If Muhammad Ali had never made a single memorable statement, he would still rank as the greatest heavyweight fighter in history. His resume includes victories over George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston—three fighters at, or near, the historical top 10.
He beat Ken Norton and Floyd Patterson, both of whom rank in the all-time top 20 to 25. Talented top-50 heavyweights such as Jerry Quarry, Ernie Terrel, Zora Folley, Ron Lyle and Jimmy Ellis couldn’t even last the distance against Ali.
No heavyweight in history fought and defeated a more impressive roster.
But when we call Ali “The Greatest,” we are talking about something that goes far beyond boxing. When they laid the great champion to rest on June 10 in his native Lexington, Kentucky, the scene was unlike anything I can ever remember seeing in the United States.
It was the type of outpouring usually reserved for beloved royalty or major religious figures.
Ali became great due to what he did in the ring. But he became iconic in large part due to what he said. Ali’s words entertained fans and revolutionized boxing promotion.
Beyond that, the things Ali said sent ripples through American society and changed the world.
10. ‘It’s Gonna Be a Chilla and a Killa…’
This line came during the buildup to the greatest fight in the history of the sport—the third bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The full quote is: “It’s gonna be a chilla, and a killa, and a thrilla, when I fight the Gorilla in Manila.”
As memorable as that line has been, it also points to the fact that Ali, despite his undeniable greatness, was also a flawed human being like any of us. To call another black man a “gorilla,” especially in that era, was beyond the pale.
And it only scratches the surface of the ugliness of Ali’s trash talk that built up that fight. He also referred to Frazier as “the white man’s champion” and, even worse, an “Uncle Tom.”
Frazier was a great man in his own right and absolutely did not deserve to be made into this sort of foil for Ali’s own persona as a civil right’s icon.
9. ‘He’s Too Ugly to Be World Champion…’
JOHN ROONEY/Associated Press
Although he was an Olympic gold medalist and undefeated world champion heading into his title challenge against Sonny Liston in 1964, Muhammad Ali was also a big-time underdog. Liston was viewed as the scariest heavyweight champion ever.
With an 84″ reach and the largest fists in the history of the division, Liston resembled a bear swinging telephone poles as clubs.
Ali played up Liston’s scary image and cast himself in the role of hero readying to slay a dragon. “He’s too ugly to be world champion,” Ali crowed. “The world champ should be pretty like me!”
In the ring, Ali’s graceful movement proved impossible for Liston to solve.
8. ‘I’m the King of the World…’
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After months of being doubted by sportswriters and boxing fans, the 22-year-old Ali’s exuberant outburst at the conclusion of his title victory over Sonny Liston is completely understandable. As he was crowded by the very same beat writers who had picked Liston to win, Ali exclaimed, “I done shook up the world! I’m the king of the world! I’m a bad man! I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived! I shook up the world!”
So many of Ali’s greatest lines were deliberately calculated to grab ink and sell tickets. But he was also at his best when motivated by the emotion of the moment. Like all great creative artists, Ali was also a master of spontaneous improvisation.
7. ‘George Thinks He Will…’
Perhaps no single rhyme is more associated with Muhammad Ali than “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” In advance of his epic Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman in 1974, Ali used it in one of his greatest boasts.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but I know he won’t.”
Heading into this fight, George Foreman was the undefeated world champion. He had smashed both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton in two rounds. Frazier and Norton had both gone 1-1 against Ali in extremely competitive bouts.
Some observers legitimately feared for Ali’s well-being against Foreman.
It was very much where he had been 10 years earlier, coming into this first title challenge against Sonny Liston. And just as he had been as a much younger man, Ali remained a trash-talking virtuoso.
And just as he had done 10 years before, Ali backed up the bragging, stunning the world by stopping the mighty Big George in eight rounds.
6. ‘I’ll Beat Him so Bad He’ll Need a Shoehorn to Put His Hat On!’
Muhammad Ali got off this line in advance of his 1965 defense against former champion Floyd Patterson. I’ve always loved it for the way it combines playful creativity with macabre brutality. As a vivid image, it’s a gem.
While he’s at least a full level below Ali in terms of stature, Patterson was, nevertheless, a legitimate, all-time great. He was the youngest man to ever win the undisputed heavyweight championship and the first man to regain it after losing it.
He remained a top-five heavyweight throughout the competitive 1960s.
Patterson was also one of the sport’s true great men. He dedicated his life to working with youths and was very involved with the civil rights movement.
He was something of a natural foil to Ali. Both men were Olympic gold medalists and professional world champions who looked to take their influence beyond the ring.
But where Ali embraced the more militant rhetoric of leaders like Malcolm X, Patterson’s tone was closer to the proud conservatism of an earlier generation that included Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson.
After losing his belt to Sonny Liston, Patterson went right back to winning fights. After getting past the rugged George Chuvalo in a classic in 1964, Patterson earned a chance to become a three-time champion against Ali.
He was thoroughly overmatched and lost by TKO. It’s a testimony to the greatness of Ali’s resume that this win over Patterson appears so far down on his list of notable wins.
5. ‘If You Even Dream About Beating Me, You Better Wake Up and Apologize!’
Prizefighting represents a kind of ultimate physical contest. Other sports are physically punishing, but only in fighting is the goal to knock your opponent out or else hurt him some badly that he cannot continue.
At the same time, the mental aspect of fighting is enormous. Countless superior athletes have been trounced by opponents who undermined them mentally.
For all his astonishing physical gifts, Ali was even better at the mental aspect of the competition. His gift for trash talk allowed him to get inside the heads of his opponents and defeat them before they ever set foot in the ring.
This classic line shows the reach Ali attempted to gain with his verbal intimidation. He aimed to follow his opponents straight into the land of Nod and beat them even at the subconscious level.
4. ‘I’m so Mean, I Make Medicine Sick…’
Ed Kolenovsky/Associated Press
The iconic prizefighters are always part folk hero. The traditional claim that goes along with holding the “biggest championship in professional sports” is that of being the toughest man on the planet. To be a great heavyweight champion is to achieve a special sort of masculine status.
As he regaled the press in the buildup to his challenge for George Foreman’s title, Ali borrowed the colorful exaggeration of folk stories to deliver one of his greatest brag poems.
“I’ve wrestled with alligators / I’ve tussled with a whale / I done handcuffed lightening / and throw thunder in jail / You know I’m bad, just last week I murdered a rock / Injured a stone, hospitalized a brick / I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”
This is Ali putting himself in the company of Paul Bunyan, John Henry and Pecos Bill—larger than life and as much myth as man. And when he beat Foreman to regain the belt, his legend only grew.
3. ‘I Represent the Truth…’
Michael Clevenger/Associated Press
Most sports stars avoid reaching too far beyond their own world and shy away from any sort of statements on major social issues. It’s unfair to criticize them for this.
Yet when a star like Ali emerges, it’s refreshing. Ali cared deeply about the world and society he lived in and felt compelled to speak out to change people’s minds.
Ali was so committed to his beliefs that he refused induction into the army during Vietnam, even though he would surely have spent his enlistment doing nothing but making appearances and giving exhibitions in front of troops and government PR cameras.
That decision nearly cost him everything. He was stripped of his belts and lost three-and-a-half years of his career, at the very height of his power.
When he came back to face Joe Frazier in 1971, the fight was built up as a proxy war in the cultural clash that was forever altering American life. At the time, Ali told Rolling Stone, “I represent the truth. The world is full of oppressed people, poverty people. They for me. They not for the system. All your black militants…all your hippies, all your draft resisters, they want me to be the victor.”
In today’s America, it’s impossible to imagine a sporting event with these overtones. But younger fans need to understand that this is how it was during Ali’s career if they can ever hope to understand the reverence with which he is held.
2. ‘I Am America…’
Dave Pickoff/Associated Press
When a prizefighter trash-talks his opponent in advance of a bout, he’s flexing his machismo. But to trash-talk an entire culture of institutionalized oppression requires true courage.
Muhammad Ali could have used his boxing skills and glib wit to craft a career as a 1960’s media darling. Instead, standing at a crossroads of history, Ali chose to speak up and confront injustice, proclaiming, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
There is not doubt that American society still needs to make progress in the area of race relations. But Ali grew to manhood in a country where he wasn’t allowed to use most public water fountains or restrooms. He reigned as heavyweight champion yet still wasn’t allowed to stay in most of the hotels across the South.
His fame and wealth from fighting could still have bought him a comfortable life. Yet he bravely risked everything to start speaking out when he felt it was necessary.
The confrontational nature of these words made many inside and outside of the sports world very uncomfortable. But it was a moment in history when people needed to be made uncomfortable. Ali helped change society for the better by doing so.
1. ‘You’re That Ugly Fella’
I cannot remember a time when Muhammad Ali was not my hero. So when I was in sixth grade and my teacher had the class write to famous people in order to ask them if we could interview them by phone, I knew that I would be writing to Ali.
This was months after Ali’s final fight, against Trevor Berbick. He was still at the height of his celebrity, yet he made the time for me and my schoolmates, rising at 6 a.m. to talk to us before catching a flight.
And he gave us the full Ali treatment, acting exactly the same way he would have if faced with a studio audience and television camera.
As I started the call, I became the object of a classic Ali barb: “I heard about you,” the champ said. “You’re that ugly fella.”
Ali got another great line off on one of my pals, asking him if he boxed. “I’ve boxed a little bit,” my friend said.”
“What’d you box, apples or oranges?” Ali shot back. He also mock snored loudly for about 20 seconds when a girl in my class asked him who he considered the best fighter of all time.
When my teacher wrapped up the call, Ali pretended to be expecting a check, then recited a final poem for us that concluded with the couplet: “I like your class and admire your style / but your pay is so cheap, don’t call me back for a while.”
A big piece of Ali’s greatness was always his willingness to make time for fans and connect on a personal level. I am one of countless boxing fans who was lucky enough to experience this firsthand.