To me, when ranking the greatest heavyweights of all time, two men stand out, Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis. So the question is, who was the better fighter.?
I will try to tackle that argument today as we will compare the two greatest heavyweights of all time.
Title winning performance
Joe Louis beat James Braddock to win the title; he was down early but came back to dominate and beat Braddock by eight-round stoppage. Although to be fair, it was Max Schmeling who deserved the shot at Braddock, but because of Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany, Schmeling was ignored in favor of Louis. Boxing people were afraid if Schmeling got the shot and beat Braddock, Hitler would freeze the title in Germany. None of that is Louis’s fault, though, to his credit, after winning the title, he fought a rematch with Schmeling and left no doubt who the heavyweight champion was – scoring a deadly first-round knockout that put Schmeling in the hospital.
On the other hand, Ali had to take on Sonny Liston, and Ali was a prohibitive 7-1 underdog, and most gave Ali no chance at winning the title. Instead, Ali shocked the world by dominating Liston and winning by a 7th round stoppage.
Joe Louis legendary Title-Reign
Louis defended his title 25 straight times over 13 years. He was simply unbeatable for over a decade. Of course, Louis did have hiccups along the way; a disputed decision win over tough Arturo Godoy, a tough decision win over Tommy Farr, Tony Galento dropped Louis, and a few others, which begs the question. If Louis could get dropped by guys like Galento, Buddy Baer, Walcott, and Schmeling, then guys with LOTS more power like Foreman, Tyson, and Frazier would be able to put him down and keep him down, wouldn’t they? Louis’s competition in the 30s and 40s was not great, to say the least, but that’s not his fault; you can only fight who is there to fight.
Louis is overrated in the sense that many heavyweights in history would have had 25 title defenses if they fought the same people Louis boxed during his title reign (and I’m not just talking about Ali). Also, his win over Schmeling is highly overrated because, number one, Schmeling himself was elevated for beating Louis. In fact, Schmeling was simply a pretty good fighter, nothing more. He would not be IMO classified as a great fighter. Schmeling was past his best, and Louis spotted a flaw in Schmeling and took advantage of it, just like Schmeling did two years before.
But Louis is not overrated in terms of his skill level, punching power, and intelligence. He was way ahead of his time and would easily clean out the division today. Now the big question that should be asked would be, is the competition Louis faced considered bad because he made them look bad? I think the competition was slightly better than the respect it is given. So Louis being as good as he was, why his competition gets rated low, but does anybody here think Louis winning the title over Braddock is as impressive as Ali winning it against Liston?
Even if the class of fighters is slightly underrated that Louis fought, it certainly doesn’t even come close to what Ali fought.
Muhammad Ali Title-Reigns
Ali’s first title reign was cut short because he did not want to fight in a war that should have never been fought in the first place. So Ali’s title reign started in February of 1964 and ended in March of 1967 after Ali had defended his title against Zora Folley. In all, in that short time, Ali defended his title 9-times, and only two of those fighters were able to last the distance with Ali(Chuvalo and Terrell).
To say Ali was dominant in those 9-title defenses would be a big-time understatement. Those title defenses were against Liston, Patterson, Chuvalo, Terrell, Cooper, Folley, Mildenberger, Williams, and Brian London. Cleveland Williams was past his prime, London and Mildenberger were tough but limited. But when you compare the competition, did Louis beat anybody as good as Liston? Patterson was a very talented fighter, and Ernie Terrell was a damn good heavyweight, as was Chuvalo and Ali made them look bad.
The big question is, what happens if Ali didn’t get forced away from the fight game in 1967? Those three years away could have been another 9 title defenses for Ali, and how does NOT stepping away in his prime affect Ali into the early 70s.
After three years off, Ali came back by fighting Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena in two months, and those two were as good as almost anybody Louis ever defended his title against. Anybody here thinks James Braddock beats Quarry or Bonavena? Then he fights Joe Frazier, and Frazier fought the perfect fight to beat Ali and won a close decision. Ali would go on to win the next two fights against Frazier and then would go on to beat George Foreman to regain his title.
Towards the end of his career, Ali won a few questionable decisions, but he was far over the hill from the number of wars he had fought. So, just like I am not holding losing to Marciano, I will not hold the last handful of fights against Ali.
Styles make fights
If you compare the competition, they fought there is no doubt Ali’s competition was by far the greatest any heavyweight champion has ever fought, but styles make fights. Hell, Thomas Hearns destroyed Roberto Duran, but who had the better career. Joe Louis struggled and barely beat the slick light heavyweight champion of the world, Billy Conn. Ali struggled with awkward Ken Norton. Does either of those opponents give us any indication of what happens when Ali and Louis meet in a mythical matchup?
I think Louis/Conn does help us to solve this puzzle. Conn was slick and fast, Ali was slicker and even faster, and Ali was much bigger than Conn. So when you match the styles up, I think it favors Ali to win a fight against Louis. Yes, I realize this is all speculation, and I could make a case and write an article on why Louis would beat Ali, but I think the preponderance of evidence points towards an Ali win.
So who was the GOAT?
Even though I think Ali beats Louis, that is not the only thing that goes into being the GOAT. I think the deciding factor is that Ali’s title reigns to me were against better competition than Louis. Louis’s best wins are against Conn, Farr, Godoy, Max Baer, Braddock, Schmeling, and Jersey Joe Walcott. Ali’s best wins were against Liston, Frazier, Foreman, Quarry, Bonavena, Terrell, Patterson, Norton, Shavers, and Spinks. So when you look at the level of competition, it’s not even close.
In the end, both are historical figures and beloved all over the world. There will never be another heavyweight like either one of them. Still, in the heavyweight division, Muhammad Ali is hands down the GOAT!