THE year was 1979 and Muhammad Ali was heavyweight champion of the world having regained the title from Leon Spinks the year before. I was hanging around the ring at the Sweeney Center Police Athletic League in Brooklyn one night, where off to the corner a few of the fighters were engaging in conversation. Suddenly they all broke out in laughter. I walked over and asked to be let in on the fun. “See that guy over there,” one of them pointed, “he said that Muhammad Ali would have beaten Joe Louis.” Such a thought was incomprehensible to that group. The consensus of the era had Louis firmly as the greatest heavyweight ever, with Ali floating up and down a few spots behind depending on who you were speaking to.
Although the Ali of 1979 was not quite the beloved figure he would later become, the days of him being reviled were basically a thing of the past. Ali’s popularity was such that a few years earlier he was warmly greeted by President Gerald Ford at the White House.
Ali would never win another fight after defeating Spinks. Subsequently there would be no new heroics that should have lifted his status as an all- time great making the masses reevaluate their opinions and putting him ahead of Louis, but that is exactly what has happened. Today the roles are reversed. It is hard to find anyone who rates Ali behind any other heavyweight let alone Louis. Well stop looking around, for arguments sake and to play devil’s advocate we are making a case over 15 rounds of why the Brown Bomber is still number one:
Round One – Ali and Louis’ Personalities
Louis and Ali were the polar opposites. One was quiet, humble, and modest. The other was loud, boisterous and a showman. Louis never said he was better than Jack Dempsey the other legendary champion he was constantly compared to during his prime, but Ali always made it a point to say that he was the greatest of all-time. Had Louis campaigned for his place in ring history as Ali did, perhaps we would still regard him as the best.
Round Two – Ali is considered a modern fighter, Louis is regarded as an Old Timer
Ali has helped to perpetuate this myth, by describing Louis as a slow shuffling fighter who never could have caught up to him. The modern boxer Ali had surmised was so much better. Actually though Louis’ last fight and Ali’s pro debut were nine years apart. So in the span of less than a decade it is doubtful that the fighters of Ali’s time had improved much if at all from Louis’.
Round Three – Ali was a bigger icon than Louis
That is saying a lot because Louis was bigger than life to the black community and Americans at large when he fought. He transcended boxing, but not to the level Ali later did with his well-documented exploits. I was watching a television show recently where Ray Mancini was asked who he considered the greatest heavyweight of all–time. Mancini said he put Ali first and Louis second, because of what Muhammad meant to society outside of the ring. Although things like that should not count in rating a boxer’s prowess, to some people they do.
Round Four – Louis was better at a younger age than Ali
People forget that when Ali first challenged for the world heavyweight title at age 22, he was a 7-1 underdog. Part of the reason was the perception of champion Sonny Liston’s invincibility at the time, but also Ali’s performances in the lead up to the fight had not always been impressive. Louis outside of the one major blip against Max Schmeling was thoroughly dominant in all of his fights by the time he challenged for the crown at age 23.
Round Five – Louis was better at an older age than Ali
They each ended their careers in sad fashion. Ali 38, was completely dominated in a one-sided loss to Larry Holmes retiring on his stool at the end of the 10th not having won a round, then lost clearly on points to Trevor Berbick. In comparison to that Louis actually fared well. He went the 15 round distance with Ezzard Charles and though well beaten, won a few rounds. Against Rocky Marciano in his final fight people remember Louis 37, sprawled out on the ring apron being stopped in the eighth. What is forgotten was how competitive that fight was. Louis was even on the scorecards after five rounds until his old legs started to give way to Marciano’s pressure.
Round Six – Ali lost the biggest fight of his career, Louis won his biggest
Three fights stand out as the biggest in boxing history. They are as follows:
The Jack Johnson–Jim Jeffries fight in 1910, the Louis–Schmeling rematch in 1938, and the first Ali – Joe Frazier fight in 1971. As great as Ali was, the bottom line is that he actually lost the most highly anticipated contest of his career. Louis on the other hand performed at his best, knocking out Schmeling in a round. On the biggest stage it was the Brown Bomber who fared better.
Round Seven – Louis had faster hands than Ali
In making a case for why he would have beaten the Brown Bomber, Ali would describe Louis as slow. While Ali’s foot speed was far superior, his hand speed was not. When Louis started to unload combinations he did so with blinding quickness. Louis was a master at capitalising on an opponent’s mistakes that even the great Ali tended to make from time to time.
Round Eight –Louis performed consistently better than Ali
Louis had the one disastrous outing against Schmeling, but never came close to losing again until he was over the hill. On the other hand, Ali had a number of close calls. In three fights in succession he barely scraped through. Two of the judges had him up only by one round against Doug Jones. In Ali’s next fight he was saved by the bell after getting dropped by Henry Cooper, then in the one after that Angelo Dundee had to push him out of the corner when he wanted to retire against Sonny Liston after getting a burning sensation in his eyes. Add in the close victories over Frazier, Ken Norton, and Jimmy Young and it becomes plain to see that Louis was clearly the more dominant fighter of the two.
Round Nine – Louis was better in rematches
Ali was good in this department as well. The difference though is that Louis left no doubt the second time around in how he outclassed the opposition, but Ali’s opponents still remained highly competitive. For example, Jersey Joe Walcott and Ken Norton were comparatively even in quality, but Ali struggled in all three fights with Norton. Louis after winning a disputed decision over Walcott in their first fight knocked him out in the rematch.
Round 10 – The Tyson Factor
The closest thing to Louis was Mike Tyson. Until Tyson’s career unraveled many people were debating who was better between he and Ali. To a small extent that debate still remains. Had Tyson rebounded from the Buster Douglas loss and continued with the same run of domination as before then the Ali debate would pretty much still be alive. Consider this, Louis was every bit as devastating as Tyson ever was but did it over a much longer period of time.
Round 11 – Louis was the greatest finisher of all time
It was rare when Louis had a man in trouble and let him off the hook. If an opponent so much as stumbled Louis would unload an avalanche of blows and finish him. Ali always was able to survive moments of crisis by conning opponents into believing he was not really hurt, but it is doubtful that Louis would have paid any mind to the psychological ploys.
Round 12 – Forget the Rope a Dope
I had a talk with Kevin Rooney during the time he was training Tyson. He told me the Rope a Dope that worked so successfully against George Foreman would have failed against his man. Rooney acknowledged that Tyson and Foreman’s power were relatively even, but unlike George who would flail away wildly, Tyson, Rooney said would place his shots with precision. Louis was methodical and made every punch count. There is a reasonable chance he would have opened up Ali’s defense and landed his trademark combinations of which no one could have stood up to for long.
Round 13 – Size Factor
Louis weighed on average close to 15 pounds less than Ali did in his prime, but that would not have been an issue. Louis was successful against opponents who were much bigger than Ali such as Primo Carnera, Abe Simon, and Buddy Baer. None were on Ali’s level, but the point is that Louis could cope well with heavier opponents if he had to.
Round 14 – Social Media
Ali was an athlete clearly ahead of his time. His sense of humor and how he connected with the public both socially and as an athlete made him a man for the ages. Louis was a hero to his generation, but did not mean nearly as much to future ones as did Ali. When old fight films are replayed on television we see a lot more of Ali’s than Louis’. That definitely can sway someone’s thinking.
Round 15 – Quality of opposition
Ali deserves an edge here but just barely. Louis stopped six men who at one time held the undisputed world heavyweight title. The Brown Bomber made 25 straight successful title defenses, a record for the heavyweight division. At one point he put the title on the line for seven months in a row. Although Louis’ opponents were respectable his dominance was such that it was called the Bum of the Month tour. Ali’s quick wit was hard to match but Louis verbally beat him to the punch during an exchange of words. “Are you calling me a bum,” Ali jokingly demanded to know. Louis gave Ali his famous deadpan look and said, “You would have been on the tour.” Touché.