Ali's legend forged beyond the classic bouts

Teddy Atlas ranks Ali's best bouts.
Ringside: Ali Part II
Motion: Highlights

Originally Published: January 17, 2006
By Teddy Atlas | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: Jan. 17 marked Muhammad Ali's 64th birthday. ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas considers some of Ali's greatest fights.

I was asked to put together a list of the five greatest fights fought by a man who called himself "The Greatest," Muhammad Ali.

Obviously a very subjective matter, my first problem was deciding on five. I instead chose six.

Muhammad Ali
As he aged, Ali's physical and mental grit replaced shocking speed.

As criteria, I chose ability, execution, drama and historic value. Now that I've set the stage, consider these selections in ascending order.

6. Ali KO3 Cleveland Williams, Nov. 14, 1966: As I search for a starting place in Ali's 56-5 (37 KOs) career, I ask myself which of Ali's attributes was the strongest. I think it was his ability to entertain.

That is the essence of any professional sport, the ability to sell.

I pictured a young Frank Sinatra, lighting up the stage, or an early Bob Hope capturing a room. I asked myself what it was that grabbed you the first time the curtain rose on one of those acts. The obvious answer: talent.

There have been few exhibitions of raw ability that can match the show the then-212-pound Ali unveiled in the Houston Astrodome against "Big Cat" Williams. Ali needed just three whirlwind rounds.

Williams failed to touch the champ, thanks to Ali's speed, combination punching and footwork. I realize Williams was a much lesser fighter than he had been earlier in his career, but the only judging point here was the uncommon athletic ability that Ali displayed.

5. Ali W10 Doug Jones, March 13, 1963: Ali was explosive in the Williams fight. I think this bout against Jones provides an example of Ali's being tested before he became champion, before many knew what he had besides talent, when there still were questions but not yet any answers.

Jones was 21-3-1 entering this bout with Ali. There were many in Madison Square Garden that night who are convinced Jones beat Ali.

The man who had knocked out the likes of Bob Foster and Zora Foley came out fast and staggered the 17-0 Ali in the opening round.

Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston
"The Greatest" had a classic battle with Liston in their first meeting.

Until that point, the only time an opponent touched Ali was during center-ring introductions.

If Ali was to beat Jones, he needed something other than speed and agility. Ali found the will to win the last two rounds to remain unbeaten.

4. Ali TKO7 Sonny Liston, Feb. 25, 1964: This was just the first of several times Ali would, as he liked to claim, "shock the world."

This was his crowning as the heavyweight champion of the world as he undressed Sonny Liston. To win a world title in anything, you have to be hitting on all cylinders, and that night in the Convention Hall in Miami, Ali was. His cornerman Angelo Dundee was, too.

Ali gave an early indication of what kind of speed he possessed, and what's most impressive is he did it against a man who struck fear into the heavyweight division, a man who was a 7-1 favorite. As Ali showed his worth, so did Dundee.

When a temporarily blinded Ali panicked in the corner, his trainer cleaned his eyes with a sponge and pushed him back out with the instructions to run.

The fighters with special careers find ways to win fights. Nearly a year before, Ali improvised to beat Doug Jones. He showed he could adjust again to beat Liston for the title.

Ali had learned to frustrate many opponents. It was demonstrated here, as Liston refused to answer the bell for the seventh round.

3. Joe Frazier W15 Ali, March 3, 1971: There is no existence without history, and there are few battles that mark it better than Frazier-Ali I. The promotional banner "The Fight of the Century" fit. You could have been any place in the country -- perhaps even the world -- on that day and just say "The Garden." Everyone knew where and what you were talking about.

New York City and Madison Square Garden were the center of the universe on that day. Everyone wanted to be there. Those who couldn't headed for theaters to watch the closed-circuit broadcast.

It was the day that Joe Frazier finally closed Ali's mouth for a moment. But in doing so, Frazier opened the eyes of many who had seen Ali only as a gifted athlete and a braggart. Now they also recognized a man, a warrior.

Like the respect the young Sugar Ray Leonard would gain in later years when he lost his first fight in a gritty effort to Roberto Duran, Ali won more than he lost that night.

When he rose from the canvas, with a swollen jaw, he stood for more in people's minds and hearts than he had before.

2. Ali KO8 George Foreman, Oct. 30, 1974: To be the kind of king who's always remembered, sometimes you must lose your throne and then return triumphant.

Muhammad Ali
Like Frazier, Ali left a lot of himself in the ring after "The Thrilla."

In what was then known as Kinshasa, Congo (now Zaire), the former heavyweight king reclaimed his crown when he knocked out previously unbeaten George Foreman. Little did Ali know that his first fight with Liston would prepare him on how to beat a bully.

This time, the choice of weapons would be different. Physical and mental grit replaced shocking speed.

Where he had been Michelangelo, he was now Conan the Barbarian, who also possessed the intellect of Freud. He needed that and the "rope-a-dope" to beat Foreman in what's known as "The Rumble In The Jungle."

1. Ali TKO 14 Frazier, Oct. 1, 1975: If "The Rumble In The Jungle" revived Ali and his legend, then his most notable fight of all would be the one when he left part of himself in the ring in the Philippines. If you must die a little to become immortal, then both Ali and Frazier died a bit that night in their third meeting. If a life can be read like a book, then the hardest chapters of their existence were written that night in "The Thrilla In Manila."

Like Hemmingway with a hammer, they wrote and rewrote what at first seemed like an ordinary script. Although you wondered how neither ran out of ink -- or blood -- it was the publisher who finally shut down the presses.

Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, told the ref, "No more."

I can find no more fitting or even telling place to finish this list.

Teddy Atlas is a former trainer who also serves as an analyst on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights."

Teddy Atlas

ESPN2 Friday Night Fights Ringside Analyst
Teddy Atlas joined ESPN in September 1998 to serve as ringside analyst for ESPN2 Friday Night Fights, the weekly series, which premiered October 3, 1998. He handles a similar role for ESPN Boxing Specials, and frequently contributes analysis to SportsCenter and ESPNEWS.

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