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.
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
‘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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.