Nat Fleischer On The Push To Make Ali Great

After the magnificent performance, skill, heart, and courage of Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in the 1971 Fight of the Century that roused not only a country, but the rest of the world, there was an heavy push back on Nat Fleischer to revise his All Time Top 10 Heavyweight rankings. 

Nat, of course, was the founding father of gathering and cataloging fighter records, and in time because of the seminal nature of his work, his copious contributions, his ringside witness to so many great fights, he and Ring Magazine became synonymous as The Bible of Boxing, so any of his pronouncements and observations were literally taken as being passed as the Word of God. Boxing fans studied his edicts religiously as Nat coasted along secure in being at top of his game.

But the landscape soon changed when Ali was convicted of dodging the draft and suspended from boxing for 3 1/2 years as he battled all the way to the US Supreme Court. The push to make Ali great began to gather steam during this Ali lull. Miraculously, Ali’s conviction was overturned and he was allowed to return to boxing.

Then the unthinkable. Down goes Ali. Frazier whoops Ali.

A very interesting period piece of journalism followed as Fleischer holds his ground, not stubbornly, but rather in well thought out logical explanations that may have given succor to the larger base of boxing fans, but did nothing to satisfy Ali supporters. They incredibly insisted their man won the Fight of the Century and demanded that Ali be put in Nat’s top 10, a veritable flood filling his mailbox every month.

Down Goes Ali, Down Goes Ali

Down Goes Ali, Down Goes Ali

Now as we have over 40 years of hindsight, it’s easy for moderns to look at Nat’s list and see how silly it looks, but back then he was one of the few willing to publish such a list at the risk of great personal criticism. One thing to note is the fighters on his list were long retired, meaning no way was Nat going to rate some young whippersnapper just entering the middle of his career. Since he passed in 1972, he never got to see Ali upset George Foreman in Zaire, so we can’t say how that might of altered his view of things, though I suspect very little as to adding a currently active heavyweight to his list. We can say within a year or two after the Foreman upset as I recollect, Ring came out with a revised list that had Ali at or near the top of the 10 in a vast rearrangement of Nat’s list. In the encapsulated words of the immortal Chuck Berry and Hank Williams, “Roll over Beethoven ’cause the big dog’s moving in”

In Nat’s own words:

As I have had it listed in The Ring Record Book for some years, my all-time rating of heavyweights is as follows: 1. Jack Johnson, 2. Jim Jeffries, 3. Bob Fitzsimmons, 4. Jack Dempsey, 5. James J. Corbett, 6. Joe Louis, 7. Sam Langford, 8. Gene Tunney, 9. Max Schmeling, 10. Rocky Marciano.

I started the annual ranking of heavyweights in the 1953 with only six listed: 1. Jack Johnson, 2. Jim Jeffries, 3. Bob Fitzsimmons, 4. Jack Dempsey, 5. James J. Corbett, 6. Joe Louis.

In later years I found it necessary to expand the ratings in all classes to top 10, with these top listings: heavyweights, Jack Johnson; light heavies, Kid McCoy; middleweights, Stan Ketchel; welters, Joe Walcott; lightweights, Joe Gans; feathers, Terry McGovern; bantams, George Dixon; flyweights, Jimmy Wilde.

For some time now I have been under great pressure from some readers of The Ring magazine and of The Ring Record Book, as well, to revise my ratings, especially in the heavyweight division.

Here is a strange facet to this pressure move. It has concerned, chiefly, Cassius Clay.

Never before in the history of the ratings did I find myself pressured to revise the listing of a heavyweight, right on top of a defeat.

There was considerable pressure to include Clay among the Top 10 during his 3 1/2-year interlude of inactivity.

But the campaign became stronger after Clay had returned with knockout victories over Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena. The demand on behalf of Clay became strongest after he had been beaten by world champion Joe Frazier in a 15-round contest that saw Cassius decked in the final heat.

Clay’s fight with Frazier left thousands of his admirers, who had seen the contest over television, protesting that Clay had won and that the unanimous decision of referee Arthur Mercante and judges Artie Aidala and Bill Recht, was a hoax, or worse.

Before we go any farther, let us dispose of this point. Frazier was declared the winner without a dissenting vote because he was the winner with unanimous force and unbiased conviction.

Clay never hurt Frazier. He messed up Joe’s left eye and made it look as if there had been an indecisive result, or a definite verdict in favor of Clay. Clay’s gloves reached Frazier more often than Frazier’s punches reached Clay. But Cassius lacked force.

Clay was hurt, especially in the 11th and 15th rounds. Clay came near being knocked out in the play-acting 11th. Clay’s constant retreat to the ropes was the tipoff on the fight.

I sat in the first press row in the Garden and emphatically saw Clay beaten. However, we have thousands of Clay backers insisting that he had established himself as one of the all time Top 10.

I did not regard Ali as a member of the leading 10 before he got into his argument with the Federal Courts. I did not see, in the Clay record as it stood after his seven-round knockout of Zora Folley in New York on March 22, 1967, any reason for my revising the heavyweight listing to include Cassius among the all-time 10. Nor did the Quarry, Bonavena, and Frazier fights impress me to the point at which I found myself considering ousting one of my Great 10 to make room for Clay.

Suppose I suffered an aberration and decided to include Clay among the top 10. This would mean ousting Marciano to make room for Ali as my all-time number l0. That would be farcical. Clay never could have beaten Marciano. Clay’s record is not the superior of the one the tragic Rocky left behind him when he retired from boxing unbeaten.

I even had something to do with Clay’s winning the Olympic light heavyweight championship in Rome in 1960. I spotted him for a likely Gold Medal, but I did not like the way he was training–or rather, not training. Cassius was entertaining the gals of the Italian capital, with gags and harmonica playing, and forgetting what he had been entered for.

I gave him a lecture and a warning. Maybe it had something to do with his victory. Maybe he would have won just the same. But I doubt if my talk did any harm.

After Cassius had won the title I felt that we had another Floyd Patterson in the making. He did not have Patterson’s speed of hands at that time, but he had more speed of foot. And more animation, which, of course, is an understatement. Floyd never has been a paragon of vivacity.

As Clay left the Olympic ring a champion, I saw him growing fast into a heavyweight. And I treated myself to a dream. I said to myself, “This kid could go far. It all depends on his attitude, his ability to tackle his job earnestly and seriously. Some of his laughter could be a real asset.” Ultimately it was.

Neither animus nor bias, neither bigotry nor misjudgment, can be cited against me in my relations with Cassius Clay. After he had been found guilty of a felony by a Federal jury in Houston, and Judge Joe Ingraham had sentenced Ali to five years in a penitentiary and a fine of $10,000, there was a rush to take the title from the draft-refusing champion.

The Ring magazine refused to join in the campaign against Clay, a stand now thoroughly vindicated. The Ring insisted that Cassius was entitled to his day in court, and that his title could be taken from him only if he lost it in the ring, or he retired from boxing, as Marciano, Tunney, and Jeffries had done before him.

Pressure on The Ring was tremendous. But this magazine would not recede one iota from its never relaxed policy of fighting for Law and Order.

Only when Muhammad Ali announced that he would fight no more and asked permission to give The Ring world championship belt to the winner of the Frazier-Jimmy Ellis fight, did The Ring declare the title vacated and drop Clay from the ratings.

With Clay’s return to the ring, The Ring revived his rating among the top 10 heavyweights. Not until Frazier knocked out Ellis in five rounds did The Ring allocate the vacant world title to Joe.

I do not mean to derogate Clay as a boxer. I am thoroughly cognizant of every fistic attribute he throws into the arena, every impressive quality he displayed on his way to the title and in fighting off the challenges of Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London, Karl Mildenberger, Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell, and Zora Folley.

When Ali went into his 3 1/2-year retirement, he had not yet achieved his personal crest. Nor did the fights with Quarry, Bonavena and Frazier, which marked his return to action, send him any farther in the direction of fulfillment of claims of his loyal supporters.

The way Cassius Clay stands, he does not qualify for rating with the greatest heavyweights of all time. Nor, the way the future shapes up for him, is he likely to qualify. Now his hands are quick. His footwork is quick. His punch is not the type that is calculated to stop a man forthwith, no matter what he did to Sonny Liston in their second encounter, at Lewiston, Maine.

Cassius has got to wear down his opponent. He has got to flick his glove into the eyes of the opposition, the way he did against Frazier. He has a style all his own. But its sui generis quality does not make him one of the top 10.

I want to give credit to Clay for punching boxing out of the doldrums into which it fell with the rise of Liston to the championship. Liston could not get a license in New York. Liston had a bad personal record. Liston was emphatically not good for boxing. Into the midst of this title situation came the effervescent kid from Louisville, favored by conditions, by his potential, by his personality and his clean personal record.

The situation called for a Clay and, fortunately, the situation was favored with one. He was the counterpart, in boxing, of Babe Ruth in baseball, after the Black Sox Scandal.

Through superior punching power, Frazier is Clay’s current better as a ringster. But Frazier has yet to develop the overall influence that Clay exercised. Nor does it appear likely that Joe will ever be to boxing what Cassius was when he became the world champion and when he stirred up world boxing with his exploits against the best opposition available pending the development of Frazier, another Olympic hero.

I have the utmost admiration for Cassius Clay as a ring technician. Certainly not for his attitude toward the United States and its armed forces. Of that mess he is legally clear.

I do not see Cassius Clay as a candidate for a place among the top 10 heavyweights. Nor may Frazier, his conqueror, eventually force me to revise my all-time heavyweight ratings.

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