By Derek Williams
‘I AM THE GREATEST!’ was the familiar chant of one of my favourite boxers, Muhammad Ali.
As a heavyweight, Ali’s hands-down boxing style, bouncing on his toes, moving gracefully around the boxing ring, transformed the way heavyweights were regarded by fans before Ali burst onto the heavyweight scene.
Preceding Ali, the heavyweights dutifully got close to their opponent and traded big punches. But Ali entered the arena as a professional and changed the perception that supporters had of heavyweight boxers. He was an early influencer. Several boxers who came after him, me included, adopted the Ali way.
When I became a professional boxer in 1984, which was more than 20 years after Ali’s professional debut, each morning I would scrutinize footage of him. I watched his interviews and read news articles. I attempted to capture elements of his style.
I was captivated by Ali’s flamboyance, and I mimicked some of his ways. For example, when I fought Jess Harding in 1987, I set up a series of combinations which connected as planned. I admired my work and I demonstrated that with the Ali shuffle, right there.
I recited poems and rhymes about my opponents. I predicted the rounds in which my opponents would be beaten, how they would fall. One of my most popular rhymes and predictions became a hit on YouTube, ‘Sweet D Williams’. I invented a rhyme before my European title victory over Hughroy Currie, that stated I would end the fight in one round.
It went like this: ‘Never before, did Currie endure the power of Derek’s right, landing, but you can be sure, if it lasts four, poor old Currie will be panting, and by this, I’m sure, I’ll walk through the door as the new European Champion!’
Looking at it now, it seems vile but at the time, it worked! I stopped him in the first.
All those antics were purely from watching Ali and being influenced by his way of self-belief and motivation.
Ali was one of the most popular and influential people in history. When he won the BBC award for Sports Personality of the Century in 1999, it was about more than his sporting prowess.
However, as to whether Muhammad Ali is indeed the greatest heavyweight in history is a matter of opinion. I would say, yes, because I am an Ali fan but that might not be the view of others.
In other sports like athletics, you can gauge who the best athlete is, either from how quickly they complete a race or how far they throw or jump. With boxing, statistics are not so transferable.
There are a lot of anomalies that must be considered when analysing a boxer’s position, both in terms of their greatness and how they compare to boxers from other eras. Though a definitive answer is impossible, there has always been incredible interest in the subject.
Boxing books and publications from the past listed Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali as the great heavyweights.
Those five names stood for many years and it’s difficult to disagree but it’s also important to remember that writers, particularly those from years gone by, carried great influence. If you write the same names often enough, people will subconsciously start to agree.
As a former heavyweight, I always studied past heavyweight champions. I looked at their unique abilities and how they won fights. I compared the variety of styles and their main tools used in fights. There are others who should figure in the conversation.
You cannot talk about the great heavyweights and leave out Larry Holmes, for example. He was another outstanding and dominant world champion.
The list of good heavyweights continues: Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, all champions who would have to be considered outstanding fighters. Wladimir Klitschko, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield established themselves as dominant heavyweights too.
Another name who many today would consider to be one of the best is Lennox Lewis. He proved himself to be the best of his generation and that alone is a huge mark of greatness.
Tyson Fury is arguably the most dominant heavyweight of this era, and nobody can take that away from him. For me, he is the best heavyweight now and has been for a few years. When he had a difficult time against Francis Ngannou, plenty were quick to be insulting, but boxing does not and should not be determined by a single performance.
Looking at greatness amongst heavyweight champions is complex. There are fantasy fights that we dream up and argue about. But nobody can be right or wrong in those conversations; one can only imagine how such matchups would end.
To be the heavyweight champion of the world was once considered, by many, to be the greatest prize in sport. It’s a little different today with all the belts but those who achieve the status as being the best on the planet deserve only respect. In the end, though, any fighter who is deemed ‘The Greatest’ has only achieved that by personal opinions, not facts.