Muhammad Ali stands as one of the most talented and compelling sports figures in the history of professional competition, and possibly the best boxer that ever lived short of Sugar Ray Robinson. He serves as the premier heavyweight standard, a big man who had enough power to knock out opponents, but who was also a polished boxer with transcendent fight strategies, creative defensive philosophy, and exceptional fundamentals. He holds a professional record of 56 wins and 5 losses with 37 knockouts (KOs) and ha carried the boxing world on his shoulders during his boxing prime. Mike Tyson remains one of the most polarizing figures in all of entertainment and one of the most prolific knockout artists in boxing history garnering 50 wins and 6 losses with 44 KOs. However, his legacy in boxing is a story of promise unfulfilled. Though he reached the pinnacle of his sport becoming the youngest heavyweight champion in history, he also had one of the biggest falls from grace in the entire sports world. But, when Tyson was in top condition and trained by Cus D’Mato, he compared favorably to the all-time greats and would have been competitive with anyone in boxing history. By most standards, Tyson placed as one of the top ten best heavyweights in boxing history during that period (not over his whole career though) and one of the most dominating boxers of his era. Since style decides most great fights, a hypothetical matchup between Tyson and Ali seems inevitable.
Ali vs. Tyson would have been a match for the ages, and in this hypothetical bout, both fighters are fighting in their boxing primes. This is the Ali that beat George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” and Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila”. This is the “Iron” Mike Tyson that literally won some of his matches in seconds. These boxers exemplify the archetypes for the most common and celebrated types of fighters in a contest for pugilistic supremacy, the cerebral counterpuncher and the explosive knockout specialist. The contrast of these classic styles parallel the concepts of oppositional duality and draws to mind the irresistible force paradox. What happens when an immovable object faces an unstoppable force? Who will win when Ali’s impenetrable barricade is sieged by Mike Tyson’s volatile punching power? Defense or Offense? Brain or Brawn? Man or Beast? Ali outsmarted and dominated opponents through strategy and execution. Tyson obliterated them with power and ferocity. These fighters will be dissected by all the boxing skills that make a fighter great, style, footwork, hand speed, power, defense, and chin.
There are four basic boxing styles, the infighter, the outfighter, the brawler, and the boxer-puncher. The infighter moves in close to his opponents and constantly pressures them advancing with a barrage of punches. Infighters have great power and usually have decent defense because they have to work their way inside their opponents’ longer jab to be effective. Outfighters like to keep distance between them and their opponents and pick them apart with well-timed punches. Outfighters come in two variations, the counterpuncher and the pure boxer. The pure boxer likes to lead with the jab and is typically the aggressor in a fight, but the counterpuncher lets the fight come to him, slips punches, blocks punches, and then throws jabs and straights when the aggressive fighters make mistakes. The brawler typically has an iron chin and the most power of all the boxing styles. He wants to stand toe to toe and trade punches because he can deliver and take a blow better than the other boxers. And finally, the boxer-puncher is similar to the outfighter, but with substantial power and less speed and defense. Boxer-punchers have devastating punching power, but lack the technical skill on defense and the mobility of the pure boxer.
Ali was an outfighter, but did not fit perfectly into the counterpuncher or the pure boxer category. Ali was a hybrid of both styles, regularly forcing his opponents to punch into his impenetrable defense, and then returning blows like a classic counterpuncher, but he also led with the jab to put pressure on his foes. Technically, Ali’s offensive posture was pure boxer as opposed to other outfighters like Floyd Mayweather and Bernard Hopkins who are in defensive posture naturally (Philly shell), and he was tailor made for opponents like Frazier or Tyson. However, Ali had trouble with two types of boxers, those who went to the body well (Frazier and Ken Norton both trained by Eddie Futch) and those who made him go on the offensive (Against Jimmy Ellis, most of the crowd thought that Ali lost the fight. Ellis never took the bait. When he went to the rope a dope, Ellis just stood in the middle of the ring and made Ali come back and fight). When Ali had to go on the offensive, you could see how limited his offense was.
Conversely, Mike Tyson overwhelmed his opponents with raw power so often that the casual fans usually categorize him as a brawler. However, Tyson knocked boxers out without taking damage so he was not technically a brawler. Brawlers and swarmers (infighters) both rely on proximity to attack their opponent and they both typically get hit a lot. This is where a young Mike differentiated himself from great infighters like Jack Dempsey whose style parallels his own. Tyson never traded blows with fighters in his earlier fights even when they threw a high volume of punches against him. He was an infighter with spectacular defense, and that is what made him great. Mike Tyson’s style was similar to boxing great Jack Dempsey. He threw devastating punches, had incredible hand speed, could land knockout punches with either hand, and was in perpetual motion to advance closer to his adversaries, but was even bigger than Dempsey with more power. He was the typical infighter, shorter and stockier than the average boxer with a short reach so he had to work past the long jabs of opponents to be successful. He fought from a full crouch position and punished his enemies with hooks, straights, and uppercuts to the head and body.
Ali has a slight advantage here. Pure boxers use their jab as both a tool to keep their opponents at bay and as a way of measuring distance for the stronger, more the punishing straight right that they throw. The pure boxer style of fighting is tailor-made for the offense that Mike Tyson utilized because it kept shorter power punchers out of range. Since Tyson was a shorter heavyweight, he had to get close to his opponent to be most effective. Ali was an accurate puncher from a distance, and he was a master at using his jab to keep tough opponents at bay. Tyson, however, was a master of getting inside without being hit, and though he was often categorized by boxing fans as a brawler, he never traded punches at the beginning of his career.
The footwork of a boxer determines the proximity of the fight, the effectiveness of the boxer’s defense, and the speed and power of their punches. Very few good boxers have bad footwork, and Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali are no exceptions.
Mike Tyson’s footwork is grossly underrated in the annals of boxing. Though he was not the pure technician that Ali was in the ring, Tyson showed great footwork in his youth, constantly moving to gain ground in the ring while avoiding blows. He diligently worked his way inside the reach of bigger fighters in all his matches, shuffling side to side, bobbing and weaving, and angling himself closer to his opponents so that he could eventually knock them out. And, either he or his trainer Cus D’Amato created a subtle shift that Tyson utilized to set up power punches like his right hook, right uppercut, left straight, left hook, or some combination of all the punches. The reason that Tyson had so much power in either hand was because he could load and transfer his weight quickly to either foot without exposing himself to attacks. He often switched to a southpaw stance and angled himself just to the side of his opponents lead hand. This allowed him to move out of the danger zone for big strikes from the opposition and throw vicious shots to the head and body. Tyson shifted and threw punches as well as anyone who has ever fought in the heavyweight division.
But, all of Muhammad Ali’s footwork was immaculate. He pivoted, shuffled, slid, jumped, or did whatever was necessary to evade punches and dish out stiff counters. And, he rarely wasted any motion. He was able to dart in and out of range, hitting his targets and slipping out of reach before opposing boxers could capitalize. He had great balance and lateral movement, and was always in a position to defend or attack. Ali generally stood tall with his legs only slightly bent which conserved some energy and allowed him to shuffle into and out of striking distance whenever he wanted. And, when the opportunity presented itself, he sat down on his punches and unloaded on boxers. He is one of only a few boxers who could throw hard punches while moving backwards. Even in retreat, he stayed on the balls of his feet in a three-quarters stance and he could plant and throw a straight right when the opposing boxer dropped his guard. Muhammad Ali was a heavyweight that moved like a middleweight. He could finesse a fighter by dancing around them or step into their body and overpower them once they had tired. His footwork is still used today to teach young pugilists how to move in the ring. He was taller and faster than anyone who stepped into the ring with him.
A significant, but not overwhelming edge to Ali. Muhammad Ali’s footwork was so fundamentally sound that many historians believe he has the best footwork in boxing regardless of weight or class. But, the gap between Ali’s footwork and that of a young Mike Tyson is not as wide as the average boxing fan believes. Mike Tyson was quick and decisive on the canvas and very adept at cutting the ring to stop opponents from running and at avoiding taking damage. Plus, Tyson might have a slight advantage in how his footwork translated into power punches.
Speed is often the deciding factor in any athletic endeavor, but in boxing it controls the outcome of fights. The speed of man’s hands determines whether he lands a hard punch or lands on the floor after he swings and misses. Fractions of seconds are the difference between winning and losing, and both Ali and Tyson had great hand speed.
Muhammad Ali threw accurate, well-timed punches regardless of if he was counterpunching, leading with a jab to throw a straight punch, or throwing hooks to drop his opponent. He was one of the fastest heavyweights of all time both on the floor and with just his hands. His hand speed allowed him to throw punches from all angles including when he had his guard dropped and his hands at his sides. The quickness of his hands granted him opportunities to slip punches into the exceptional defense of fighters like Joe Frazier and Ken Norton Sr. He definitely has some of the fastest hands in heavyweight history.
Michael Gerard Tyson may have the fastest hands that the heavyweight division has ever seen. He threw punches with the speed of men much smaller than him, but with the same ferocity of the hardest hitters in the heavyweight division. Angelo Dundee said plainly that Mike Tyson threw punch combinations that he had never seen before, specifically referencing the right hook to the body, right uppercut combination that he sometimes followed with a left hook. Most fighters never saw the punch coming, and once the first punch landed, it was too late. Tyson has been labeled as a headhunter, but he threw debilitating blows to body too. A significant number of his knockouts were set up by a hard shot to his opponent’s kidney. And, Mike Tyson has a number of knockdowns that came solely from body shots to the breadbasket. Mike Tyson slipped punches into several great
Tyson has a slight advantage in overall hand speed (Mike Tyson combinations), but Ali threw more accurate punches. The placement of his punches normally puts Muhammad Ali ahead of the opposing boxer, however the sheer volume of punches that Mike Tyson threw in his flurries and the fact they often led to a knockout keeps him slightly ahead of Ali in this category. Ali had a limited offense when the other boxer was not the aggressor even with his hand speed. He sometimes struggled to score points without countering boxers.
Punching power separates the good heavyweights from the great ones. The heavyweight division would be exponentially diminished without the hard punches of big George Foreman, the left hook of Joe Frazier, the stone hands of Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey, and the raw punching ability of Mike Tyson. Heavyweight division is defined by the boxers’ ability to knock out other fighters.
Muhammad Ali had two punches that had real knockout power, his straight right to the head and body and his left hook to the head. He was never considered a weak puncher, because he had a stiff jab and he had a fair amount of knockouts in comparison to fights. But, Muhammad Ali never mounted full-on attacks against fighters in early rounds. Although he was one of the bigger heavyweights in stature, his fight plan was generally using his endurance to tire out his adversary and striking once he had a clear advantage. Ali had some power, but he did not rely on it unless he truly outclassed his opponent.
Conversely, Mike Tyson was a specialist. His in-ring strategy was solely to punish people by overwhelming them. He knocked people out with straight rights to the head, right hooks to the head or body, right uppercuts, left uppercuts, and left hooks to the body or the head. Tyson threw punches from all angles and could put boxers on the floor with either hand. His punching power is only rivaled by other great knockout punchers like Foreman, Liston, and Dempsey.
Tyson has a huge advantage in power. Of his 44 knockouts, 36 of them were in the first three rounds. Few fighters received the Tyson left hook to the head or the right hook to the body-right uppercut combination and survived the match. Mike Tyson knocked out 88% of the men that stepped in the ring against him.
Ali was one of the best defensive fighters in boxing history even though he is thought of more of a tactician than a fighter with a historically great guard. When he was attacked he used an amalgamation of different defensive strategies to ward off opponents. He mixed the Philly shell defense with cross armed technique, earmuffs, and the rope a dope. Ali even backed up with his guard dropped to dodge punches, something no boxer has ever been taught to do. When Ali did not want to be hit, no one could touch him. And, he used a stiff jab as a deterrent for attackers who tried to get past his guard. Ali used the whole ring to outsmart boxers. He used the ropes to trick George Foreman into punching himself out, he used the corners to overpower weaker opponents, and he maneuvered through space in the center of the ring to keep most hard punchers at bay.
Tyson is thought of as a slugger who gave and took punishment, but Tyson did not get hit when he was under D’Amato’s tutelage. He landed annihilating punches without taking any damage, because his head and shoulder movements coupled with the earmuffs blocking technique allowed him to get in for the close range hooks and uppercuts that he wanted to throw. His head was borderline unhittable using D’Amato’s peek-a-boo defense. Tyson utilized perfect fundamentals bobbing and weaving under punches to gain ground and minimize damage. He had great head movement to confuse punchers, good balance when slipping punches, and he shifted his feet well to set up powerful counters.
Draw. Most casual boxing fans believe that Muhammad Ali would have a clear advantage on defense against Tyson, but the casual fan has no idea how remarkable Mike Tyson’s defense actually was in his prime. This is not the Mike Tyson who had Don King as his manager, had stopped training, and relied solely on power to win fights. This is the disciplined technician who picked apart fighters while dodging punches.
Fighters are measured by how hard they throw punches and how they react when they are caught by a hard blow. Eventually every fighter gets knocked down. The best fighters get back up and persevere through the fog and the pain. A fighter’s chin is determined by how well they can take a punch. Brawlers like Rocky Marciano were renowned for their ability to take and deliver punishment. The boxers with the best chin recover quickly when they are hit with hard punches and rally to compete in the round.
Ali was able to get up from knockdowns. He has had his bell rung, stood on wobbly knees, and survived rounds in a daze. He was hard to knock down and harder to keep down. Plus, Ali faced all of the hardest hitters of his era, and some of the hardest punchers of all time. Ali won against Frazier (Ali lost their first fight, but won the next two), Foreman, Shavers, Lyle, and Liston; these were men who could stop a fight with one punch.
The one real knock against Mike Tyson is that he has never gotten up when he was knocked down. He faced some hard punchers in his prime, but never faced a real knockout artist during that period. And, when he Tyson hit the canvas, he has never continued fighting. However, the older, slower version of Mike Tyson definitely showed that he could take a punch because his fighting style necessitated that he get hit. At the end of his career, he fought closer to the style of the brawler that everyone envisioned him to be. He was considerably slower, had very little head movement, and took as much punishment as he gave in order to throw big punches. The fact that Mike Tyson was knocked out more times at the end of his career is remarkable.
Decidedly Ali. There is no way to determine if a disciplined and well-conditioned Mike Tyson could have handled being knocked down by opponents better than the aging Tyson because he was never hit enough to be knocked down. However, Muhammad Ali faced great competition, was hit and hurt occasionally, and he responded when he hit the canvas. Ali competed when he was knocked down, Tyson did not. .
Tyson in the late rounds. It seems almost sacrilegious to say that Muhammad Ali would lose a fight to any boxer of a later generation, but the D’Amato trained Mike Tyson was a different fighter than the slow, predictable head hunter that Tyson became in his later years of professional boxing. Under Cus, Tyson was a disciplined workman. He had all the power of George Foreman with the relentless pursuit of Joe Frazier. Ken Norton Sr. and Joe Frazier proved that Ali was susceptible to body blows, and Tyson threw crippling body punches with either hand. Though Muhammad Ali would not be shaken by the constant pressure, one has to question if Ali punched hard enough to drop a young Mike Tyson and if that Tyson would receive enough cumulative damage to be knocked out. Ali could only keep him at bay for so long. And once he got inside, Tyson had at least 5 legitimate punches that could put a man on the canvas. Muhammad Ali would use his quick jab to fend Tyson off for the first few rounds. Occasionally, the straight right would land. But, Mike Tyson rarely got hit with hooks, so Ali’s strongest punch would be obsolete. And, all the fighters that did knock Mike Tyson out had good punching power and hard jabs. Muhammad Ali’s jab was more of a setup punch. Detractors will say that Ali beat hard punchers; that his legend was built off knocking out big punchers. But, Mike Tyson specifically fought in a way that troubled Ali. He could crowd Ali much like Frazier did in his fights and throw off his rhythm, work his body with strong hooks cutting off the ring, and exploit Ali’s propensity to drop his right rear hand when he jabbed. With constant advancing and keeping Ali out of the center of the ring, a young Mike Tyson would beat the greatest heavyweight that ever lived.