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Skill and Will

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What defined The Greatest in the ring? That depends on which version you're appraising

SO, JUST how great was The Greatest? Not as a worldwide figure of social significance, but as a fighter. We know his famous formula: Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. But that's metaphor; it says nothing of mechanics. What did the man who once called himself "the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skillfullest fighter in the ring today" actually do in that ring that made him all that?

Pose the question to some of today's top trainers, and you get similar answers. "Ali was not the best textbook fighter," says Freddie Roach. "You wouldn't want to try to teach a young fighter to do what he did." Teddy Atlas echoes that assessment, saying, "He took the Boxing 101 handbook and put it in the trash can." Says 2011 trainer of the year Virgil Hunter, "He went against the grain."

Indeed, the boxer who started his pro career in 1960 as 18-year-old, 192-pound Olympic champion Cassius Clay and ended it 21 years later as 236-pound three-time heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali was denounced early on by old-school trainers and harrumphing sportswriters for his heretical tactics: keeping his hands down, pulling back from punches instead of slipping them, never bothering to attack the body. But his extraordinary speed and sense of timing and distance allowed him to dominate more conventional foes. And for all his unorthodoxy, he applied some perfectly classical elements throughout his career. Says Hunter, "He had a very educated, snapping jab, and he had a great right cross. Some purists said he wasn't a real puncher. But he had a system—he'd use his speed and that jab and break you down. Then he'd sit down on his punches and take you out."

All three trainers agree that Ali was a different fighter when he returned to the ring in 1970 after a 3½ year layoff, one whose physical skills were diminished but whose experience, confidence and strength made him nearly as effective. "There were really two Alis in his career," says Atlas. "The first guy won with pure skill; the second guy won with pure will."

And Hunter, for one, knows how those two versions stack up in the pantheon of all-time heavyweights. "I've always believed there was only one person who could beat Muhammad Ali," he says, "and that was Cassius Clay."