Ali the boxer was remarkable in three distinct phases of his career: (1) The young champion who was so swift and nimble that opposing fighters could literally barely touch him, (2) The slightly past his prime Ali who came back after being banned from boxing for draft evasion (an unjust decision overturned by a Supreme Court verdict) who proved that he could win not just with superior physical tools but also with guile and guts and (3) The clearly past his prime Ali who became the first heavyweight champion to regain the title for the third time.
A fourth phase that we never saw will forever be a source of speculation: What would Ali have accomplished in the late 1960s if he had not been banned from the sport?
As for the fifth and final phase, the less said about the Holmes and Berbick bouts, the better. Those two fights that should have never happened certainly contributed to, if not caused, many of the ailments that plagued Ali for the final decades of his life.
I am not a boxing expert but from what I know of the sport I do believe that Ali was the greatest boxer of all-time or at the very least the greatest heavyweight. His best assets were his mind and his toughness. He analyzed his opponents and himself and he figured out what he had to do to win. Young Ali relied on speed and physical gifts but if those things were all that he had then he never would have beaten Joe Frazier twice or toppled George Foreman when Foreman was considered invincible.
Ali's toughness ultimately proved to be his undoing, because the ability to take punishment may be an asset in the ring but there is a heavy price to be paid later in life. Frazier, who resented Ali's taunts, often cruelly bragged that anyone who wants to know who really won their fights need only look at how rapidly Ali deteriorated physically.
Boxing is a cruel sport but one that rewards cunning, guile and bravery, three qualities that Ali possessed in abundance.
Ali will be remembered as much for his words as his actions. Here are some of my favorite Ali quotes:
1) "I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'"
2) "Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing."
3) "Live everyday as if it were your last because someday you're going to be right."
4) "I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me."
5) "The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights."
One more for the road: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Your hands can't hit what your eyes can't see. Rumble young man, rumble."
Rest in Peace, Muhammad Ali.