Walcott and Ali
Muhammad Ali used to enjoy making fun of his predecessors. He would mock them for being punchy. I remember seeing him do this in front of Joe Louis. Ali would put his finger to his nose pressing it flat and then speak while slurring his speech pretending to stumble around on unsteady feet. He would talk about how guys like Louis and the other champs took too many punches, couldn’t box as well as “The Greatest”, and ended up with their brains scrambled. He bragged how that would never happen to him because he was so much smarter and better than they were.
It was a tragic irony that Ali ended up worse off than any of those who came before him. By the time he was training for the Larry Holmes fight Ali was already showing serious signs of brain damage. Watching interviews and training footage as he was preparing for that bout you can hear him slurring his speech. His coordination was deteriorating as seen in his difficulty hitting the speed bag. Ali was 38 years old at the time and would lose by stoppage to Holmes. It was a sad sight.
Why did this happen to such a great “boxer”? Let’s compare him to another former champ who was still fighting when he was in his late 30s; Jersey Joe Walcott.
Jersey Joe was 37 years old when he won the Heavyweight Championship by knocking out Ezzard Charles. He would defend it against Charles before going on to lose it to Rocky Marciano in a fight in which Walcott was leading on the scorecards when he was kayoed in the 13th round.
Walcott also had given Joe Louis more than he could handle a few years earlier when he lost a highly disputed decision to the Brown Bomber. He dropped Louis twice in that bout. Louis would win a rematch by knockout, but not before hitting the canvas one more time.
Ali got a lot of laughs making fun of the greats of the past. He not only went after them for supposedly being punchy, but he also demeaned their skills. Well, if Walcott was lacking in skills and Ali was so brilliant why is it Jersey Joe retired with his faculties still intact while Ali ended up a mental and physical wreck? You just have to watch footage of the two men in action and you will see what made the difference. Walcott was a brilliant technical boxer. He could move, he could punch, he was always in good physical shape (except for the times earlier in his career the he was so poor he couldn’t eat properly). He also knew how to avoid taking punishment. Jersey Joe was a master of the Art of Boxing. Watching him move across the canvas is something to behold. Walcott could feint, he could parry, he was always in position and on balance. He would turn and start to walk away from his opponent and then suddenly turn back with a lethal combination. Witness his knock out of Ezzard Charles where Joe very nonchalantly steps in with a half hook, half uppercut to win the title. Just amazing.
Walcott and Ali both had their last fight at the age of 39. Ali had a total of 61 fights while Walcott had 71. Walcott fought professionally for 23 years, Ali for 21 years. Ali was off for three and a half years when he was banned from boxing, so he actually had around 18 years of activity. Walcott was stopped six times. With the exception of the Marciano and Louis fights these stoppages were earlier in his career when he was struggling to survive. Ali was stopped just once, by Holmes; however, he took a lot more punches than Walcott did.
The difference between the two was in their skills. Walcott actually got better with age. Ali deteriorated as he got older. But why? Ali depended on his speed when he was younger. He was amazingly fast and had great reflexes. As he got older he began to lose that speed, and without it he started taking punches. He did not have the skills to to avoid being hit. He was no Jersey Joe Walcott. In fact, Ali depended on his ability to take punishment in order to win fights. During training sessions he would allow his sparring partners to unload on him. In a bizarre way he seemed to think by taking more punishment he was toughening himself for his upcoming matches. This took a terrible toll on him. Sure it made for exciting fights, but as can be seen in his fights with the likes of George Foreman, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton, Joe Frazier, and very notably, Earnie Shavers, he took some fearful shots. It is no wonder he ended up the way he did.
Walcott, on the other hand, always worked on his defense. He would spend hours in training honing his defensive skills, shadow boxing, working in front of the mirror, watching other fighters. Most importantly, he would work at not getting hit while sparring. When it came to true boxing skills Walcott was miles ahead of Ali. Joe had a full palette to draw from, while Ali was sorely lacking in the finer points of the Manly Art of Self Defense. Walcott was a true master at his trade, in contrast to Ali who had always depended on his physical abilities, first his speed and then his toughness, to carry him through. Walcott was a technician, Ali was a tough guy.
Compare these two champs in their retirement years and you can see the difference. Walcott remained sharp and clear headed. He became the Sheriff of Camden County New Jersey and also served on the boxing commission until he was 70 years old. From then until his death at the age of 80 he worked helping handicapped and disabled children. His defensive boxing skills served him well as he showed no signs of brain damage.
Ali’s deterioration had already started before he retired from the ring. While he made appearances in his retirement years he had become, to people who were willing to face the truth, a symbol of the dark side of boxing. He had become that which he had mocked. It was almost Shakespearean in that Muhammad Ali would become that caricature of the punch drunk boxer he said would never be.