When Tom Brady led the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 7, he collected the seventh Super Bowl championship of his career and his fifth Super Bowl MVP award.
Brady’s latest triumph reignited debates among sports fans and media over which player is the greatest of all time in pro football, and which athlete is the “GOAT” for all sports.
The all-sports GOAT discussion often includes Brady (football), Michael Jordan (basketball), Usain Bolt (track and field), Michael Phelps (swimming), Serena Williams (tennis) and Babe Ruth (baseball), among others. It’s an exclusive group of the most famous, gifted and successful athletes in history.
Another popular name in that discussion is the late, great Muslim boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
From 1960 to 1981, Ali compiled a professional record of 56 wins and 5 losses, with 37 wins by knockout. (Prior to his pro career, he won an Olympic gold medal as an amateur.) He won the world heavyweight championship three times. He defeated a long list of Hall of Fame fighters that includes Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson, Archie Moore, Sonny Liston and Ken Norton.
And if his record wasn’t impressive enough, consider that Ali was inactive for three years during what would’ve been the prime of his career. During that time, he battled the U.S. government over his objection to serving in the military during the Vietnam War. And just like Jordan famously came back from retirement in his prime to reclaim his spot as the best basketball player in the world, Ali returned to the ring after his forced hiatus to win championships and defend his nickname as simply “The Greatest.”
Ali was a true showman who fought a crowd-pleasing style in the ring: blinding quickness and speed, concussive power, and wizard-like defense. Outside the ring, he was a trendsetter with his self-promotion and self-marketing skills. Outside of the people who hatred him for being Black and Muslim and politically outspoken, Ali was beloved for personality and character. Ali generated TV ratings, attracted radio listeners, and sold newspapers and magazines.
Ali’s appeal went beyond boxing. He was a global superstar during his fighting career and a global icon after his retirement from the ring. He dedicated his post-boxing life to social justice and humanitarian causes, even as he fought Parkinson’s disease later in life. Ali passed away in 2016, at 74 years old, widely considered one of the greatest athletes and one of the greatest people the world has seen.
There’s no doubt that Ali has a strong argument for being the greatest boxer of all time, and for being the greatest overall athlete of all time.
Here’s the thing with GOAT debates, though: There will never be a definitive, universally agreed-upon answer.
It’s part of what makes most sports debates everlasting. Everyone has their own criteria for what makes an athlete worthy of a GOAT label. Is it talent? Is it putting together impressive statistics and breaking records? Is it winning championships? Is it racking up individual awards and accolades?
On top of that, comparing athletes from different sports is difficult. So is comparing athletes from different eras. As well as comparing athletes from team sports to athletes from individual sports. It’s possible to come to an agreement on which athletes are great, but it’s nearly impossible to agree on which one is the greatest.
In his own sport, Ali has tough competition for the GOAT title. In terms of talent and skills, one can easily argue that Roy Jones Jr. or Mike Tyson or Sugar Ray Robinson was better. In terms of accomplishments and record, one can easily argue that Floyd Mayweather Jr. or Henry Armstrong or Rocky Marciano was better.
I’ve often compared Muhammad Ali’s GOAT credentials to that of 2Pac in the hip-hop genre. The late 2Pac may not have been the most talented rapper of all time or the most accomplished. But a lot of fans consider him the GOAT of the rap game because of his influence and impact. 2Pac, like Muhammad Ali, was more meaningful to a lot of people than more skilled or more successful artists like Notorious B.I.G., JAY-Z or Ice Cube. He might not have been the best, but he might have been the most important rapper to grace the stage.
That’s how I view Muhammad Ali’s legacy in boxing and in sports. He might not have been the best, but he might have been the most important. And that presents a good enough case to declare him the greatest.