Boxing, along with horse racing, was once widely followed among Americans. In many ways, the 1970's were the final heyday for the sport, when there were excellent practitioners, particularly in the heavyweight division, which was led by Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Muhammad Ali.
Ali, who had previously been a dominant champion during the 1960's with no serious opposition, found himself surrounded by several fighters who were in his class during the 1970's, which resulted in several great, great fights, most of which are now available on either ESPN Classic or youtube. For anyone interested in watching some of them, here is my ranking of the ten greatest fights involving Ali. These are all interesting fights and I would put the first five of these on a list of the greatest fights in boxing history, not just among heavyweights.
1. 1974--Ali vs. George Foreman--Known as the Rumble in the Jungle, this fight had an electric atmosphere, with almost constant action. Ali proved that he had the best chin in boxing as he survived Foreman's brutal assaults and ultimately won on a "light" knock-out over an exhausted Foreman in the 8th round, giving Big George his first career defeat. Despite the biased announcing by the British commentator, this fight was pretty even until the surprising ending where the spent Foreman twirls to the canvas. Because of Foreman's acclaim at the time, this fight was much more of an upset than it seems today, somewhat akin to Buster Douglas stopping the undefeated Tyson in 1990.
2. 1975--Ali vs. Joe Frazier--Known as the Thrilla in Manila, this fight lacked the explosive individual punches of the first Ali-Frazier fight or the Foreman fight, but what it lacked in knock-downs, it made up for in intensity. Frazier and Ali went toe to toe for 14 brutal rounds, fighting to the point of utter exhaustion, if not quite death. Every time I watch this, I am unsure whether or not Ali is going to be able to come out for the 15th round.
Sports Illustrated had this to say the week before the Thrilla: "It is doubtful that Ali and Frazier will match their first fight, a masterpiece of courage and talent and high tension that left one damp with sweat and tingling many hours later." http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1090286/index.htm
Somehow, they did.
3. 1971--Ali vs. Joe Frazier--Known as the Fight of the Century, this bout pitted the two undefeated champions in a fight which had more peaks of excitement, but less overall intensity than the Manila fight. Frazier punishes Ali in both the 11th and 15th, perhaps worse than any other boxer until Larry Holmes in 1980. Frazier's knock-down of Ali in the 15th was one of the hardest punches in boxing history, but somehow Ali got up and finished the fight. Overall, it was still a pretty close bout and Frazier may have looked more beaten up than Ali at the end.
4. 1977--Ali vs. Earnie Shavers--Shavers had a punch like George Foreman and would later go on to destroy Ken Norton in one round, and put Larry Holmes down in a title fight, and he showed his power here, hurting Ali in several rounds and leaving Ali sagging on the ropes at the end of round 14.
We didn't realize how good Shavers actually was at the time, so in retrospect, Ali deserves credit for beating an excellent opponent in a close, exciting 15-round bout. Sports Illustrated gave this fight its cover with the headline: "Ali's Desperate Hour." http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/cover/featured/8558/index.htm
5. 1975--Ali vs. Ron Lyle--Ron Lyle was another excellent 1970's fighter, along with Shavers, Norton and Jimmy Young, who never quite won the title in the ring, but who all gave Ali all he wanted head-to-head. Lyle appeared to be ahead in this fight in which he made Ali come to him, away from the ropes, but Ali stopped him in the 11th on a somewhat questionable TKO.
6. 7. 8.--Ali vs. Ken Norton--Ali fought Norton three times, in 1973, twice and then in 1976 and there essentially was not a dime's worth of difference between the two fighters. The first two fights were split decisions, one won by Norton and one won by Ali, with Norton breaking Ali's jaw in the first bout. The third fight took place in 1976 in Yankee Stadium and was just as close as the first two with Ali winning a highly controversial decision by one round on two cards and two rounds on the referee's card.
9. 1978--Ali vs. Leon Spinks--This was an exciting, entertaining bout that resulted in Ali losing his title. The reason why I grade it only at 9 is because it was not apparent at the time, just how poor a heavyweight Leon Spinks was or how much Ali's skills had been degraded in the five months since his victory against Shavers. Spinks may be the worst heavyweight champion to ever hold the lineal heavyweight title, but this was a pretty good fight.
10. Tie--1976--Ali vs. Jimmy Young; 1975--Ali vs. Chuck Wepner. The Young fight was not particularly exciting, but many felt that Young won the 15-round fight. Wepner never really had a chance to win against Ali, but he did put Ali down with a surprise glancing punch and took Ali into the 15th round before finally succumbing and ultimately inspiring the concept of the Rocky movies for Sylvester Stallone.
Ali fought ten title bouts in the 1960's and won all of them easily, against mostly mediocre competition, with the exception of Sonny Liston and the small, former champ, Floyd Patterson. In the 70's, however, Ali rarely had an easily fight when fighting against highly ranked opposition, as the above list shows. It is difficult to assert that the 1970's Ali was measurably better than either Norton or Frazier head to head, and neither Foreman, nor Young, nor Lyle nor Shavers ever fought Ali again, after difficult wins for Ali.