Friday, April 23, 2010

The MMA Files – Part I : Muhammad Ali and the Calculus of Greatness

Sports is beloved of left brain people, rationalists. Facts and stats win arguments. The fastest, the strongest, the most field goals, the most homeruns, the most goals. In our post-modern world of moral relativism and political correctness, there is something refreshing about the binary certitude of won/loss ratios, world records, and absolute percentages.

But the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. They don’t delineate the difference between “the most” and “the best.” Is Muhammad Ali the heavyweight with most wins during his career? No. That accomplishment goes to a man named Young Stribling, who, in his career of 289 fights, won 256 matches, 128 by knock-out. That is an 88% winning percentage. By contrast, Ali “only” fought 61 matches, winning 56. Only a slightly better winning percentage against far fewer fighters. But what makes Ali “the greatest” heavyweight of all time? 37 KOs? Over 60%. That is still only a little better than Stribling. So there must be other factors. Character? For sure, Ali was/is a celebrity. He was colorful in the ring, and charismatic and controversial in public. He was the right kind of sportsman for his time. A man who knew how to “sell” his personality and generate a fascinating public narrative.

This is why we have heard of Ali and not Stribling. But does that recognition, and his record, make him “the best?” No. The confluences of circumstance cannot be used to determine who the greatest is. Ali, after all, came into his notoriety just as television was becoming an international phenomenon. Not only could he do great things, more people could see it. Stribling’s only mass exposure came during a 1933 match against Max Schmeling, the first match to be broadcast on radio. That broadcast, and a handful of grainy silent film reels are the only electronic media evidence which have survived.

What makes any individual athlete “the best,” is his willingness to prove himself against the highest possible caliber of contender in his chosen sport. From Archie Moore, to Sonny Liston twice, to Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, George Forman, Ken Norton, Spinks, Holmes, and Trevor Berbick, Ali fought the blue chip fighters of his day, dodging no one who would fight him. Even at the end, when his fire was clearly out, he stood up with the best in waning years. But if anything, Stribling’s record would suggest that he had the more challenging record. He fought the world champion twice, and beat the national champions of a dozen countries while maintaining an arduous road schedule at home. His controversial loss to Schmeling in 1933 was his final opportunity to meet the sport’s top dog. Schmeling would go on to fight his historic bout against Joe Lewis a few years later, and by then Stribling was a fading memory in the minds of casual sports fans.

What accounts for this? Again, we may need to look back to the mass media component, but also consider that in life, more is not always better. There was something about the sheer volume of matches that smacks of a profligate career on Stribling’s part. He was from traveling entertainer stock. He was a born exhibitionist; a sporting vaudevillian. To work was to eat and without a massive promotion machine behind him (Schmeling, after all, had the Nazi state propaganda machine to tout him) all Stribling had was talent and energy. In the 20th century, that simply wouldn’t suffice.

The calculus then might break down along the lines of record, character, competition and timing.. Ali was an elite fighter who fought elite fighters, and he did it over a long enough period of time to establish by repetition and reputation his status as the greatest. His character marks him in time, his time. Thus he can’t be stripped of his spiritual title. At least not easily. Finally, Ali was a man of his time, and, by all accounts, defined boxing for the latter half of the 20th century. There will be better boxers than Ali, ones who win more fights, ones who fight better opponents, and ones who set the world on fire with their character. But whether or not that will ever come again in a single package remains to be seen.

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