If either of the fighters in the upcoming UFC Light Heavyweight title bout bears a significant resemblance to Muhammad Ali, historically speaking, it is Rashad Evans. The parallels between the main event of UFC 145 and Ali vs. Foreman in Rumble in the Jungle in 1974 are actually a little startling. Evans is in place as Ali, Jones as Foreman.
Rashad Evans is 32, the same age as Ali when he stepped in the ring against George Foreman, fighting an undefeated 24 year old champion in Jones who most view as virtually unbeatable (I’m ignoring Jones’ technical loss to Hamill). Foreman, likewise, was 25 when he met Ali in Zaire. He had never lost or come anywhere close, having brutally cleaned out the entire heavyweight division with shocking efficiency; he was 40-0 with 38 knockouts. He had recently blitzed Joe Frazier to win the heavyweight belt, knocking the champ down 6 times in less than 2 rounds. No one could remember anyone like Foreman, except maybe Sonny Liston (who Ali defeated at 22 to get the belt, but was a huge underdog going into that fight as well). Foreman had also demolished Ken Norton in a similar fashion for another 2nd round knockout of a former champ who had previously defeated Ali.
Ali, meanwhile, went to Africa as a former champ of quickly advancing age who everyone thought was certain to lose. Some feared for his safety against Foreman. At that time he had just two losses in his career. Evans, similarly, has only a single loss going into UFC 145.
Jones’ merciless finishes of Rua, Machida, and to a lesser extent Jackson line up beautifully with the historical context of Foreman quickly blasting a series of foes which Evans either lost to or did not finish. Like Evans, Ali’s only losses came from men who the current champ had easily destroyed. What I mean is, the inconsistent method of what we lovingly call MMA Math helps us all to see now what people saw in 1974, that the new champ was a stud the level of which an older former champ could not hope to match, and we got there by comparing common opponents. If anything, Ali had performed worse against his common opponents with Foreman than Evans has against his common opponents with Jones.
Ali and Evans were (are) both also cajolers, fighters who intentionally direct their pre-fight media hype to getting inside the head of their opponent. Everybody talks smack, and nobody can best Ali in this regard, but Evans has made it a regular practice of stirring up the bile in his opponents with antagonism and not caring much about his public perception while doing it, the strategy Ali mastered against the likes of Foreman and Frazier. Evans is currently doing it with Jones, he did it with Davis, with Tito, with Rampage, and so on. At least, he’s more like Ali in this category than Jones, whose displays of condescension an indignation is a much quieter form of intimidation, whereas Ali was the most accomplished loudmouth in modern sports history.
Ali’s victory over Foreman in Rumble in the Jungle was so miraculous that it cemented his legacy forever in many ways. His strategy to bait Foreman into tiring himself out was brilliant and sophisticated, and so flawlessly executed that the term Rope-a-Dope has become a common part of the American sports lexicon. Unfortunately for Rashad Evans, it will probably take something just as remarkable for him to recapture his belt as well.
More and more is being made of the comparison between Jon Jones and Muhammad Ali, which is almost completely a comparison based upon image. A recent spread in UFC Magazine features Jones striking underwater, directly reminiscent of the famous Ali image.
Other fighters have been in the place where Jones finds himself now, such as Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Fedor Emilianenko, Sonny Liston, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, etc. That is to say, this list of fighters at one time were each undefeated and considered without a challenger in their sport (numerous fighters have been at that spot, but it is more significant when they are undefeated). It is Ali, however, that we immediately leap to when searching for Jones comparisons.
In a pre-fight press conference leading up to UFC 145, Jones has said he hopes to surpass Ali (for the record, this marketing misadventure was thrust upon the champ; it wasn’t his idea, as he explains). While I admit that I find the comparisons between Jones and Ali to be excruciating, at best, in their deficiency, it doesn’t bother me that he has such aspirations, being a young and confident champion. Foolish statements are part of that territory. However, it seems as though perhaps he should try to grasp how Ali shaped himself as a public figure, and what he stood for, and why an undefeated record and a gigabyte of Twitter posts will never exactly match up, to put it most lightly.
Here’s one simple step I offer to Jones on how to begin surpassing Muhammad Ali: sacrifice three years of your career, at your physical peak. Three and a half, actually. Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into Vietnam, breaking a long tradition of popular public figures in America going to war when the government said to (Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Elvis Presley, etc.) and it cost him three of his best fighting years, from 25 until he was almost 29. Three years you will simply never get back. Do it because you believe in something more profound than yourself or your bank account or your win/loss record, and you refuse to compromise for anyone.
Doing this will get you started, and there is a long, long way still to go.
What we love about a fighter, and what defines them for better or worse, is their narrative. Nothing is more important, nor equally important. Ali was not technically the greatest fighter of all time. Not in terms of wins/losses, not in terms of dominance in the ring under any measurable scale. We call him “The Greatest” for a bulky collection of reasons that are all incorporated into his narrative, such as his bombastic and groundbreaking public persona, his noble and brave sociopolitical opinions and willingness to sacrifice his career for them, his intelligence, his remarkably sophisticated (and, yes, mostly dominant) performances in the ring, his underdog victories, and so on. “The Greatest” is an honorary title, not a literal ranking. When we confer it to Ali we are talking about him as a figure and the big picture surrounding him. We are talking about overcoming turmoil in order to find victory—now that’s a narrative worth hearing.
For Ali, it was one narrative of many.
For Jones, it hardly seems possible. Not if he simply fights and wins and fights and wins. That doesn’t get you up with Ali. It doesn’t get you close.