American Idols – Who is ‘The Greatest?’

2019 proved to be an epic and epoch-defining year, when one American idol, Tiger Woods, defied all the odds, and many of the pundits (including this one) by winning his first ‘Major’ in a decade and hauling himself back from crippling injuries and self-inflicted wounds to reassert his case to be crowned the greatest golfer that ever lived. But, just a few months before one Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods was born, another black American icon, boxer Muhammad Ali was taking part in, and winning, what is widely recognised as not only the finest fight in boxing history the so-called, ‘Thrilla in Manila,’ but, arguably, the greatest sporting occasion of the 20th – and perhaps any other – century. Two iconic American idols, both credible candidates to be considered the greatest in their particular profession, equally controversial, the two uniquely talented, hugely competitive and courageous to the point of being oblivious to danger, mentally resilient and the finest physical specimens. But, which of them, ponders veteran sportswriter Mike Wilson, is, ‘The Greatest?’

American idols Muhammad Ali and Tiger Woods
Muhammad Ali and Tiger Woods (Getty Images)

Comparing sportsmen and women, such as golfers or boxers from generation to generation is a favourite – if somewhat fraught and arguably pointless – pursuit indulged upon by pundits the world over.

But, comparing a golfer who made his very considerable mark on his sport primarily in the 21st century to a boxer who dominated the blue-riband heavyweight division of his particular pugilistic profession in an entirely different era the century before is an altogether more tricky task.

Given their signal superiority and unparalleled success of Muhammad Ali and Tiger Woods, their seemingly-inexhaustible physical and mental resilience, their unprecedented global recognition, not to mention their respective, well-documented flaws and an ability to court controversy and hit the headlines like few others, comparing and contrasting ‘Tiger,’ and, ‘Ali’ is now a legitimate and necessary exercise, as Woods has surely now earned the right to have his credentials considered alongside his compatriot, hence, analysis may, at last, reveal the man who is the undisputed, all-time champion of the sporting universe.

First, let’s examine their similarities and differences as people, as opposed to elite, once-in-a-lifetime sportsmen.

Muhammad Ali was, and Tiger Woods is an American man of colour, something the boxer deliberately and on occasions, provocatively wore on his sleeve, using his race and colour, and latterly his religion as something of a battering ram in promoting himself and many of his fights and causes outside the ring.

But there, the similarities come to a grinding halt; although Woods is primarily black, whereas Ali was exclusively so, of African-American slave stock, the golfer has considerable Asian genes from his Thai mother’s side, but, whatever ethnicity he considers himself to be of, Woods rarely, if ever, plays the race card.

Whereas Ali frequently viewed himself as a victim of racial discrimination, arguably with some justification as his career spanned the most divisive and controversial period in American race relations, culmination in the Race Relations Act of 1965, Woods, on the other hand, chooses, for whatever reason, personal, cultural, racial to remain ethnically bland, preferring to blend into the white-dominated world of golf and a commercial sector that has rightly treated him so generously.

And both men changed their birth names, Muhammad Ali from ‘Cassius Clay,’ the moniker with which he won Olympic heavyweight gold in Rome in 1960, in order to disown his downtrodden black slave heritage in favour of his newfound commitment to Islam.

Muhammad Ali
Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over Sonny Liston and taunts him to get up during their title fight. Ali knocked Liston out in one minute in the first round during their bout at the Central Maine Youth Center in Lewiston, Maine. (Getty Images)

For his part, Woods dropped his given names, ‘Eldrick,’ and, ‘Tont,’ formally inserted – and trademarked – the name, ‘Tiger,’ (reportedly in a tribute to his father Earl’s soldier/friend of that name) for which he has become universally famous, not for historical or religious purposes, but, from a very early age, to define himself by the same single-sobriquet device as had been almost as successfully deployed by the three-time undisputed world heavyweight champion of the world.

Whilst musical icons such as Madonna, Elvis, Bowie and Beyonce have achieved global stardom through their ‘mono-moniker,’ only a handful of sportsmen, such as soccer players Pele and Maradonna have managed it, as did – arguably – racing drivers Fangio and Senna, whilst tennis stars Serena (Williams) and Rafa (Nadal) and basketball legend Magic (Johnson) almost did, but no other boxer or golfer has ever – to date – got remotely close to the global fame, and notoriety, of both Tiger and Ali.

Both great men experienced turbulent personal lives, chaos reigning outside the ring for Ali, married four times, at least nine children fathered, countless alleged affairs, Woods seriously derailing his career when the full extent of his marital infidelity came to light in 2009, a penchant for, ‘Night club hostesses,’ costing him his marriage to Swede Elin Nordegren, the mother of his two children Alexis, now 12 and 10-year-old Charlie Axel.

As athletes, both men were, in their own rights, uniquely impressive specimens; Ali weighed-in, in his prime at 215lb (98kg), standing 6’ 3” (1.91m), a truly remarkable athlete, fast hands and feet for a big man, who, in his own words could, “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

But, above all, Ali was as courageous as they come, perhaps too much so, taking severe punishment later in his career widely thought to have contributed to his diagnosis with the degenerative Parkinson’s Disease in 1984, from which he eventually succumbed on 3rd June 2016, aged 74.

Woods, 33-years Ali’s junior stands 6’1 (1.85m), weighing, in prime condition 185lb (84kg) has honed and toned his body for the most physically demanding deployment of a golf swing ever witnessed in the 250-plus years the game has been played.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods of the United States celebrates making a par on the 18th green to win the TOUR Championship at East Lake Golf Club on September 23, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

Most remarkably, having witnessed the Palm Beach County Police ‘mug-shots’ of Woods following his arrest for DUI (Driving Under the Influence – as it subsequently transpired of both drink and prescription drugs) it was almost inconceivable that, less than two-years-later, he would have had the physical where-with-all – and above all else, emotional strength – to reconstruct the elite athlete’s mind and body capable of, and achieving his epic 2019 Masters victory, against all the odds.

It is when examining their respective sporting careers, 21-years from winning Olympic gold in Rome as Cassius Clay in 1960 to his retirement as Muhammad Ali, aged 39 in 1981, Woods, for his part, still going strong after 23 years at the top of the paid ranks gets more complicated.

Ali fought 61 times, winning 56 of those often brutal, punishing heavyweight contests – fought over 15 gruelling rounds in those days as opposed to the 12 today – 37 of them by knocking out his opponent, his five losses, most notably to Joe Frazier in 1971 took their toll, the great man ultimately a husk of his former self by the time of his last fight and final defeat in 1981.

Tiger Woods has, to date, played 359 times on the PGA TOUR, 100-plus more on other circuits around the world; he recently equalled Sam Snead’s all-time record of 82 PGA TOUR victories and is odds-on to break that before too long; in total, all over the world, he has won 110 individual events, including 15 ‘Majors,’ and 18 World Golf Championship (WGC) titles.

At varying stages of a remarkable and on-going career, he has spent 683 weeks at #1 on the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR), 281 of them on the run, ending in October 2010, the full extent of his fall from grace crystalized by his dropping out of the OWGR top 1,000 in late 2017 as injuries and personal problems appeared to have diminished the great man.

Woods, albeit in a different era to that in which Ali plied his pugilistic trade, has amassed over US$120m in prize money alone, his net worth, adding-in lucrative endorsement deals with the likes of Nike, Rolex and Bridgestone is fast approaching a billion dollars, 12-times that of Ali’s reported wealth at the time of his death, having earned his biggest individual payday, a reported US$5.5m when beating George Foreman in the infamous ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ in 1974.

American Idols - Muhammad Ali and Tiger Woods during Sports Illustrated 20th Century Sports Awards at Madison Square Garden in New York City, NY, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
Muhammad Ali and Tiger Woods during Sports Illustrated 20th Century Sports Awards at Madison Square Garden in New York City, NY, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

But, it is for how they dealt with – and came back from – extensive, long-term absences from their respective sports that both men will perhaps be best remembered and revered.

In 1967, Ali famously refused his conscription to the Vietnam war, was stripped of his world heavyweight title and indeed his license to box; he was then sentenced to five years in prison, missing three years at the peak of his powers, until the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971.

Such was the measure of the man, Ali, having lost to Joe Frazier on his comeback, regrouped and won the rematch three-years-later, having regained the heavyweight title he believed was his birthright against Foreman the previous year.

Woods, who has endured multiple surgeries, on his eyes, knees and most notably – and recently – on his back has missed large swathes of the past decade since his career ‘Meltdown’ of 2009, missing all-but-one event in 2006 and 2017, playing only 19 times between 2014 and 2018, failing to win between a golden season in 2013 (five titles, including two WGC titles and the prestigious Players Championship).

But, Woods, who turns 44 at the end of this year, bounced back, winning the Tour Championship in 2018, his heroic victory at the Masters in April, following that up with another win, the ZOZO Championship in Japan to round off a 22nd year in the pro ranks he ends comfortably back in the top-10 of the OWGR.

Both men were managed by strong, and some might say, ‘Controlling,’ figures, Ali, first Angelo Dundee, then the notorious Malcolm X who exerted oppressive influence over the fighter, Woods in the hands of the controversial – but it must also be said, hugely successful Mark Steinberg, first at IMG before luring his most illustrious client to his new Excel Sports Management agency.

The pair also like to see themselves as philanthropists, Ali, mostly in retirement, working for Special Olympics and the Make a Wish Foundation, appointed a United Nations Messenger of Peace, awarded the highest civilian honour in the USA, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by George W Bush in 2005.

Meanwhile, the Tiger Woods Foundation, which he set up in the late 1990s with his father Earl as his, ‘Philanthropy arm,’ raised almost US$8m in 2018, focusing largely on education programmes such as the Learning Lab, aimed at giving educational opportunities to disadvantaged children, largely in the USA.

Muhammad Ali throws a left hook and misses Trevor Berbick at the Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre on December 11, 1981 in Nassau, Bahamas. Berbick defeated Ali in the tenth round. (Focus on Sport via Getty Images)
Muhammad Ali throws a left hook and misses Trevor Berbick at the Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre on December 11, 1981 in Nassau, Bahamas. Berbick defeated Ali in the tenth round. (Focus on Sport via Getty Images)

Of the two, in terms of ‘Soft influence,’ on the global stage, Ali’s influence on the world appeared – and indeed was – significantly greater than Tiger’s, but both men did their bit, and more, much more than cynical tax relief, personal glorification and public relations.

20-years-ago, when the Tiger Woods phenomenon was still in its infancy, ‘The Independent,’ newspaper in the UK nominated Muhammad Ali as their ‘Greatest Sportsperson of the 20th Century,’ because, “Ali bestrides a century; a colossus who transcended a sport to inspire the world,” a sentiment, at that time that was impossible to challenge.

10-years-later, respected sports columnist Simon Barnes also backed the boxer, concluding in ‘The Times,’ newspaper, “Tiger Woods versus Muhammad Ali: not even a close shave,” explaining, “I accept unreservedly the fact that Tiger Woods is good at golf,” but concluding, “Golf, as a vehicle for pure courage, is not quite the equal of boxing.”

A decade on, perhaps with the fading memory of Ali’s inestimable reputation and glowing charisma, and certainly when viewing Woods through the prism of his whole career, but especially his epic comeback against all the physical and reputational damage he has endured, taking everything into account, this commentator now places the pair virtually neck-and-neck, Ali, arguably, by the narrowest of margins.

Inseparable when considering their respective bodies of work, inside the ring and on the golf course, perhaps Ali shades the argument when it comes to altruism and philanthropy, although on that count, Woods, albeit more unobtrusively, is levelling things up.

I was in the presence of the greatness of Ali just the once; as a callow, sports-mad 13-year-old, my father, then a journalist, took me to a chaotic press conference ahead of the then Cassius Clay’s exhibition match near Glasgow, in the summer of 1965, against his regular sparring partner, compatriot and stablemate Jimmy Ellis.

Aside from the thick fog of cigarette smoke that pervaded the packed press room, and the constant clicking of cameras and endless explosion of flashbulbs, the memory was seared with the supreme physical presence of the recently-crowned world heavyweight champion, diminished only by the sheer aura that surrounded the world champion, a trait I later learned to be that rare, but unmistakable thing called ‘Charisma,’ which Ali not only enjoyed but deployed in abundance.

30-plus-years-later, my first of a number of encounters with Tiger Woods, limited over the years to infrequent engagements in press conferences and mixed zones around the world came during his epic 10-shot victory in the 1997 Asian Honda Classic at the Thai Country Club in Bangkok.

Having been crowned PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year the previous season, but still a few months away from the first of his 15 ‘Majors,’ a chilling 12-stroke victory at the 1997 Masters, first impressions of Tiger were similar, but, at the same time, different to those of Ali.

Yes, a supreme physical specimen – I recall writing, “Woods is an athlete first, a golfer second,” – alongside a different kind of charisma, a more reserved self-assurance masked, back then, by an understandable gaucheness of a mere 22-year-old.

But the pair shared one unique characteristic, a trait I have never – before or after – experienced in any other athlete interviewed or questioned over 25-years in sports reporting.

Both men, when responding to a question, fixed their interrogator with a laser-like stare, making him or her feel like there was just the two of them in the room, answering directly, if, in the case of Woods, all too often evasively, sheer box office, packed press conferences, standing room only, wherever and whenever they pitched up.

Muhammad Ali’s trademark boast was, ‘I am the greatest,’ and, in boxing terms, he was, and remains, without question, the very best of all time, without exception and by a considerably long chalk.

Tiger Woods Presidents Cup
Tiger Woods on day 1 of the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne Golf Club (Getty Images)

But, on the broader sporting tableau, his hitherto undisputed claim to be, ‘The greatest,’ across sport, that may still be true, but if it is, and many may now question that, it is now by the narrowest of margins and there is only one authentic contender for his crown, namely Tiger Woods.

The pair, supremely talented in their chosen professional charismatic, albeit in somewhat different ways, hugely successful, fabulously wealthy, universally recognisable and by a single sobriquet, ‘Ali,’ and, ‘Tiger,’ and, most notable, both man as brave as the proverbial lion, routinely digging deeper than deep as and when required, supremely talented for sure but routinely backing that up, as and when required, with fearlessness, fortitude and raw courage.

As to the 64,000-dollar question, ‘Tiger,’ or, ‘Ali,’ who is the greatest?

This correspondent still gives it to Ali, but it’s close, and getting closer, and, meanwhile, in the court of public opinion, the jury may very well still be out, but an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo in 2020, to match Ali’s in Rome 60-years-earlier might just be the icing on the cake of a remarkable career and the tipping point in Tiger’s favour in his claim to be, ‘The Greatest.’

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