Muhammad Ali's greatness defied statistics

Byby Kyle Wagner FiveThirtyEight logo
Friday, June 17, 2016
Muhammad Ali is seen prior to the first round of his title fight against heavyweight contender Ken Norton.
Muhammad Ali is seen prior to the first round of his title fight against heavyweight contender Ken Norton on on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 1976.

This story originally appeared on FiveThirtyEight and is reprinted with permission.

"I'm through being amazed by Muhammad Ali."

That, along with a wave and a shake of the head, was the exit line of the legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee, who by 1980 had seen enough from Ali not to be surprised if he managed an upset over then-heavyweight champion Larry Holmes at age 38. Five years prior, Dundee had been there when Ali whupped George Foreman in Zaire in a fight before which observers had feared for Ali's life and safety. Put nothing past the champ.

Ralph Wiley, the boxing writer who interviewed Dundee that year, heard Dundee's line another way: Ali was done. "So am I, Ang," Wiley told him. "So am I."

Holmes took Ali apart over 10 rounds in a beating so thorough that it was about the only unambiguous thing ever to happen to Ali.

Ali's career highlights are well known, as are the pivotal moments of his life, which ended Friday in Arizona. He beat Sonny Liston and George Foreman and got the better of Joe Frazier in the end; he embraced Islam and told the U.S. Army it could go to hell.

Unlike the greats in other sports, fighters aren't remembered for their statistical accomplishments. Few would have cared what Joe Frazier's "power punches landed" percentage was, had CompuBox existed in the 70s, just as few care what Gennady Golovkin's is today. Wilt Chamberlain had his 50-point season, and Babe Ruth had his 60 home runs. Muhammad Ali beat George Foreman in eight -- not exactly the same sort of tabulation. This hard-coded subjectivity makes boxing, more than most sports, a canvas for hoary sportswriter morality plays. That turned out to be a great advantage to Ali in his life and career, but for us, the fans, it's a small shame because few figures in sports were shaped so much by their own mythmaking and so little by a deep understanding of how it is they did what they did.

I grew up in the ESPN Classic era, with the luxury of spending late nights catching old matches without having to track down archival footage. The one that always stuck with me was the first Liston fight in 1964, when Steve Ellis, the announcer, didn't know what to do with the challenger. "Cassius Clay, on the move as we see, looking to get Sonny to lunge," Ellis says, as Liston catches nothing but air for the first half-dozen punches of the fight. "Carrying his left hand dangerously low," as Clay flashes a left-hook lead into Liston's head, moving the champ. "Sonny is actually not headhunting at this point," a few beats after Liston plants Clay with a left hook but misses so badly following up upstairs that the only thing left in his range is Clay's abdomen. "He's content to rip toward the body, trying to bring the guard down, then go upstairs." Clay was "awkwardly fast," "slippery," "tricky," even rounds after he'd hurt Liston with range, speed and cracking combinations. Ellis's lying eyes couldn't fathom a mouthy upstart so outclassing a dominant champion any more than Liston could fathom what to do about that flashing left lead.

In another universe, this might have been the beginning of a beautiful partnership between Ali and the uncompromising truth inside the ring. Sides are drawn and narratives are spun, but results tell. That isn't quite how things played out. Not even Ali's lofty results could fully explain the nature of his greatness.

Statistics in boxing are at a funny juncture. For most of boxing history, the only numbers by which to judge a fighter were his record, which is about the most useless part about him, and his kayos, the quality of which can be, let's say, inconsistent. CompuBox, an austere "computerized" system that tallies punches thrown and landed, came along relatively late in boxing's life, and while it's a staple of boxing broadcasts, its meaningfulness has only recently begun to surface from the decades-deep data set.

Román "Chocolatito" González is a star at flyweight thanks to his prolific power punching -- he landed 34 power punches per round in 2015 -- and his fight stats are fetish objects among enthusiasts. But those thrills come with a little pang of sadness, because even relatively simple statistics in boxing, a sport as preoccupied with its history as any, can't be used to line up today's stars against those of the past. Ali's greatness is unquestioned, but then so is Michael Jordan's, and it's still damn good fun to see MJ pop up on every short list that analytics can toss at us. Sadly, boxing's tools of observation don't give us that chance.

If they did, we might remember some of Ali's greatest fights a little differently. Take the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali's 1974 fight against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire. Wily old Ali, the story goes, tagged Foreman early, weathered an onslaught from the powerful champion in the middle rounds, and made his move once Foreman tired. But did Foreman really punch himself out, or did Ali punch and hold and pull the life right out of him? In the absence of standardized in-ring stats, industrious boxing nerds on message boards might tell you that Foreman's output fell off considerably after the fifth, but not how many right-hand leads Ali planted on him before that or for how long Ali held onto Foreman's neck to stop his offense and sap his strength. Foreman placed thundering punches into Ali's ribs, liver and soul, but a full accounting of punches thrown with intent and which achieved meaning might suggest a different explanation of the fight's outcome: Ali simply kicked Foreman's ass.

The Rumble was originally broadcast on closed-circuit, and then re-broadcast a few months later on ABC, and then disappeared. The late-career softening of Ali's image came in part because of this ready-made arc -- Ali self-dramatized his role in the fight like that of a classical three-act hero. Had CompuBox existed in 1974, and had video of the fight been widely available, and had someone thought to look, and had a method of communication existed with which to convey any findings, the legend of the rope-a-dope might have instead been a story about the unalloyed dominance of Ali over Foreman, which in many ways would have been even more amazing.

But that's not how Ali wanted it, and so that's not how it went. Ali's passion and triumph in the jungle was the most believable outcome precisely because America was through being amazed by Muhammad Ali.