News outlets are falling over each other in praise of Muhammad Ali. While there is no doubt that he was a tremendous athlete and iconic figure whose story translates itself well into the 60's narrative I have always found the superlative Great as used with the man to be somewhat misapplied.
For one he was not a great human being. Look no further to his treatment of arch-rival Joe Frazier before their third fight in Manila (the notorious thriller). His use of the ‘gorilla’ term to taunt his opponent on looks alone was classless at best as was his use of racist language to imply that Frazier (who was Black) was the White Man’s Champion but was essentially an Uncle Tom when juxtaposed against Ali himself.
Not only were these slurs cruel and unnecessary (and bothered Frazier for the rest of his life) they were especially vile as it was Frazier who gave Ali financial support during his ban from boxing and it was Frazier himself who lobbied hard to have Ali reinstated as a fighter.
Ali was arrogant, continually mocked ‘whitey’ but was never to high above the moral quandary to reject the money that came his way from a largely Caucasian audience. In fact it was white journalist such as Howard Cosell who played a huge role in creating the legend that was Ali as was his legendary trainer Angelo Dundee.
That he was a skilled fighter is a given but his record doesn’t standard head or shoulders above some of the other heavyweights of renowned fame. In fact one could argue that it was less impressive than some of the sport’s leading lights. He did not retire undefeated like Rocky Marciano (39-0) or have the knockout record of Foreman (76 wins 68 by knockout compared to Ali’s 56 wins 37 by knockout), nor did he come close to holding on to the title as long as Joe Louis who carried the belt for 12 years (that included 25 an unbelievable defenses).
He did win the Heavyweight title three times but that was largely a consequence of circumstance (the Don King Rumble Initiative and Leon Spink's suspect decision to avoid Ken Norton the #1 contender at the time and defend against Ali instead).
In fact a breakdown of Ali’s key fights shows a spurious win against Sonny Liston (Phantom Punch…likely a fix), controversial use of the rope-a-dope tactic (arguably illegal) in the Rumble, a wrong victory decision against Ken Norton in the Third Fight and a over hyped win over Frazier in Manila (when Ali’s corner were seconds away from throwing in the towel themselves).
While he was quick to talk the talk when it suited him Ali was too often caught up by his own hubris. He refused to retire with grace and was taken to task for his efforts by both Larry Holmes and the less than stellar Trevor Berbick.