The Boxer that had the Most Charisma? Ali in a Romp but Not Unanimous

In previous surveys, we asked a set of respondents to name their favorite boxing book, favorite fighter, favorite fight, and favorite round. This survey asks respondents to name the boxer — living or dead — that had the most charisma.

In common with the previous surveys, the contributors are listed alphabetically and I get to weigh in first. My choice is Max Baer.

Baer mixed ring theatrics with lethal (and sometimes even fatal) right-handed brutality. For me, it just didn’t get any better than when Baer, as the heartless Buddy Brannen, sauntered over to the doomed Gus Dundee’s corner to wish him well against the duped Toro Moreno in “The Harder They Fall.” Baer was a man’s man — and a ladies man who lived fast, died young, and left a good-looking corpse. Like Jerry Quarry and Ali, he defined charisma.

Here is how twenty-seven others responded:

JIM AMATO (historian, writer, and collector): Rocky Graziano. Everybody loved Rocky. Although he made his bones in boxing, he became even more popular in his post boxing career on TV with Martha Raye, doing commercials, and making the talk show circuit. He seemed to be a real down-to -earth person.

RUSS ANBER (trainer, elite cornerman, Mr. Boxing in Quebec): No one from any walk of life that I have ever encountered had more charisma or a greater aura than Muhammad Ali. Without sounding blasphemous — and those who have met and spoken with Ali know what I am talking about — being in his presence gave you a feeling of being in the presence of someone who is God-like. I don’t know who else, in ANY sport, can make the same claim.

MATT ANDRZEJEWSKI (TSS boxing writer): After some thought, I decided to go with a fighter from the modern era, Johnny Tapia. His passion for the sport and for the fans was always evident. Whether it was a big fight like his match with Danny Romero or a smaller event, Tapia always aimed to please. He loved to fight and perform. And he loved the people that supported his career as it showed in his actions outside the ring.

DAVID AVILA (TSS West Coast Bureau Chief): James Toney to me is the most interesting boxer I’ve ever met. Not only do I consider him the best all-around prizefighter in the last 60 years, but whether in a gym or on the streets he grabs attention naturally. I remember once at the Wild Card he tore a ligament while sparring before a big fight and demanded that the doors be closed and for his aid to grab his gun. Dozens of people were in the gym including several well-known boxers and world champions and he scared the bejeevers out of all of them. They all feared him. But fans of all ethnicities love the guy. Old ladies and children love him. The only people that dislike him are opponents. And the guys he spars with.

JOE BRUNO Former New York Tribune sportswriter; author of more than 45 crime-related books, including true crime, novels and screenplays): I’ll go with Max Bear too. He used to train up in Greenwood Lake, New York, where I had a weekend home for years. During training, Max used to get bored. At night, when everyone was sleeping, he’d jump out the window and hoof it into town to enjoy the nightlife. Then, when he was jogging, if nobody was with him, or if he had a like-minded training partner, he’d run just out of sight behind a hill, stop, douse himself with water from a creek, sit for a while, then jog back to camp with simulated sweat like he had just jogged five miles. Gotta love a guy like that.

JILL DIAMOND (boxing writer and boxing official): In contemporary times I would chose Carlos Cuadras. He has a great personality and is a total crowd pleaser. In his words, “I’m fast. I’m strong and I’m very, very pretty.” Big talk for a super fly who is, in fact, super fly.

For the women I’d have to go with Mia. St. John.  No one can resist her. Whether she was fighting an opponent or as now, mental health laws and reforms, she’s like the pied piper of boxers. There is always a line following her around.

BERNARD FERNANDEZ (TSS mainstay and one of eight lifetime members of the Boxing Writers Association of America): The most obvious answer would be Muhammad Ali, but for historical purposes and in keeping with the tenor of their times, right there with him would be Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. Dempsey was part of the first great American sports renaissance, as much a national figure as Babe Ruth, and more so than Red Grange, Bobby Jones and Bill Tilden. Joe Louis showed that skin color did not prevent all Americans from sharing their hero worship.

JEFFREY FREEMAN (KO Digest founder; TSS New England correspondent): Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee—the boxer with the most was Muhammad Ali.

LEE GROVES (author, journalist, “Traveling Man”): There is Muhammad Ali and then there is everyone else because the effects of his charisma carried far beyond fight-to-fight episodes and the sport of boxing itself. His personality was so powerful that it pulled an entire sport out of the abyss and was able to sustain that sport in terms of relevance for two decades. He attracted people of all stripes to boxing, both as far as watching it and participating, and made an enormous impact sociologically with the force of his will, the depth of his conviction and his ability to persuade. He even managed to transform himself from the most hated athlete to the most beloved one, perhaps in the history of sports. Charisma is determined by how others perceive you, and given the fury he generated with his actions leading up to the exile it is almost miraculous that he was able to reverse that hatred in most quarters just a few years later. Finally, his persona broke down the walls erected by even the hardest of hard-core personalities– and few people had this gift as abundantly as Muhammad Ali.

HENRY HASCUP (historian; longtime president of the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame): Muhammad Ali was ahead of his time and spoke his mind. You either hated him or loved him, but either way you still went out to see his fights.

MIGUEL ITURRATE (former MMA matchmaker, writer, and senior archivist at The Boxing Channel): I’m going with Jorge Paez. The guy was nicknamed Maromero because he grew up around a carnival, so he understood what it meant to put on a show. He flamed out fast and fought for too long but when Paez was a fresh face coming out of Mexico, you couldn’t help but notice him.

BRUCE KIELTY (boxing matchmaker, manager, and historian): John L. Sullivan. His unbridled swagger personified a rising America spreading her wings.

JIM LAMPLEY (HBO sportscaster, 2015 inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame): Ali. No editorial commentary necessary.

ARNE LANG (historian, author, editor-in-chief of The Sweet Science): Ali in a runaway, at least from a global perspective. Roberto Duran and Mike Tyson also come to mind. They had an aura of menace about them that was magnetic. Dempsey was like that too, but I don’t think Dempsey’s charisma crossed racial and ethnic boundaries, as would be true of Duran and Tyson.

HAROLD LEDERMAN: (HBO’s “unofficial boxing judge; 2016 IBHOF inductee): I’ll take “Bad Bennie” Briscoe.

RON LIPTON (world class referee, former fighter, boxing historian, retired police officer): I have never seen or dreamed of any human being that was more charismatic than Ali. While working as the Senior Boxing Consultant for “Muhammad Ali, The Whole Story,” we traveled extensively together and I lived with him on West 11th street in New York City while we worked on the project. I had been his friend since I was 16 years old and in Deer Lake with him and never once did his magic wane with time. We went to a homeless shelter in Philly entertaining the residents and on the way back we stopped at a red light. A woman saw him in the van and called out to him. He got out and gave her a hug which made her cry. Within a minute or so over a hundred people were standing around him asking for autographs. He hugged them all and signed everything despite his entourage pleading with him to get back in the van. He was magical.

FRANK LOTIERZO (former boxer, writer, and lead analyst for The Boxing Channel): Ali was perhaps the most charismatic person who has yet lived in the public eye. There isn’t another athlete close to him that I know of. All he had to do as Cassius Clay or Muhammad Ali was show up, look you in the eye and smile. Once that happened he owned you.

ADEYINKA MAKINDE (British law lecturer; author of Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal and Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula): Ali overcame even the negatives attributed to him by others due to his joking, clowning, rhyming and his joyful boasting—and most of all his accessibility. He seemed to connect with and enthrall all that he met and this genuine form of charisma should not be confused with the cult of mystique surrounding the likes of Garbo, Elvis and Howard Hughes who became reclusive.

GORDON MARINO (philosophy professor, Wall Street Journal boxing writer, and trainer): Like him or not, Muhammad Ali was spellbinding. You could not ignore him. I was an ardent Frazier fan, but love him or hate him, Ali was a magnet for attention and his authentic love for people was infectious and a great rarity. Angelo Dundee used to say that being with Muhammad was like riding a comet.

LARRY MERCHANT (retired HBO commentator and 2009 IBHOF inductee): Ali, a one-man parade, in a class by himself.

RANDY NEUMANN (referee and former fighter): Sonny Liston who as the number one contender for the heavyweight title fought numbers two through nine and knocked most of them out.

ICEMAN JOHN SCULLY (elite trainer and former world light heavyweight title challenger): Ali by far, no question. When he wanted to turn on the charm he could make butter melt from 10 feet away.

MIKE SILVER (boxing historian; author): More than any other athlete Muhammad Ali’s charisma transcended sports and international borders. Even after he was rendered mute he remained the most recognized athlete in the world.

CARYN TATE (boxing writer): It’s hard to think of anyone in the sport with more charisma than Muhammad Ali. The man was a poet, a comedian, a prophet, and a fighter all rolled into one mesmerizing human being.

RICH TORSNEY (former fighter, member of the Board of Advisors to the USA Boxing Alumni Association, member of Ring 4 Boxing Hall of Fame): Aside from the most obvious, Ali, I felt Alexis Arguello was most charismatic. Alexis was handsome and charming along with being a fearless assassin. Ray Leonard also fits the bill for the same reasons.

BRUCE TRAMPLER (Top Rank Matchmaker, 2010 IBHOF inductee): Ali, no need to explain.

PETER WOOD (1971 New York City Golden Gloves middleweight finalist and author of two boxing books): Georges Carpentier, “The Orchid Man,” is my most charming fighter; Oscar Bonavena is my most fascinating. The “Argentine Strong Boy” was a hot mess. He once trained with lions and said, “I got to know them pretty well and we would wrestle around. They scratched and once in a while got careless with their teeth. I do not recommend wrestling with lions as part of training.” The free-swinging fighter always ran into trouble outside the ring. He called Ali a black kangaroo and even a chicken for dodging the draft.  He once even upstaged Ali in a pre-fight press conference. In his pre-fight meeting with Joe Frazier, he sniffed and grimaced, implying Frazier had a personal hygiene problem. Oscar always enjoyed his volatility–until he was shot dead while trespassing at The Mustang Bunny Ranch.

Observations: If there were any surprises, it was that Ali was not a unanimous choice. Thanks to all the participants.

Ted Sares, a member of Ring 4’s Boxing Hall of Fame, is one of the world’s oldest active power lifters and holds several records in the Grand Master class. He has won the EPF Nationals championship four years in a row. He also participates in track and field events in the Senior Games.

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