5. 1973 – Muhammad Ali W 12 Joe Bugner I, Convention Center, Las Vegas, Nevada
Ali was in the midst of “The Long Road Back” to the heavyweight title, a journey whose starting point took place moments after his March 8, 1971 loss to Joe Frazier. Ali’s odyssey took him to Houston (KO 12 Jimmy Ellis and W 12 Buster Mathis Sr.), Zurich (KO 7 Juergen Blin), Tokyo (W 15 Mac Foster), Vancouver (W 12 George Chuvalo), Las Vegas (KO 7 Jerry Quarry), Dublin (KO 11 Al “Blue” Lewis), New York (KO 7 Floyd Patterson) and Stateline, Nevada (KO 8 Bob Foster).
Less than three months after disposing of the reigning light heavyweight champion Ali was back in Vegas to take on Joe Bugner, a man with a background worthy of an atlas (born in Hungary, lived in London and would move to Australia) and a 6-4, curly-haired, 219-pound physique some compared to Charles Atlas. Bugner and Ali were hardly strangers, for Bugner’s lone previous U.S. appearance in 48 fights was a 10-round win over Mike Boswell on the Ali-Mathis undercard. One had to wonder how the gregarious, garrulous 22-year-old would handle the bright lights of Vegas against an opponent whose worldwide status bordered on the God-like.
The answer: Better than most.
Ali’s superior class was obvious throughout as he speared Bugner with swift jabs, stabbing one-twos, needle-sharp crosses and unaccustomed aggression. At 217½, Ali’s body was trim and solid because he and trainer Angelo Dundee knew the European champion was no one with whom to fool around.
A knifing, twisting right cross gashed open Bugner’s left eye at the end of round one, a cut that bled copiously at times throughout the remainder of the contest. But through it all Bugner was engaged, energetic and eager. Whenever Ali pushed him toward the ropes Bugner responded with lashing blows that drove Ali back to ring center. More than once he fired triple jabs and counter crosses with speed that rivaled Ali’s. Unlike many of his fights on “The Long Road Back,” Ali didn’t engage in any antics; he didn’t take rounds off and he didn’t clown or verbally abuse his opponent. Against Bugner Ali was deadly serious and because of that he was just plain deadly.
Ali predicted a seventh-round knockout and in the late stages he fired an 11-punch volley designed to cash in. Bugner neither bent nor bowed and at round’s end he threw both arms skyward in triumph. Yes, he lost the round clearly but he cleared an important mental hurdle.
Ali produced his most sustained attack in the 10th as his one-twos caused blood to gush from Bugner’s cut and momentarily inspired thoughts of a stoppage. But as determined as Ali was to take Bugner out, Bugner was just as determined not to let him. Therefore, it was no surprise that Bugner lasted the full 12 just as it was no shock that Ali prevailed on all three scorecards (57-54, 56-53, 57-52 under the five-point must scoring system).
For Ali, the Bugner fight was a study in sustained excellence while for Bugner it was a testament to his burgeoning talent and promising potential.