Muhammad Ali had the most unsuccessfully imitated fighting style of all time. Even now, three and a half decades after his retirement, you can still find boxers making the mistake of trying to fight like him and getting their faces split open as a consequence. This is his most lasting contribution to the game.
You would never teach anyone to fight like Muhammad Ali. That would be crazy. He didn’t keep his hands up. He reached his arms out on defense. He showboated in the midst of exchanges. He didn’t slip punches correctly. He didn’t “sit down on his punches.” He often planted himself on the ropes as if he was carrying out his opponent’s game plan for him. Any boxer with this collection of bad habits would not have a very long or healthy career. Muhammad Ali was called the greatest not because he won, but because he won in a way that no mortal man could reproduce. Many young up-and-comers give it a try, and after catching a varying number of punches to the face decide that perhaps the Ali style is not for them after all.
Most fighters spend their lives trying and failing to achieve technical perfection. There is another, much smaller, category of men so talented that technical perfection bores them, and they decide to freestyle. To invent their own style. When you saw Muhammad Ali or Roy Jones, Jr. standing directly in front of opponents with their hands down, this was not because they didn’t understand that the technically wise move was to keep their hands up. It was because they had ascended past such pedestrian concerns, as spirits ascend to heaven. The apparent flaws of very, very great fighters are really just private dance moves on top of a ladder of boxing skill that has run out of rungs.
Ali went through two styles in his career. Young Ali, Peak Ali, the magical dancing Ali that everyone celebrates, was the first. He bounced on his toes for round after round in a way not seen in the heavyweight division before or since. Bouncing like that burns a lot of energy, especially if your body is heavy, which is why most heavyweights tend more towards a flat-footed shuffle than a springy bounce. Ali would bounce in backwards circles around opponents who were always shuffling to where he was a moment before, and he would pop his jab, and sooner or later come in with slashing right hands that carried fair knockout power even though they looked pretty slappy at times. His left hooks were little more than jabs from the side. Remarkably for such a legend, he was basically a two-punch fighter. But when his feet were moving, those two punches could come from almost anywhere. Defensively, Peak Ali relied on head movement—really waist movement, translated all the way through his upper body. He could sprawl his legs out wide and move at the waist and dip and dodge punches in a way that seemed incredibly risky but which wasn’t too risky as long as he was the fastest man in his division. The excitement in watching him flowed in equal measure from his grace and from the impression that he was always, always flirting with disaster.
Ali’s second style—Late Ali, Older Ali, Declining Ali—was just as effective as his earlier style, though at a much greater personal cost. Boxing trainers will often say an older fighter has “lost his legs.” Even without injuries or surgeries or other apparent devastations, boxers just seem to lose the pep in their step. No one embodies this mystical affliction better than Late Ali. He left his bounce in the 1960s. As years went by, he would tend to break out his bouncing and shuffling for just seconds at a time during fights, a nod at his past, a psychological con to convince his opponent that he still had it. Then he would descend back to the floor like a normal human.
It is often observed that the worst thing that ever happened to Muhammad Ali was that he learned he could take a punch. Age and his own solid chin conspired to plant his feet in the ground. He retained most of his hand speed, which tends to live on well after foot speed has been lost. He also retained his unique quality of being one of the most frustrating people in history to fight. Once he stopped moving away from opponents so much, he would hold his arms up parallel to the ground and step in and crowd them and reach out and push their wrists around and shove them with an open glove and generally hang on people in an enraging way. Most boxers get close to their opponents for the purpose of punching them; Ali seemed to do it just to harass them psychologically. He often made an ostentatious show of not punching much at all early in fights, even when he had openings, as if to communicate the fact that he had all the time in the world to beat them, and so had no reason to rush. Many late-career Ali fights featured very strong men spending an inordinate amount of time trying to shake Muhammad Ali off them like a bulky overcoat. After many infuriating rounds of this he would often emerge with flurries late in the fight to knock them out, or at least steal a decision. He was the savviest of savvy fighters. He had no recurring pattern. He operated outside of predictability. And he was able to fight on successfully long after he should have retired due to his mind, much more than his body.
Imagine trying to “coach” Muhammad Ali. A nightmare. He would never just go in and finish the guy. He made fights harder than they should have been. At times he devised and carried out strategies that seemed—and still seem, intellectually—so stupid that it makes you shake your head 40 years later. Whereas most fighters fight, which is hard enough, Ali used fights as a stage upon which to fuck with the entire boxing world. He flaunted his freedom from the conventions of boxing in ways that probably cost him a good deal of brain damage, but which also, when viewed in retrospect, serve as bizarre sorts of stylistic records that may never be matched, in a sport that does not bother much with statistics.
What is the equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak in boxing? How about “willingly lay on the ropes against a young George Foreman and allow him to freely pound on you with all his might, and then knock him out”? Pursuing such a strategy by choice is like a baseball player deciding, after much deliberation, to start hitting pitches with his bare hands. Counterintuitive things don’t generally pan out in boxing. Like tightrope walking, this is a field in which the considerable downside risk makes people cling quite tightly to established best practices. To see a world class heavyweight spend year after year pulling straight back from punches with his hands down and still manage to win engendered the same sort of feeling in boxing fans that passersby under the World Trade Center must have felt on August 1, 1974, when Phillip Petit lay down on a wire stretched 104 stories up.
We like to think of Muhammad Ali as a beautiful man in an ugly sport. We like to think of Muhammad Ali as the poetic, refined counterpoint to men like Mike Tyson, who represent all of the darkness that accompanies a life of violence. In fact, Muhammad Ali is violence. All of its glory and peril lived in him. A few years back, an interviewer asked Tyson what he learned from Ali.
“What I learned from Ali was meanness,” said Tyson. “He was the meanest fighter of all time.”