Would Muhammad Ali beat Mike Tyson if they were both in their prime?


Fact Box

  • Mike Tyson was born in 1966 in Brooklyn, NY, and became the youngest heavyweight boxing champion of the world twenty years later. 
  • Born Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali, changed his name in 1964 after joining the Black Muslim group Nation of Islam. As a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War for “religious beliefs and ethical opposition,” Ali was found guilty of draft evasion and appealed a conviction for nearly four years, during which time he was unable to box and “lost a period of peak performance as an athlete.” 
  • At 12 years of age, Mike Tyson was inspired to become a boxing champ after Muhammad Ali visited the detention center where he was being held for attempting to rob a storekeeper.  
  • Muhammad Ali’s daughter, Laila Ali, followed in her father’s footsteps to become a championship boxer, winning the Super Middleweight Champion title in 2002.

Bill (Ali)

One of the all-time fantasy matchups in boxing history pits Muhammad Ali against Mike Tyson, and—spoiler alert—Ali would win. Ali had several noteworthy advantages over Tyson: a seven-inch longer reach (78' to 71' for Tyson), a track record of handling big punchers like Frazier and Foreman, and his superior versatility, ring mastery, and tactical prowess.

Ali's reach advantage over Tyson is important in the context of the fights that Tyson lost in his career—all of them came to fighters who had significant reach advantages, enabling them to keep Tyson at a distance with their jabs. Ali was noted for his ability to keep opponents at bay while landing shots to blunt their forward progress.

Tyson's power (88% of his wins by knockout) is often cited as a reason he would be a tough matchup for Ali. However, Ali took the measure of his era's fiercest punchers and was never knocked out by any of them (including Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman). Perhaps the biggest advantage Ali would have in a fight with Tyson is his ability to exploit his opponent's weaknesses. In Tyson's case, he was known to be less effective as the fight dragged on—the losses in his prime coming in the eighth round or later (except for his notorious disqualification against Evander Holyfield, after Tyson bit his ear in the third round). Ali neutralized George Foreman's punching power by extending the fight along the ropes and tiring Foreman out. Therefore, it's easily predictable Ali would similarly dispatch Tyson; advantage Ali. 

Matthew (Tyson) 

Both the '87-'89 Mike Tyson and the '64-'67 Cassius Clay-Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight division in their early 20's, held it for three unbeatable years, and destroyed nine opponents (7 KO's each) in their competitive fields before losing the title. How would Tyson win in a mythical 10th title defense matchup?  

Ali's strengths were his blazing hand speed, next-level footwork and agility, and formidable mental strength. Ali's weakness was that he kept his right hand low and away from his body, leaving him vulnerable to a left hook, a counter-jab, and feints. Of the four times Ali was knocked down, three came from a left hook. He had trouble with swarming pressure fighters who neutralized his agility, like Joe Frazier, and fending off boxers who could parry his jab/combination style, like George Chuvalo. And intelligent fighters who came to carefully exploit Ali's rhythm with an unorthodox style, like Ken Norton, also showcased his weakness. 

Mike Tyson possessed a unique combination of these fighting styles and disruptions, representing kryptonite to Ali's attributes in a matchup fight. Tyson perfected Cus D'Amato's 'peek-a-boo' defense, which, at once, made his head an impenetrable and a continually moving target while keeping his right-hand high, ready to deliver his overlooked rising counter jab. His feints could slip past and under Ali's jabs to place himself fitting in close like Frazier, where Tyson was regarded as the hardest puncher. Tyson's unorthodox footwork combination of a shift and a shuffle would have limited Ali's agility and opened him up to Tyson's hybrid left hook.   

Most telling are the words of Ali himself, who owed Iron Mike no respect. He would lose.

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