Muhammad Ali: The fights that shaped his career

From his shock 1964 win over Sonny Liston to the ‘thrilla in Manilla’, relive The Greatest

Muhammad Ali’s life was freighted with sub text and narrative. So were his fights. There was rarely anything straightforward about them, always something in the back ground that was bigger in a political and social sense. He made it that way.

He used his charisma and notoriety, his face that the cameras loved and his abundant ability to sell himself and his ideas to the world. Every fight was a political message and his winning of them made his word stronger, his causes wider and the power of what he was saying more potent.

Each of his bouts are not just a series of KOs, feints and jabs but for Ali an amalgam of causes and consequences. His boxing was a tool for his crusades, his three world titles giving him the global audience he craved. He set himself up as the biggest name in not just boxing but sport at a time when Heavyweight Champion of the World had real meaning.

Ali v Sonny Liston – Miami, February 25th, 1964


There wasn’t a boxing fan in the Convention Centre Miami Beach on the night who thought the young upstart from Louisville could beat the brooding, doleful Sonny Liston. The meeting came in 1964, the year after Britain’s Henry Cooper came close to beating the light heavyweight gold medal winner from the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Calling himself Cassius Clay, a name he later referred to as his 'slave name' before becoming Cassius X and later Muhammad Ali, he was 22-years-old when he stepped into the ring with the hard bitten Liston, who had never lost a professional fight. It was Liston's second defence after he had KO's Floyd Patterson in 1962 to win the title.

Liston was a menacing character, reclusive and spoke little to the press. Even Cooper had said he would like to have a shot at the title if Clay won, but not against Liston.

Clay had the fast mouth and fast hands, the antithesis of Liston, he enjoyed the limelight and spared no hyperbole when it came to describing how good he was.

But he was a 7-1 underdog and in a poll of sports writers taken before the bout they voted 43 out of 46 for a Liston victory. The fight was then almost cancelled when Clay’s ongoing association with the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X drew unfavourable publicity from one side of segregated America. It only went ahead when Malcom X was persuaded to leave Miami.

When it started Clay went to work showing his wonderful movement and lightening jab in the early rounds making Liston look flat footed and slow.

In the third Clay opened up hitting Liston with combinations, almost toying with him causing bruising and a cut under his left eye. However when Clay went to his corner he started blinking and complaining there was something burning his eyes and that he couldn’t see.

Joe Pollino, Liston’s cuts man later confessed to reporter Jack McKinney that he had been instructed to rub astringent into Liston’s gloves that he rubbed into Clay’s eyes.

Clay survived the fifth and by the sixth he could see again and resumed control of the fight. During that round he landed combinations at will and Liston could do nothing. He didn’t return for the seventh round and Clay was declared the winner by TKO. It would later be described as upset of the decade. A few days later Clay announced he was a member of the Nation of Islam.

Ali v Cleveland Williams – Houston, November 14th, 1966

The fight was shown in 125 closed circuit televisions around America and was seen directly or delayed in 46 countries around the globe. There were 35,460 in the Houston Astrodome, which for the time, was the largest crowd ever to watch an indoor boxing match. Ali was one of the most watched sports stars on the planet.

The record crowd also witnessed the Ali Shuffle for the first time. He was 5-1 favourite going in as the fight came less than a year after Williams had been shot in an altercation with a highway patrol officer and claimed to ‘have died three times on that table.’

Still, he recovered only to be treated to Ali’s full repertoire of boxing skills. His movement and speed confounded Williams who was chasing a target he could never catch. Ali landed at will with jabs, hooks and four punch combinations and circled to ring at such speed at Williams barely landed a punch.

Ali was at his devastating best against one of the hardest hitters in the sport. With his speed, graceful movement and unerring jab, Ali floored his opponent three times towards the end of round two. Only the bell’s intervention prolonged the fight. The standard rule of boxing that declared the fight a KO if an opponent was down three times in a round was waived this time. That was the only reason the bout was allowed to go to a third round.

However, it did not last much longer, although the ending was brutal and ruthless. In the first minute of the third Williams went down once more and it was at that point he started to take a beating from the insolent, dominating Ali.

Everyone could see Ali’s magisterial influence and although Williams manfully marched towards the barrage of blows referee Harry Kesseler saw enough and stepped in to stop the fight. It was an amazing performance from Ali, a showcase of seven minutes boxing and as close to perfect as he was ever likely to get.

According to Boxing Rec, Compubox counted that Ali landed 62 per cent of his power punches (46 of 74), while Williams landed only 10 punches in the entire fight.

Many consider the fight to be Ali’s best performance. The famous US Broadcaster Howard Cosell told Ali biographer Thomas Hauser: “The greatest Ali ever was as a fighter was in Houston against Williams. That night, he was the most devastating fighter who ever lived.”

Ali v Joe Frazier (I) – Madison Square Garden, New York, March 8th, 1971

It was known as the “fight of the century” between champion Frazier (26-0, 23 KOs) and challenger Ali (31-0, 25 KOs). Both boxers had legitimate claims to the title of World Heavyweight Champion. An undefeated Ali had won the title from Sonny Liston in Miami Beach in 1964, and successfully defended his belt up until he had it stripped by boxing authorities for refusing induction into the armed forces in 1967. In Ali’s absence, the undefeated Frazier garnered two championship belts through knockouts of Buster Mathis and Jimmy Ellis.

Ali’s charisma and politics had him as one of the best known figures in sport and tickets in The Garden that night were like gold dust. Frank Sinatra, unable to find a ticket attended as a photographer for Life Magazine. Burt Lancaster served as a colour commentator for the close circuit broadcast.

The fight went the full 15 round, Ali dominating the early exchanges peppering Frazer with his jabs. But it was Frazier who went into the closing rounds ahead and early in round 15, Frazier landed a spectacular left hook that put Ali on his back.

Ali, with his jaw grotesquely swollen, managed to get up from the blow quickly, and was also able to stay on his feet for the rest of the round despite several cracking shots from Frazier. A few minutes later the judges made it official: Frazier had retained the title with a unanimous decision, dealing Ali his first professional loss.

Ali v Joe Frazier (II) – New York, January 28th, 1974

Held between their title bouts “the fight of the century” in 1971 and “thrilla in Manila” in 1975, this was a non-title meeting scheduled for 12 rounds.

Ali desperately wanted to avenge his loss to Frazier in the first fight and also earn a world title shot against Foreman, who had subsequently beaten Frazier for the belt.

The two had already been fined for squaring up to each other in the ABC studios in New York after Ali had trash talked Frazier, calling him “ignorant”. The slur enraged Frazier who stood up from his seat and it was left for his entourage to calm him down.

Frazier, a notoriously slow starter, was hurt by Ali in the early exchanges and at the end of round two referee Tony Perez stepped between the two mistakenly thinking he had heard the bell, which gave Frazier time to recover. Those precious few seconds allowed Frazier to end the round on his feet

Ali’s tactic of punching in flurries followed by clinching Frazier and tying him up was strongly criticised by the Frazier camp but the referee allowed him do it without sanction.

Ali kept it up for the whole fight and denied Frazier any opportunity to work inside. Although it was close at the end, the fight was handed unanimously to Ali. That brought the score to 1-1 with the third to come the following year in Manilla.

Ali v George Foreman – Kinshasa, Zaire, October 20th, 1974

It took all the talking skills of promoter Don King to pull this one together, with dictator Mobutu Sese Seke eager that such a high profile event be held in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). The hard-punching, muscular Foreman had quickly risen up through the ranks after winning the gold medal in the 1968 Olympic Games and was seen as the outright favourite to win the fight, which was postponed from September until October after Foreman cut his eye in sparring. The fight became famous for Ali’s tactic of leaning on the ropes and allowing Foreman to hit him. All he did was cover up and occasionally lash out with flurries of his own.

Ali subsequently named his tactics afterwards as the rope-a-dope. Foreman did just as Ali wished and went to work. But as the rounds advanced Foreman’s power began to fade, and as Ali went into clinches and wrestled with his opponent the stronger fighter had no answer.

It proved that Ali was unafraid to take huge risks and also that he could take a punch as Foreman rained down hundreds of blows. But it was Ali who emerged stronger, and in the eighth round put Foreman on the canvas with a straight right.

Foreman did get up on the count of nine but referee Zack Clayton stopped it with two seconds remaining in the round, the “Rumble in the Jungle” delivering a new champion.

Ali v Joe Frazier (III) – Manilla, October 1st, 1975

The third and final fight between Ali and Frazier quickly became known as the “thrilla in Manilla”. The contest’s name derived from the frequent boasts by Ali that it would be a “killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get that gorilla in Manilla”.

As it turned out the bout would go down as one of the finest in history.

Frazier and coach Eddie Futch were keen not to allow Ali use the same tactic of holding and clinching he had used in the previous fight. Futch had claimed Ali did it 133 times.

Frazier’s tactics were to work Ali’s body. His strategy followed the boxing axiom “if you kill the body the head will die”. In phenomenal heat Ali continually spoke at Frazier, adopting his rope-a-dope strategy of leaning on the ropes.

But Frazier was landing heavy punches and by the ninth round Ali looked visibly shattered, telling his trainer: “man this is the closest I’ve come to dying”. In the opposite corner Frazier couldn’t see out of his left eye.

When this became apparent Ali seized the moment and went to work but was unable to stop a badly beaten Frazier. Just before the final round Futch had seen enough and pulled Frazier from the fight, despite his fighter’s protests. Ali, who would later admit he was also close to quitting, was champion once more.

“Frazier quit just before I did. I didn’t think I could fight any more,” he said.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times