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Muhammad Ali

The Muhammad Ali boxing DNA strand

Since his prime, all boxers major and minor owe much to ‘The Greatest’

Shortly after the announcement that Muhammad Ali died on Friday after a long bout with Parkinson’s disease, former two-time world champion Paul Malignaggi took to Twitter to sum up his thoughts on the legend: “Any Fighter who ever strived to be & act like The Greatest took their cue from one man. #RIP, Muhammad Ali.”

It’s been nearly 35 years since Ali fought his last fight in 1981 (losing by unanimous decision to Trevor Berbick), but his legacy as The Greatest of All Time, or the GOAT, has endured over time and his stylistic influence, both as a fighter and persona, has pervaded the sport for every generation since his prime.

In the late 1970s, Ali’s influence was seen in Sugar Ray Leonard, who demonstrated Ali’s showmanship and charisma in the ring when he won an Olympic gold medal in 1976. Leonard’s successful boxing career was launched under the guidance of Angelo Dundee, Ali’s longtime trainer.

In the 1980s, you saw Ali’s influence in the straight jabs and combinations delivered by Larry Holmes, who dominated the heavyweight ranks during that era. Holmes honed his skills through years of working as Ali’s main sparring partner. “Ali was one of my best friends,” Holmes told BoxingInsider.com in January. “He took me places. He did things with me and for me.”

Roy Jones — arguably the 1990s pound-for-pound king — combined Ali’s ability to dance and box to become one of the boxing’s biggest draws. Jones’ rap song, Y’all Must’ve Forgot, was Ali-styled boasting flexed through a contemporary art form and medium.

And since the turn of the century, there’s been a long list of boxers influenced by Ali, including Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather. When you watch the popular television series leading up to big fights, such as HBO’s 24/7 and Showtime’s All-Access, you are watching the offspring of the spectacle and pre-fight hype that Ali brought to his bouts (WWE is forever indebted to Ali, as well).

The bruising style of Mike Tyson had little resemblance to Ali. But the former heavyweight champion credits his entrance into boxing to a chance encounter with Ali.

“I saw Muhammad Ali when I was in a reformatory in the Bronx, New York, named Spofford,” Tyson recalled in a documentary, I Am Ali. “[He] came out of the blue one day … I said, ‘Wow, that’s awesome. How can I be like that?’ ”


ESPN’s Dan Rafael, who’s covered boxing since the mid-1990s, said in an ESPN appearance that he’s never come across a young, high-level boxer in his career who hasn’t listed Ali as a major influence — highlighting the reach of a man who when he died hadn’t had a bout in close to 40 years.

“Canelo Alvarez — who was not born when Ali fought his last fight — talked about how Muhammad Ali is his idol,” said Rafael. “[That’s] unusual for a young Mexican fighter to have Muhammad Ali as his idol.”

The evidence of Ali’s reach through various generations of boxers is undeniable. But it goes further.

Sociologist Harry Edwards called Ali “the father of the modern athlete” during an ESPN interview, further noting: “He moved sports out of the arena into the entire department of human affairs. Greatest doesn’t capture him. It’s not big enough. It doesn’t do him justice.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.