleweight champion Nino Benvenuti won the Val Barker trophy that year, but a case could have been made for Clay/Ali.
Professional career – Most experts place Ali at either number one or number two on their all-time lists of heavyweight champions, with Joe Louis being the most frequent challenger. Ali was the first man to capture a piece of the heavyweight title three times and his championship arc spanned 15 years (1964-1979). He presided over the strongest field of heavyweights the sport has ever known and he holds at least one victory over almost all of them. Just look at the fighters he beat twice – Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston, Ken Norton, Floyd Patterson, Henry Cooper, George Chuvalo and Joe Bugner. Add to that the names of Oscar Bonavena, Cleveland Williams, Archie Moore, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers and Jimmy Young and one can make the case that Ali put away nearly a half-platoon’s worth of quality big men.
Honorable mentions: Andre Ward, Oscar de la Hoya, Virgil Hill, Tim Austin, Joel Casamayor, Pascual Perez, Michael Carbajal, Fidel LaBarba, Nino Benvenuti and Vassiliy Jirov.
Photos / Getty Images and AFP
Lee Groves, a boxing writer and historian based in Friendly, W.Va., can be emailed at email@example.com. He is a full member of the BWAA, from which he has won seven writing awards, including a first-place for News Story in 2011. He has been an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame since 2001 and is also a writer, researcher and punch-counter for CompuBox, Inc. He is the author of “Tales From the Vault: A Celebration of 100 Boxing Closet Classics.” To order, please visit Amazon.com or e-mail the author to arrange for autographed copies.