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banner Wednesday, 16 January, 2002, 15:46 GMT
John Rawling on Ali
As Muhammad Ali turns 60, BBC boxing commentator John Rawling responds to your e-mails on "The Greatest".

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    Muhammad Ali is perhaps the finest sportsman of all time and one of the few to transcend his chosen sport and attain iconic status.

    The three-time heavyweight champion of the world passes 60 as one of the world's most beloved men.

    BBC boxing commentator and long-time Ali fan John Rawling sifted through your e-mails and looks back on Muhammad Ali's unbelieveable life and career.

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    Francis Collings: John, what's your overview of Ali as a fighter?

    John Rawling: As a fighter he was the best heavyweight boxer there's ever been. If you look back at the history of the sport, Ali had everything: he had speed in the early part of his career, he had resilience and guile in the latter part of his career, probably unparalleled bravery, and more than that he transcended the sport. He had worldwide fame and was probably the most famous man on Earth at one stage. He brought boxing to a whole new area of the population who had probably never considered the sport before. He was more than just a sportsman - he stood for so many things outside the ring as well as inside the ring. To many people - myself included - he was very much a hero figure.

    FC: As someone who covers a lot of boxing for the BBC, how much do you think he was defined by his time? It was a golden age for the heavyweight division.

    JR: I don't think the heavyweights have ever been stronger, particularly in the 1970's. There was Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and behind them people like Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Ernie Shavers - these were all top-class fighters. It's one of the truisms of boxing, isn't it? You can't really be regarded as a great fighter until you've fought in some great fights. Muhammad Ali took part in some of the greatest fights there have ever been. You think about the Forman fight, you think about the Joe Frazier fights, particularly the third Frazier fight in Manilla. I've never seen a more brutal, savage, but somehow mystifyingly beautiful fight than that. It was absolutely astonishing from both men and I don't think there's been anything to approach it in the last 30 years. Without having those great opponents, I don't think Ali would be recognised as being the supreme fighter that he is.

    How do you think Ali would cope against the giant heavyweight fighters of this generation, like Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson?

    Matt Johnstone, England

    Tyson's certainly not a giant. He has the power to worry anybody, but at his peak, I think Ali would have had the speed to get away from him. I think he would have beaten him relatively easily because I don't think he could give Ali as much trouble as Joe Frazier did. As far as Lennox Lewis is concerned, I just think that Ali would be just too good a boxer. There are people who would argue differently, but let's not forget that these are very big me. Lewis stands 6ft 5in, but Ali was 6ft 3in, so there's not so much difference between them. Ali had that crucial edge in speed, so I think he would have been too quick for Lennox.

    FC: It could be argued that Ali's best years were taken away from him when he refused to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Do you think we missed out on a glorious time in Ali's career or did we catch up later on?

    JR: No, I don't think we did catch up. You can almost look at Ali and see two fighters. In his early career, he had the speed of a lightweight as well as the power to beat a feared man such as Sonny Liston or Cleveland Williams. He had blinding hand speed, supreme balance and ability to move around the ring and to make all his punches count. He was learning all the time, and those three years could have been the greatest times. When he came back he had desire, bravery, ability to take a punch, guile, but he no longer had that speed after three years out of the ring.

    In the cynical world of modern boxing, will we ever see a character able to dominate the sport and the public's attention in the way that Ali has for the past 40 years?

    Mike, Wales, UK

    I suppose you can go back to Jack Dempsey in the 1920s who really captured public attention, or Joe Louis in the late 1930s into the 40s, but there's been nobody since really. Let's not forget that boxing was seen as having close links with the mafia and as a crooked sport, and that it came close to being banned from television in the US after a fighter died. Then along came Ali, the showman personified. He was also a beautiful athlete with the grace of a ballet dancer and a great charisma. There's been nothing since really. Mike Tyson, for all his brilliance in the late 1980s, has tarnished the sport, and Lennox Lewis, for all his ability, simply doesn't have the character or the personality of Ali.

    Should Ali have retired after his third fight with Joe Frazier? Did he continue fighting too long? Do you think this is the reason for his ill health?

    Alison McVie, Scotland

    In a word, yes. After the Thriller in Manilla in 1975, he should have said 'that's enough'. He'd proved himself the best heavyweight fighter of his generation and everything that followed from there went downhill. His physician walked away claiming that Ali was damaging himself. While it's not been conclusively proven that Ali's state of health is because of damage sustained in these fights, it certainly didn't help. If you could rewrite history, I think you'd say 'Yeah, end in 1975'.

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