Boxing is a sport which has created superstars, if there is any sport which can claim to have created ‘Superman’ or ‘Supermen’, it is Boxing, and more specifically, the heavyweights. In 1978 DC Comics released a comic in which Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali took on Superman, unsurprisingly titled as Muhammad Ali vs Superman, original I know…Ali was a global superstar, he even called himself ‘The Black Superman’ on a song he made. In the sporting world none can compare to Ali’s name and fame except for one man…..the baddest man on the planet Iron Mike Tyson, another Boxing Heavyweight Champion of the world and most likely the most entertaining and explosive fighter the world of combat sports has ever seen, never mind Boxing, there has never been another fighter across all combat sports who was as intimidating as Iron Mike Tyson was in his prime and one of the oft asked questions amongst Boxing fans has been the age old question – who would win in a fight if Muhammad Ali fought against Mike Tyson?
Before I go on and give my opinion, I will say that the two boxers are probably my two favourite all time boxers, so I do not generally have a bias towards one or the other, throw in names such as Floyd Mayweather Jnr and Sugar Ray Robinson and those four are my favourites. I will also remind you that at times Ali said Tyson would beat him and at other times Tyson said Ali would beat him, the two were good friends so I think that’s important in that the respect has to be shown when considering their careers and debating who would win between the two.
When considering Muhammad Ali at his best, I am going to pick the period just before he was banned from Boxing for refusing to be drafted into the US Military so this is the Ali who fought against the likes of Zora Foley, Ernie Terrell and Cleveland Williams although we will take into account his whole career. A peak Mike Tyson would be the Tyson from before the Buster Douglas defeat. This, in my opinion is both boxers at their absolute best but again, we will look at their careers as a whole.
Ali against Cleveland Williams – the perfect fighting machine
We all know the strengths of Ali, his hand speed and his foot speed was unparalled in Heavyweight Boxing, we are still yet to see a Heavyweight who was as quick as a pre 1967 Ali. For Mike Tyson it was his explosiveness and power, other Heavyweights such as George Foreman and Ernie Shavers may have hit harder, but Tyson hit faster and threw punches in bunches – big punches in bunches at a very fast speed. Being shorter than his opponents Tyson also had great head movement which he would throw his shots off from, if you missed, which you likely would, Tyson rarely missed the opportunity to counter punch.
So lets get down to some key areas and match ups between the two fighters, styles make fights so here is my run down of ‘float like a butterfly sting like a bee’ against ‘I want to eat your heart and I want to eat your children’.
Muhammad Ali was fast, he liked to fight on the outside flicking his jab at you keeping you at range. Mike Tyson, due to his shorter height for his division was a master of evading and countering the jab. Ali fought men such as former Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson who were similar to Tyson, Patterson was trained in the peek a boo style by Tysons mentor and trainer Cus D’Amato and Ali despatched of Floyd Patterson pretty easily both times, although it must be added Patterson is no Tyson and was past his prime on both occasions, aged 30 in the 1st bout and 37 in the 2nd, which incidentally would be his last. Tyson at times struggled against boxers who would stick and move, and his head movement would slow as the fight wore on, Ali’s reach advantage of 7in would give Tyson the kind of problems he faced in the James Tillis and Buster Douglas fight, not to mention against Holyfield and Lewis later on in his career. Guys who utilized the jab, could move and also tie you up as Ali would to Tyson. When it comes to styles, Ali gets the nod. Where Tyson does have the advantage is his great hooking ability, Ali at times lowered his non punching hand, such as when throwing the uppercut, it is a distinct possibility this is something Tyson would capitalize on, perhaps even better than Joe Frazier did.
There really isn’t any comparison here, Ali was not a puncher. Tyson would kill you early, he had plenty of 1st round knockouts, can anyone even name a fight Ali won in the 1st round? I don’t think there has ever been a more explosive puncher in Boxing, certainly not the Heavyweights than Mike Tyson. But here’s the problem with this argument, and the problem is Ali’s chin – Ali took on the biggest punchers the Heavyweight world has ever seen, George Foreman, Ernie Shavers, Sonny Liston and none of the three managed to knock Ali down let alone knock him out or beat him, so why would anyone think Tyson would be able to knock out Ali? This leads me nicely to my next point…
Mike Tyson shows how to make you miss and make you pay
Tyson was vicious, no mistake about it, he was one man you would hate to get into a fight with, both inside or outside the ring. He often beat his opponents before the fight through sheer intimidation, but if he couldn’t bully you, he would struggle to impose his will, especially if the fight wore on and went into the later rounds. Ali on the other hand, was the 1st to really employ psychological tactics against his opposition, Sonny Liston was the most feared man in Boxing with links to the mafia and multiple stints in prison yet Ali stood firm and embarrassed him. Joe Frazier was so upset with Ali’s jibes that he didn’t really ever forgive Ali. The use of Ali’s tactics outside the ring in the lead up to the fight goes on and on, no Boxer could outsmart Ali. Tyson was a loose cannon at the best of times, if he had to put up with Ali’s taunts he would go into the fight wanting to kill Ali and throw his plan out of the window which would fall right into Ali’s hands.
When considering mental strength you also have to take into account how a fighter responds when he is dragged deep into the fight, or ‘deep waters’ as some would say, would he drown or swim on to the finish line? Ali was involved in wars, most notably the thriller in Manila against Joe Frazier but Ali was no stranger to lasting the distance and going deep into a fight. Tyson on the other hand, if he couldn’t get you out of there early, would often slow down, lose his head movement and noticeably be far less dangerous. Did Mike Tyson ever come from behind to win a fight? Ali came off the canvas to win fights(Banks, Cooper) and he could continue to mix it up even after injury(broken jaw suffered against Ken Norton) when it came to mental strength and the desire to dig deep, the heart and will to win, Ali was one of the greatest ever if not the greatest. You also have to remember the Cus D’Amato argument, people say had Tyson always had Cus in his corner he would have been best ever, but this reliance on Cus works against him when it comes to mental strength, more so when you consider Muhammad Ali beat Jimmy Ellis – Ali’s famed trainer Angelo Dundee wasn’t in his corner for this fight, but in the corner of Jimmy Ellis!
Ali ruled the roost in Heavyweight Boxing during its golden era, Liston, Foreman, Frazier were all time greats in the Heavyweight division, Ali beat them 5 out of 6 times. Not to mention other high quality fighters such as Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Ernie Shavers, Floyd Patterson and Archie Moore(Moore is an all time great, just not at the heavyweight division) and much of this came at a time Ali was already past his best. I am not sure you can name one great fighter Tyson beat? The great fighters he came up against, Lewis and Holyfield, Tyson wasn’t able to win. You could also argue that when Tyson was at his best, there just wasn’t any other great Heavyweights around, Tyson dispatched of the rest with ease, he can only beat whoever is put in front of him. Holmes was also well past his best when Tyson knocked him out. There are also the rumours that Tyson’s team avoided Tim Witherspoon and that Tyson wanted no part of George Foreman. The latter would make sense, Tyson’s style was all wrong to fight someone like Foreman, if it is true, it was a wise decision on his part to avoid Foreman. The same could be said of Ali, yes he beat Foreman in the legendary Rumble in the Jungle but there was no chance Ali would want to participate in a rematch with Foreman, but looking at the list of names on their resumes, Ali had by far the tougher schedule and still came out on top in both the 60’s when he was in his peak, and the 70’s when he was past his prime.
So those are my main areas of talking points when discussing Ali v Tyson, a man like Tyson would always have a punchers chance, his hand speed combined with ferocious power meant that it was a real possibility that he could knock you out, but when it comes to fighting ‘the greatest’, my opinion is Ali would weather the inevitable early storm from Tyson, moving around the ring picking him off from the outside, wearing him down before stepping up the pace in the later rounds when Tyson was getting frustrated and tiring. Ali by a wide and unanimous decision, possibly even a late stoppage. 9 times out of 10 Ali wins for me, the other time, Tyson counters Ali with left hooks time after time much like Joe Frazier did in the fight of the century the 1st time he fought Ali and Tyson wins on points. Either way, it will be a very long time before we see a greater Heavyweight than Ali, if you combine his ring craft with his personality, we will possibly never see another Boxer of his kind able to make such an impact across the globe. The same can be said for Iron Mike Tyson, will we ever see someone younger than Tyson was, at just 20 to claim the Heavyweight championship of the world? Will there ever be another fighter as explosive, exciting as Mike Tyson?
Boxing Coach Strength and Conditioning Coach Boxing Writer for the Ringside Report Boxing Author of: (Available for download on Amazon) The Boxing Cheat Sheet - Your Ultimate Guide to Ring Survival Strength and Conditioning for Boxing - Work out Hits to get you Fighting Fit! Forgotten Legends of the Ring - Ten Past Masters of the Squared Circle