Wed, Jun 08, 2016 - Page 19 News List

Muhammad Ali was Greatest in ring; here is why

NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Muhammad Ali lands a right to the jaw of challenger Floyd Patterson in the seventh round of their heavyweight title fight at Las Vegas, Nevada, on Nov. 22, 1965.

Photo: AP

Do not ever drop your hands. Do not hold your chin up, or lean straight back when trying to avoid a punch, or let your opponent pin you into a corner.

They are among the basic tenets of boxing, lessons that a trainer teaches fighters early on.

Muhammad Ali defied all of those conventions. Brash as he was with his mouth, the way he fought was arguably even bolder: hands down, head up, dancing, daring his opponent to draw in closely.

As people around the world remember Ali, who died on Friday, for the social and cultural titan that he was, it is worth reflecting on the unprecedented skills in the ring that earned him the platform to become one of the most popular, influential figures on the planet.

Ali broke onto the boxing scene more than half a century ago as a chiseled, but somewhat lanky light-heavyweight Olympic champion.

As a professional, he quickly established a lightning-quick, tap-dancing style that upended the limits of what heavyweights could do. This was Shaquille O’Neal dribbling like Stephen Curry.

“He introduced an agility, a mobility and speed that hadn’t really been seen in that particular framework in the heavyweight division,” said Naazim Richardson, who has trained several world champions. “God actually trained him. Everybody else just helped out.”

Ali finished his career winning 56 fights and losing just five. Many fighters have tried to incorporate elements of Ali’s style into their arsenals, but he was so unorthodox that no one has been able to do it the way he did.

Here is a closer look at the particulars of what made Ali a great fighter.

HIS FEET

Back and forth, back and forth, Ali would scissor his legs. It seemed an innocuous move, but the Ali shuffle, as it came to be known, is part of what made him effective.

“As you watch him dance, you get hit with a four or five-punch combination,” former middleweight and light heavyweight world champion Bernard Hopkins said of Ali’s opponents. “Now you try to figure out: How did a guy use a tactic that has nothing to do with boxing, called the Ali shuffle, and make it effective?”

That is most likely what Cleveland Williams was thinking as Ali destroyed him in three rounds in a 1966 fight that many experts say was Ali’s best ever. At one point in the first round, Ali quickly shuffled his feet back and forth twice in the middle of the ring. Williams appeared to freeze as Ali peppered him with a series of lefts and rights.

Those quick feet also served as Ali’s best defensive weapon. If a fighter came within sniffing range, Ali was quick to launch himself out of reach. Fighters are typically taught to move back and to the side when avoiding an opponent’s punches, but never to go straight back. Ali did not necessarily have to follow that rule.

That was the case earlier in the first round of the Williams fight when Williams seemed to have Ali cornered. However, Ali threw a left jab to Williams’ stomach, then quickly swooped that arm up to hook at Williams’ head, while at the same time leaning back. As Williams tried to respond with an overhand right, Ali already had tiptoed out of reach, and he delivered another left hook to Williams’ head for good measure.

HIS HANDS

Ali was not the hardest puncher, but he had a long reach and was quick and persistent with his hands, wearing down opponents before trying to finish them off.

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