Muhammad Ali, a heavyweight boxing legend from Louisville and a worldwide cultural and sports icon since the 1960s, died Friday at the age of 74. In a Twitter poll, we asked Herald-Leader Sports followers to vote on Ali’s greatest triumph in the ring.
The results, in reverse order:
4. Leon Spinks rematch, 1978: 5 percent
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Exactly seven months after losing a split decision to Leon Spinks, a 1976 Olympic gold medalist, a 36-year-old Ali becomes the first three-time heavyweight champion when he regains his title in a 15-round, unanimous decision. Noticeably trimmer in the rematch, Ali puts his veteran wiles on display — dancing and clutching and jabbing his way to boxing history.
After being told the fight was sloppy, longtime Ali trainer Angelo Dundee tells Sports Illustrated’s Pat Putnam, “Sloppy? It was beautifully sloppy. It was gorgeous sloppy, wonderful sloppy. And it was the only damn way we were going to beat Spinks.”
3. First Sonny Liston fight, 1964: 16 percent
What Mike Tyson was to heavyweight boxing in the mid-1980s, Sonny Liston was to the heavyweight division in the 1960s. But a baby-faced Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, punctures the 218-pound Liston’s aura of invincibility with six rounds of perpetual motion and pugilistic genius. A clearly frustrated and battered “Big Bear,” as Liston was known, refuses to leave his corner for the seventh round, securing Ali’s first heavyweight title at just 22 years old.
2. Rumble in the Jungle, 1974: 30 percent
Documented brilliantly in the film When We Were Kings, the fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, was held at 4 a.m. local time to maximize the closed-circuit television audience in the United States. At 25, George Foreman was 40-0 and the resident baddest man on the planet, while 32-year-old Ali, who hadn’t owned a major title belt in more than seven years, was entering his post-prime years. Some wondered whether Ali was putting his life at risk by just entering the ring. Instead, he rope-a-dopes a lumbering Foreman for eight rounds, until one final right hand to the chin sets in motion a stunning visual: the giant Foreman spinning and tumbling to the canvas.
1. Thrilla in Manila, 1975: 49 percent
With apologies to Cowboys-Steelers and Affirmed-Alydar, the greatest rivalry of the 1970s was Ali-Frazier. Joe Frazier, a stocky southpaw from Philly, got the best of Ali in their first match in 1971 — billed, accurately, as “The Fight of the Century” — and Ali won a rematch three years later. Then came the Thrilla, so named because of a prefight press conference in which Ali produces a toy gorilla and begins throwing punches at it, speed bag-style, while proclaiming, “It will be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the gorilla in Manila.”
Ali’s cruel treatment of Frazier notwithstanding, the 14-round fight — in energy-sapping, 100-degree Philippine heat — is a demonstration of courage and brutality, ending when Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, throws in the towel at the start of the 15th round because Frazier, his eyes swollen shut, can no longer see. “Closest I came to dying,” Ali said.