There is absolutely no doubt that most experts consider Ali the best he would ever be the night he fought Cleveland Williams. He was at the height of his physical prowess, and would never be that dominant again.
But to me, personally, the best fight Ali ever fought in terms of winning over incredible odds, was his all time great upset of Big George Foreman in Zaire…
CREDIT PICTURE THE GUARDIAN
Ali was like a master painter, who painted so many masterpieces it is difficult to pick one as his greatest work.
For sheer dominance, most say his best fight was the Williams fight
Cleveland Williams said:
“You can’t hit him, you just cannot hit him!”
According to CompuBox, Williams landed only 10 punches the entire fight. Thomas Hauser believed that was too many and recounted, and only found that Williams landed 6 real punches in 3 rounds.
“I threw hooks, I threw uppercuts, I missed them all! Hell, I couldn’t even land a jab!”
Howard Cosell told boxing writer and historian Thomas Hauster:
“The greatest Ali ever was as a fighter was in Houston against Williams. That night, he was the most devastating fighter who ever lived.”
During an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1989, Iron Mike Tyson was asked by Arsenio what was his favorite Ali fight.:
“The fight with Cleveland Williams, it’s Ali at his best,”
The Ring: Boxing The in the 20th Century said of that fight:
“Ali’s jab had never been as blinding; his feet had never seemed so light; his combinations had never flowed so effortlessly. At age 24, he was 27-0 (22), and peaking. It was time to freeze the moment for the time capsule.”
Zora Folley, said after the Ali-Williams fight:
“I don’t think a heavyweight can fight any better than he [Ali] did tonight.”
Jerry Quarry said after fighting Ali in 1970:
“He’s still damn good, but he ain’t what he was. If you wanted to see Ali when he was Ali, watch the Cleveland Williams fight.
If you go strictly by the odds, the first Liston fight was the biggest upset Ali ever staged – but the oddsmakers did not know of Liston’s health problems
As far as the Vegas Odds went, Ali-Liston was a bigger upset that Ali-Foreman. Few folks in the fight game believed the then Cassius Clay could beat Liston, and he was made a seven to one betting underdog. In a poll of sportswriters before the fight, 43 of 46 pick Liston to win.t
But had people known that Sonny was operating both on an injured knee that never fully recovered, and a serious shoulder injury that ended up leaving him without the use of one arm, those odds would have been different.
Ditto for the second Liston fight, where the delay of the fight ruined the best preparation of Sonny’s career, and again left him unable to mount another camp on his gimpy knee.Age, injuries, and plain good luck for Muhammad and bad luck for Sonny, made those far, far, less of an upset than they seemed then.
Not so the Foreman fight!
For sheer courage, and overcoming adversity, the Foreman fight will go down in history as his finest hour, his best fight, more so than any other…
George and his team prayed in their dressing room before the fight that Ali would not be killed by George. It never occurred to any of them that Ali would win…
In Zaire, 10 year later, as noted above, Foreman and his handlers actually prayed in his dressing room before the fight that Foreman would not kill Ali, and the odds ran as high as 4 to 1 against Ali.
As someone who was around for both fights, it seemed to me, that Ali-Foreman was a bigger upset among ordinary people and fans.
To me, and to many, the Rumble in the Jungle was Ali’s best fight and finest hour. He was no longer the lightning bolt who couldn’t be hit, and instead, had to literally let Foreman, one of the strongest athletes of all time, hit him to exhaust himself.
For all of us who watched Foreman destroy an all time undefeated great like Frazier, literally lifting him off his feet and hurling him backwards like a sack of wheat, knocking him down 6 times and stopping him in 5 minutes and 26 seconds, well, we thought Ali was in terrible trouble.
What really happened in Zaire?
George Foreman had overpowered Joe Frazier to become heavyweight champion. George admitted later in his autobiography By George:: The Autobiography of George Foreman that he assumed if Frazier could beat Ali, and knock him down, and he was able to knock Frazier down six times in two rounds, beating him in the worst route of a heavyweight champion in history, that he would be able to easily beat the much older Ali as well.
George Foreman, also wrote in God in My Corner:
“I thought I would walk over him. I knew he had slowed down, and I knew how I had beaten Joe and Ken – I thought I would do the same with Ali. I was wrong, and he still had the fastest hands I ever saw.”
George wryly admitted later that he forgot one little thing: Styles make fights, and a swarmer, like Frazier, has to rush forward and engage. Ali, not a swarmer, and a reach equaling Foreman’s was not going to rush into his punches.
Foreman’s powerhouse left jab kept Joe at arms length, where Foreman hit him with both right uppercuts and left hooks. Before Frazier met Foreman in Jamaica, Angelo Dundee openly worried that Frazier was endangering his multi-million dollar rematch with Ali.
Angelo Dundee called it before the fight:
“Styles, Joe’s style is all wrong for this guy. I’m rooting for Frazier,” he said, “but I’ve got this feeling Foreman will win. Why? Because he has all the attributes to beat Frazier’s style. He’s got a jab like I’ve never seen on a heavyweight since Sonny Liston. He has a strong left hand. I mean strong. He can stop a man in his tracks.”
And that was what made the difference. Frazier said after the fight that Foreman’s jab stopped him dead in his tracks – the first time that had happened, and even if he pushed forward, Foreman simply pushed him back. He could not match Foreman’s strength.
And Prime Foreman was STRONG, and quick, and could cut off a ring. George Foreman had Power, (with a capital P) and in his prime, was an astonishingly athletic and fast fighter who cut off the ring as well as anyone since Joe Louis. All time greats such as Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis both commented that Foreman was the strongest heavyweight hitter that they had ever seen, and fast.
Jack Dempsey said in wonder after the Frazier fight:
“it outta be criminal to be that damn strong!”
Nor was Frazier vulnerable to bigger men as a rule. Frazier easily knocked out Buster Mathis, a man who undefeated when he met Frazier, (and 30-4 in his career, losing only to Frazier, Ali, Jerry Quarry and Ron Lyle). Mathis, when he met Frazier, had never been off his feet until he fought Frazier – who knocked him into next year with a left hook. Mathis, who had a powerful right that earned him 21 KO’s in his 30 wins, found that right no match for Joe’s hook.
Mathis was 6’3″ and weighed 243 when he fought Frazier, who weighed 204.
Young Foreman was the most feared heavyweight in history other than Sonny Liston. (Prime Mike Tyson deserves a shout as well in the feared group) George had a thunderous, accurate jab, incredible power in both hands, greater strength than practically anyone else who ever set foot in the ring, (with the possible exception of Sonny Liston and Jim Jeffries), he cut the ring off well – had he not fallen to Ali in Zaire, he would have terrorized the heavyweights for a decade.
George lost in Zaire lost for three reasons:
- First, he was badly cut before the fight – it had to be delayed – and he lost 5 weeks of sparring.”
Bad luck for George and good lucky for Ali was a factor here, but it was not decisive, no, two more factors were even more imporant.
So due to the injury the fight was delayed, although Foreman and Ali spent much of the summer of 1974 training in Zaire and getting their bodies used to the weather in the tropical African country. The fight was originally set to happen on September 24, but the fight was postponed after Foreman was cut during training. It was rescheduled for October 30
That delay was deadly for George. He was not able to spar till right before the new date for the fight, and his timing was completely gone.
George said in By George:: The Autobiography of George Foreman:
“I was in the best shape of my life at that point, and had the fight taken place then, I would have won.”
The second reason he lost is:
- he badly underestimated Ali’s willingness to take a beating and completely misunderstood how Ali would fight him.
George expected Ali to run, and he would catch him. He never thought Ali would go to the ropes, and exchange with him. He would writer later in By George:: The Autobiography of George Foreman:
“I never dreamed he would dare to exchange with me. Not in a million years!”
Foreman said about Zaire:
“Well, it was a strange event because I had beaten Joe Frazier who of course had beaten Muhammad Ali. I’d knocked out Ken Norton who had beaten him. So this, for me, I thought, could be the easiest money I’d ever get in boxing….I got into the ring, and I hit him with everything I had. He survived, and after about six rounds, he started whispering, that all you got, George? Show me something, George. And I knew this was a frightful moment. And I kept thinking I’ve gotten myself into more than I realized.”
In addition to the injury affecting him, Foreman admitted he made a fatal error in not watching film of Ali before the fight:
“Never studied one film, never dissected anything, He was such a good-looking guy, I’m like, ‘I can beat him.’ Never decided what his strength or weakness was.”
Foreman lamented that he “played right into Ali’s hands” by believing the challenger was actually afraid of him as the fight got closer:
“Muhammad was a master. He’d act as frightened as could be. I’d put a hand near his face and he’d act scared, Look, all those amateur boxing matches he had, Sonny Liston … no way he was afraid of me.”
George badly underestimated Ali’s ferocious will to win, and his willingness to suffer to do it. Mike Tyson spoke about Ali’s indomitable will, and willingness to go further and harder than anyone else:
“This is the thing about Ali: When we were watching him get beat up as an old man-even when I was a young kid-he’s not going to quit, you’ve got to kill him. He won’t quit.
Though the smart money had George easily winning the fight, Joe Frazier, who had no love for Ali, had an interesting take on it.:
“I think he [Ali] might pull it off. He ain’t going to do what Foreman thinks he is. I don’t know what he will do, but I know what he won’t, and that’s what Foreman expects him to do.”
The third reason he lost was:
- His corner made absolutely no attempt to adjust their strategy when it was clear that Ali was doing the unexpected, and George was exhausting himself on the ropes.
George repeatedly asked:
“what’s happening, what should I do?”
Not a word was given except “keep hitting him!”
George repeatedly asked Dick Sadler as his primary cornerman and trainer:
“what’s happening, what should I do?”
Not a word was given except:
“keep hitting him!
Dundee said after the fight if he had been Foreman’s trainer, he would have told him, go to the center of the ring, and tell Ali, you want the title, come get it. He said:
“I would NEVER have let George continue to engage on the ropes.”
Conclusion: Why Zaire is Ali’s finest hour, not the Williams fight
Sugar Ray Robinson once said something that explains why the Williams fight, where Ali was simply unbeatable physically, is not his best fight::
“Being the best is winning when you ain’t supposed to…
Mike quoted Cus D’Amato about what made Ali special, the ability to reach inside and rise up even when he was older and his physical gifts were diminished:
“He is the greatest heavyweight boxer of all-time, I think. Yeah. No doubt because Ali has qualities you can’t put on a statistic scale like height and weight and reach and all that stuff. He had internal fortitude. He’s just an amazing man and Cus always said you’re never going to see a guy like him again. Cus was the biggest fan of Ali. He [Cus] just thought that he was the greatest fighter that God ever created.”
Greatness is not winning when you are expected to, no matter how good you look doing it. Ali was supposed to slaughter Williams, and he did. But he was not supposed to defeat the undefeated monster George Foreman – and yet he did.
Manny Steward expressed Ali’s warrior heart and matchless ability to win best:
“[Ali] he did what he had to do to find a way to win and that was one of the unique things about Ali.“
As Rocky Marciano said:
“Greatness is getting up when you go down, and keeping on when you think you can’t. Greatness is winning when nobody thinks you will but you or fighting on when you know you are going to lose, but you can’t give up.”
Boxrec for fight records, statistics, quotes by fighters
Ring for ratings
By George:: The Autobiography of George Foreman by George Foreman
God in My Corner : A Spiritual Memoir” by George Foreman and Ken Abraham
Going the Distance by Ken Norton
Larry Holmes: Against the Odds by Phil Berger
Mike Tyson, in a 2012 interview with Thisis50 | If it’s Hot it’s Here
Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser
Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser
The Greatest: My Own Story by Muhammad Ali
Undefeated: Rocky Marciano – The Fighter Who Refused to Lose By Everett Skehan