Muhammad Ali

The 5 men who beat Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali, ‘The Greatest,’ lost just five fights in a career that spanned over 20 years.

Ali made his pro debut in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1960. He won his first 31 bouts, losing his first battle in 1971 against another all-time great, Joe Frazier. The loss came just five months after Ali returned to the ring, following a three-year suspension due to his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.

From the start of his career to the end, Ali took on the best. Like other all-time greats, from Harry Greb to Sugar Ray Robinson, losses do not mar the legacy of the fighter. By getting in with the best, Ali proved his greatness.

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Here’s a look at the five fights that Muhammad Ali lost, and the five men who beat him.

5. Joe Frazier vs. Muhammad Ali 1971

Joe Frazier and Shane Mosley in 2000
Joe Frazier and Shane Mosley in 2000

‘Smokin’ Joe Frazier was the first man to ever beat Muhammad Ali in the ring. Ali won the WBA Heavyweight Title of the World by defeating Ernie Terrell in 1967, making him the Undisputed heavyweight Champion.

Just a few months later, Ali refused to join the army and fight in the Vietnam War, which he opposed on political and religious grounds. He was subsequently sentenced to five years in prison, stripped of his world title, suspended from boxing, and fined $10,000.

Ali’s sentence was overturned in 1971. That same year, he challenged Frazier for the WBA, WBC, and The Ring Heavyweight Titles. It was, at the time, the biggest event in boxing history.

Ringside Seat
Joe Frazier W 15 Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden. Retains Heavyweight Title. “The Fight of the Century.” Fight was even until 11, when Frazier badly hurt Ali. After 14, Frazier lead on all three scorecards. In 15th, Frazier landed a crushing left hook that put Ali down.

Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali fought on March 7, 1971 at Madison Square Garden. Ali started well but the reigning champ managed to wear him down over the course of the fight with expert bobbing-and-weaving defensive work and tremendous power. In the 15th round, he dropped Ali with a left hook to the jaw. Ali got back to his feet but lost the fight on the cards.

The 1971 bout between Ali and Frazier led to what is arguably the best trilogy of fights in boxing history. In the rematches in ’74 and ’75, Ali emerged victorious.

Watch the third fight between Ali and Frazier here:

4. Ken Norton vs. Muhammad Ali 1973

Ken Norton and Muhammad Ali stepped into the ring on March 31, 1973, in San Diego, California.

Norton had been an active heavyweight for just over five years at the time and had a record of 29-1. He had difficulty finding high-profile opponents who were willing to fight him early in his career. However, Ali agreed to a fight with Norton on the upswing of his loss to Frazier.

Heavyweight History
Little-known Ken Norton fearlessly takes the fight to ex-champ Muhammad Ali in #SanDiego in 1973. In a huge upset, Norton broke Ali’s jaw and won by 12 round split decision. Some thought it was the end of the road for “The Greatest.” #Heavyweight #History #Boxing #MuhammadAli
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Norton’s unusual style was difficult for ‘The Greatest’. He used a cross-armed defense at times and sometimes threw punches from below the waist. In the second round, he broke Ali’s jaw and ended up winning the bout on the cards after 12 hard rounds.

Ringside Seat
OTD 1973 – Ken Norton W 12 Muhammad Ali at Sports Arena, San Diego. Ali was a 5 to 1 favorite. Ali suffered a broken jaw in the bout.

Like it had with Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali’s loss to Ken Norton started a trilogy of fights. They fought again in September 1973, just six months later. Ali won the bout, avenging his defeat. In 1976, Norton and Ali had a final bout, which also went to Ali.

3. Leon Spinks vs. Muhammad Ali 1978

Leon and his brother Michael Spinks [Instagram @boxingarchives]
Leon and his brother Michael Spinks [Instagram @boxingarchives]

After his loss to Norton, Muhammad Ali went on a winning streak, which saw him defeat Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton, Jimmy Young, and others. In 1978, he was challenged by Leon Spinks, who had just seven pro fights under his belt.

Ringside Seat
OTD 1978 – Leon Spinks W 15 Muhammad Ali at Hilton Hotel, Las Vegas. Wins Heavyweight Title. The fight aired live on CBS and drew more than 70 million viewers. With only seven pro fights, Spinks was the most inexperienced boxer ever to win the Heavyweight Title.

Leon Spinks won the Olympic Gold Medal in boxing in 1976. Ali accepted his title challenge. When they met, Ali was out of shape. Spinks won a split-decision victory and became the only fighter to claim a title from Ali, who had never lost a title defense.

Spinks and Ali had a rematch in September of that year, which Ali won with ease. He was awarded a unanimous decision victory and reclaimed his world titles. Spinks’ brother, Michael, was also a professional boxer, who fought Mike Tyson among others.

Check out the rematch between Ali and Spinks here:

2. Larry Holmes vs. Muhammad Ali 1980

Holmes, Ali, and George Foreman in 2015
Holmes, Ali, and George Foreman in 2015

Ali retired in 1978 after reclaiming his titles from Leon Spinks, making him the only three-time Heavyweight World Champion in history. In 1980, he returned to the ring. He was already suffering from Parkinson’s Disease at the time, though this was not public knowledge.

Larry Holmes turned professional in 1973 and had wins over the likes of Ken Norton and Earnie Shavers. He was seven years younger than Ali and was active throughout the former champion’s retirement. When they met in the ring, Holmes was in far better shape. He dominated the fight, earning a stoppage in the tenth round. It was Ali’s only stoppage loss.

Ringside Seat
OTD 1980 – Larry Holmes KO 11 Muhammad Ali at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas. Retains WBC Heavyweight Title. Watch at the end as Angelo Dundee takes control of a chaotic situation & stops the bout protecting Ali, while low-life Bundini Brown fights w/ Dundee to let the fight continue.

1. Trevor Berbick vs. Muhammad Ali 1981

Ali had one more fight after his loss to Larry Holmes. In 1981, he stepped into the ring with Trevor Berbick, who fought out of Canada. However, the fight had to take place in the Bahamas in order to be licensed.

Berbick turned professional in 1976. He lost a fight with Holmes in 1981, immediately after Holmes fought Ali. He later went on to face both Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas.

OTD 1981 – Trevor Berbick W 10 Muhammad Ali at Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre, Nassau. Eddie Futch: “This is the worst I’ve ever been in. They did everything wrong all the way through.” Greg Page: “Whoever is putting on this show is crazy.” A sad end to Ali’s career.

When Ali and Berbick met, it was an uneven bout which Berbick won by unanimous decision. Ali finally retired for good following the bout, ending a career of over 20 years.

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