Muhammad Ali was known for disparaging his opponents with mean nicknames and aggressive insults. Fortunately for him, he could back up his talk in the ring. Over his legendary career, the heavyweight tallied a list of accomplishments too numerous to list here. They include taking home an Olympic gold medal, winning the heavyweight title three times, and felling fellow all-time greats like Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Sonny Liston. It’s no wonder his own nickname was “The Greatest.”
The Louisville, Kentucky, native finished his career with a record of 56-5, with two of those losses coming after an ill-fated late-career return to the sport. From these 61 contests, let’s look at what experts say are five of the best, in increasing order of importance.
Cleveland Williams, November 14, 1966
Ali boasted an unblemished record of 27-0 when he stepped into the ring with Cleveland Williams, a hard-punching fighter whose career to that point had seen him knock out 51 opponents. Unfortunately for Williams, Ali would not be No. 52.
Turning in a performance that some experts consider to be his finest, Ali used every tool in his vast arsenal to trounce Williams. Jabs, combinations, movement—everything was working for him that autumn evening. He overwhelmed his opponent to the point that Williams barely landed a punch.
The end came after Ali dropped the veteran fighter three times in the second round. Williams survived until the third round. Then he went down again for the final time early in the frame. The TKO was immortalized with the famous overhead photograph of Ali standing over Williams, his hands raised in victory.
Joe Frazier, March 8, 1971
It’s a testament to the greatness of Ali that, even in defeat, he could turn in a performance so impressive. In what at the time was—and still may be—the biggest prizefight in history, Ali faced the man who would prove to be his greatest rival in the ring. “Smokin' Joe" was in his prime, his Herculean brawling style forcing Ali to absorb one thudding punch after another. Ali’s speed had diminished during his three-year suspension from the sport.
To his credit, Ali took the punches and gave many back, winning rounds and never giving up—even after a 15th-round knockdown that marked the first time he had been dropped in eight years. Frazier deservedly took home the unanimous win, but Ali was noble in defeat.
Sonny Liston, February 25, 1964
Many thought the “Louisville Lip’s” verbosity was more impressive than his boxing skills when, as an unproven 22-year-old, he stepped into the ring against the fearsome Sonny Liston. Bookmakers made the veteran champion a 7/1 favorite, and few ringside observers doubted he would make quick work of the fighter then still using the moniker Cassius Clay.
As he often did, “The Greatest” proved them wrong. In one of boxing’s biggest ever upsets, Clay put on one of the sport’s most legendary performances. Over six rounds, he confounded Liston, avoiding the champion’s punches while peppering him with blinding jabs and straight rights. Liston, a Hall of Fame boxer who’s considered one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, had no answer, and he quit on his stool before the seventh round.
Joe Frazier, October 1, 1975
Joe Frazier said his punches hit Ali so hard that they could have “brought down the walls of a city.” Ali said that fight was “the closest thing to dying.” The “Thrilla in Manilla" was the third—and final—meeting between these two legends. Both boxers were past their prime, but what they may have lost in endurance and condition, they more than equaled with their display of will and fortitude.
The bout began with Ali using aggressive combinations to control the early rounds. Frazier responded in the middle frames, landing one devastating body blow after another as he trapped Ali against the ropes. Unable to finish his opponent, “Smokin' Joe" eventually tired, and “The Greatest” turned the tide. After 14 brutal rounds and having both of Frazier’s eyes swollen shut, his trainer mercifully put a stop to the contest.
George Foreman, October 30, 1974
Like in his bout against Liston a decade prior, few gave Ali a chance against George Foreman. Ali was too old, his skills too diminished. Foreman, at 25, was seven years younger, and he had made terrifyingly quick work of the only two men to defeat Ali. So intimidating was the young champion that many believed he was unbeatable.
Ali did beat him, though, thanks in large part to a move of tactical brilliance that boxing fans still discuss today. Lying back against the ropes, Ali employed his now-famous “Rope-A-Dope” strategy. By inviting his wide-swinging opponent to tee off on him, Ali hoped to tire Foreman out. He did just that, and as the clock ticked down in the eighth round, Ali seized his opportunity. “The Greatest” landed a five-punch combination that sent the young champion stumbling headfirst down onto the canvas. Foreman didn’t get up, and Ali’s performance has never been forgotten.