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Muhammad Ali or Joe Louis: Who Really Was The Greatest?

BY Sam Gregory ON June 10, 2004
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Muhammad Ali, self proclaimed “The Greatest,” fought 61 bouts over a course of 21 years. With a career record of 56 wins, 37 coming by way of knockout, and 5 losses, Ali was also the first man to win the heavyweight title three times.

When he was still known as Cassius Clay, he won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics as a light heavyweight. In 1964 Clay won the first of his three heavyweight titles when he stunned the boxing world by defeating the seemingly unbeatable Sonny Liston. With all his accomplishments in the ring, how would Muhammad Ali in the prime of his carrier have stacked up against the man many boxing experts consider to be the greatest heavyweight of all time, Joe Louis?

When discussing great fighters in any weight class, the name Joe Louis inevitably comes up. Louis fought a total of 71 professional fights, winning 68, an incredible 54 by knockout, and losing only 3. “The Brown Bomber” has laid claim to some accomplishments of his own that will never be matched. At a time when this country was living under the household rule, “If you wanna be Heavyweight Champion, you’ve gotta be white,” Joe Louis was widely respected by all Americans. Winning the heavyweight title a full decade before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier was just one of Louis’ many achievements as a heavyweight fighter.

Having lost a non-title fight to Max Schmeling in 1936, Louis won the heavyweight title a year later by knocking out the heavyweight champion at the time, James Braddock. Still holding the heavyweight title, it was June of 1938 when Louis was given a rematch with Schmeling, this time with Louis’ title at stake. The fight was considered much more than a re-match, not only to Louis but to everyone in the country. The bout only lasted 124 seconds, but Joe Louis’ victory over Max Schmeling will endure forever. Having beat Adolf Hitler’s symbol of the superior Aryan race, that fight will long be remembered as one of the major sporting events of the 20th century.

Joe Louis held the heavyweight championship title from 1937 to 1949, the longest streak in boxing history. Louis held the title longer than the great John L. Sullivan, who held the title from 1882 to 1892, and the renowned Jack Dempsey, who held the title from 1919 to 1926.

In comparing Louis and Ali, I will consider the quality of opposition the two faced, the strengths and weaknesses each man possessed and, lastly, something I think should be considered with today’s fighters, the timeliness of their retirement. That is, did they continue on fighting well past their prime? Did they put themselves in a position to loss to opponents they should have beaten easily at one time?

Starting with Joe Louis, it’s been said that he lacked the technique of some of the greats before him. It’s also been noted that Louis lacked “The beautiful ring science” of Jim Corbett and the lightening speed of Jack Dempsey. However, he combined enough of these assets along with the extreme power of his punches to be among the most devastating heavyweights of all time. His opposition was considered a combination of the good and the mediocre. His three losses were a knockout by Max Schmeling before he became a title holder, a loss to Ezzard Charles and a knockout by Rocky Marciano when he made his comeback attempt.

Ali fought his first pro fight in 1960 at the age of 18. Early in his carrier it was quickly apparent that he possessed unbelievable hand and foot speed. In an unorthodox style, Ali had a habit of holding his hands low and bobbing to evade punches to the head. The habit of holding his hands low was responsible for more than a few knockdowns. Also, he didn’t possess the power in his lightening fast jabs to do any lasting damage to his opponents. In most cases Ali was able to outsmart his opponents, as in his fight with Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Foreman had much harder punching power, but was worn out in the extreme heat and volume of punches he threw as Ali lay on the ropes.

An example of Ali’s style of holding his hands low was his fight against Henry Cooper on 6/18/1963. Still known as Cassius Clay, he taunted Cooper with his hands held low as he swayed away from Cooper’s hooks. In the 4th round Clay swayed right into a left hook from Cooper that sent Clay to the canvas. Clay made it to his feet at the count of four, just before the bell rang to end the round. Suffice to say, had the punch been a hook, jab or any other power punch from Joe Louis, Clay would not have gotten up at any count.

In the case of both fighters it can be said they both fought past there prime. For Joe Louis, he retired heavyweight champion of the world in 1948 after knocking out Jersey Joe Walcott. Two years later he tried to regain the title only to loss a 15 round title fight to heavyweight champion Ezzard Charles. He fought through 1951 until finally retiring after a KO loss to Rocky Marciano.

In Muhammad Ali’s carrier, having lost and regained the heavyweight title three times was a remarkable achievement. In 1978, at the age of 36, Ali lost the heavyweight title to Leon Spinks then re-won the title seven months later and retired from boxing. Two years later Ali made an attempt to regain the title from Larry Holmes and was TKOed in the 11th round. One year later he made another attempt at fighting Trevor Berbick in a 10 round match that he again lost.

In considering all aspects of both fighters, Joe Louis clearly comes out the superior of the two. At a time in this country when the odds were stacked against Louis, he prevailed against all odds and should go down in history as the greatest heavyweight of all time.

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