By the time you read this, you will have already heard the news about Muhammad Ali.
I won’t go into the details of his long and storied career. I’ll leave that to people who know his whole story better than I.
But, even though he was an international icon, known the world over simply as “Ali”, to me, he was still one of our own. A hometown boy made good. I was, and still am, proud to say I came from the same town as he did. And growing up, he was one of my heroes.
And once, there was a magical time when one of my personal heroes met another in one of the most unlikely of ways:
In the mid-1970’s, both DC and Marvel had begun putting out tabloid-sized comics – comics that were about a third larger than the regular comics coming out at the time. At first they were giant-sized reprint comics, but slowly, both companies began to publish original material in this format.
One of the biggest (no pun intended) of these was the first superhero crossover event – Marvel and DC getting together to put their biggest, most popular characters in one book – Superman vs. Spider-Man. It was a huge, sprawling, fast-moving and rich story that perfectly balanced the worlds and approaches of each character and their respective comic companies, melding them seamlessly into one insanely fun story that, forty years later, is still just as entertaining.
DC would follow up this with team-ups and “vs” books featuring their own characters: Superman vs Wonder Woman was one, another was the long-awaited meeting between Supes and Captain Marvel (the Fawcett/DC version).
But the one that most captured my imagination, in 1978, was a book that was so improbable, so completely out of left field, that it boggled the mind that someone had thought of it.
Superman vs Muhammad Ali.
This book is now considered a classic, having been reprinted in various editions including an all-inclusive hardbound version that contains additional material that sold well only a few years ago. This story had – and still has – its fans. And I was and still am one of them.
The story: Well, Supes and Ali fight. More specifically, they box. To save the Earth.
It starts with Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen heading into the poorer section of Metropolis, following a tip that the famous boxer Muhammad Ali is in town. They find him in an inner-city basketball court, playing with the local kids. Lois charms him into an interview, but before they can get very far, the sky darkens and suddenly there appears a strange, green alien who declares that his fleet of armed starships are poised to destroy the Earth, unless…
No point in having an undercard for this one.
Unless Earth can produce a champion to fight the aliens’ best fighter in one-on-one combat, and thus save the planet. As the alien is making his threat, Clark, as he always does, slips away and returns as Superman. Within a minute, he and Ali begin to argue as to who should be Earth’s champion. Superman thinks he is the obvious, natural choice. However, Ali points out that Superman can’t really represent Earth as champion, because he’s not even from here. They argue their points until the hot-tempered alien, who we learn is the leader of this strange race – called the Scrubb – angrily declares that Ali and Superman will fight to decide who will be the representative of humankind against the Scrubb, and to make the fight fair, they will do so on the Scrubb’s home planet, which has a red sun. Ali and Supes agree, and slip away to the Fortress of Solitude so that Ali can give Superman a crash course in the nuances of boxing.
Soon enough, they are transported to the planet Bodace, where the fight will take place before an intergalactic audience. The alien leader, Rat’Lar, makes clear to the masses the reason for the fight, and apparently the Scrubb possess enough firepower to cow all the other worlds into staying out of this conflict that he’s drummed up (for whatever reason) between Bodace and Earth. Whoever wins, Ali and Superman are fighting for the survival of their home.
And when the fight begins, they give it their all. Early on, it’s recognized that Superman is aping many of Ali’s techniques, such as the famous rope-a-dope that Ali used in real life to regroup before coming back and beating such opponents as Joe Frazier and George Foreman. The fight is brutal, with neither Supes nor Ali giving or getting quarter. But soon enough, Ali begins to demonstrate his superior grasp of the “sweet science” and begins beating Superman to a pulp. Ali lays into him, throwing all his strength into his punches, trying to end the fight by a knockout to save his new friend. But Superman, as beaten and battered as he is, simply won’t fall down. This despite an audience of hundreds of thousands in the stadium chanting “Fall down! Fall down!”
But finally, Superman is overwhelmed, and falls. Ali is the winner. While a badly-beaten Superman is wheeled away on a gurney, Ali gets to meet his new opponent, the champion of Bodace, Hun’Ya. The alien is easily twice Ali’s size, but Ali is unfazed. He begins his legendary wind-up, working himself up to a near frenzy, declaring to Rat’Lar, screaming in defiant anger, that he will not only beat Hun’Ya, he will “DEE-STROY” him. He will become known as not only The Greatest, but the greatest fighter of all time-and-space. He gets into the alien leader’s face and yells and struts as only Ali could. He just beat Superman in a fair fight. He isn’t afraid of anyone, and he wants the entire galaxy to know it. It is a tour-de-force sequence that perfectly catches the legendary bravado of the cocky fighter Ali at his best.
Superman, in a near-comatose state, is transported back to Earth to recover. Meanwhile, Ali prepares to fight Hun’Ya for the fate of the Earth. For his part, Hun’Ya doesn’t speak. He just looks fierce and ready to fight.
Presently, the battle for the fate of the Earth begins. In a small bit of deference to the defenseless planet, Rat’Lar lets the mode of combat be the boxing that Ali knows so well. Ali looks outmatched, and the beginning of the fight doesn’t go well for him. Hun’Ya uses his superior size and strength to beat Ali mercilessly, while Ali uses rope-a-dope to keep from letting the fight become a rout. Unbeknownst to anyone else – except members of his boxing entourage – Ali is using his time on the ropes studying Hun’Ya’s strengths and weaknesses. Slowly, Ali starts to bring the fight back to the massive alien.
Meanwhile, we find out that there has been some subterfuge outside the ring: Superman, in disguise as Ali’s cornerman Bundini Brown, has actually recovered and, while still somewhat weak and bruised from his match with Ali, is quickly gathering his strength. And while he does so, he discovers the true strength of the Scrubb armada. He also discovers that the fight between Ali and Hun’Ya is only for show. Rat’Lar intends to destroy Earth no matter what the outcome. In a desperate bid for the planet’s survival, Superman flies out into space and destroys the weapons and engines of the armada, leaving them disabled and floating helplessly. However, the effort in doing so has sapped him of what’s left of his strength, and he, too, drifts unconsciously in space.
As Ali, who has gotten a second wind, starts to wear down Hun’Ya, Rat’Lar furiously stops the fight and tells Ali, who had earlier predicted a round-four defeat, that if he doesn’t honor his promise, he will destroy the Earth, no matter the eventual outcome of the fight. Ali, never one to back down from a challenge, especially with the fate of his home planet at stake, finds the strength and will to defeat Hun’Ya in the fourth round, as promised. However, Rat’Lar declares foul play, and, before hundreds of trillions of sentient beings across the galaxy, angrily orders his fleet to destroy the Earth.
But as soon as the words leave his lips, Rat’Lar is struck down by none other than his own champion, Hun’Ya. Having recognized that the leader of his planet has gone completely insane, he felt he had to take action. During the fight and his eventual defeat at the hands of The Greatest Fighter of All Time-and-Space, Hun’Ya gained respect for the plucky pugilist who put everything he had into his game to save his home. Hun’Ya, now the undisputed leader of the Scrubb, recalls those ships in the fleet that were dispatched to destroy Earth, as well as the crews of the ships Superman disabled, and also arranges to have Superman brought back aboard Rat’Lar’s flagship to recover. He grants safe passage for Superman, Ali and all those who came with them back to Earth, with a promise that the Scrubb will leave the planet alone, with the hope that there may be more amicable relations between the two worlds soon.
Later, back on Earth. Superman meets Ali in a secluded park, where Ali shocks him with a startling revelation: he knows that Superman and Clark Kent are one and the same. His superior powers of observation and intuition, essential in his boxing career, easily allowed him to deduce what has stymied everyone else on Earth for years. But Ali promises to keep his knowledge secret. For his part, Superman is again impressed with his newfound friend.
And the story ends with a double-page spread of the two of them doing nothing more spectacular than just shaking hands, with Ali declaring that they both are the Greatest.
Now I will admit, this story is as silly as a clown on poppers. It came out during the beginning of the Star Wars craze, when everybody and their mother were looking for ways to incorporate space opera into their stories and properties. The story, conceived and plotted by artist Neal Adams (who, with the help of inkers Dick Giordano and Terry Austin put out some astoundingly gorgeous art for this event comic) and dialogued by Dennis O’Neil, is simplistic and full of plot holes. On the face of it, it’s a ridiculous story, clumsily written.
But none of that matters. The space-opera, Earth-in-the-balance, trope-filled story is just the backdrop for the meeting of two of the greatest heroes of the 20th century. And, when the story concentrates on the relationship and byplay between Ali and Supes, it sparkles gloriously. And even the most ridiculous aspects of the story – the mysterious appearance of a female being called Aurelan out of nowhere for a baffling cameo, Jimmy Olsen (elected to be the play-by-play voice of the boxing matches) doing a silly impression of Howard Cosell, the lack of real motivation for the power-mad Rat’Lar to destroy the Earth (at least the Vogons had the excuse that the planet was in the way of an interstellar bypass) – really only add to its loopy charm. There are a lot of goofy elements to the story that 14-year-old HSK overlooked, but that adult HSK would cringe over, and then smile, and remember just how much glee that 14-year-old kid experienced seeing his two heroes together, no matter what the circumstances.
So, you can remember Muhammad Ali any way you want. You can admire the man who stood up to the government of the United States and declared he would not kill Vietnamese. You can laugh at the hilarious love-hate byplay between him and Howard Cosell (in actuality, they were very close friends, the verbal sparring was all for show). You can be a proud of the man who came from your hometown, and wonder where that medal landed in the river, or if that story is even true (it’s not). You can respect the later efforts of a man who, tired of fighting, worked wherever he could to promote peace and understanding. You can marvel at the fortitude of someone who carried on a late-life battle with Parkinson’s Disease with grace and courage.
But for my part, as dumb as it sounds, I’m going to remember the man who beat Superman in a fair fight, and helped save the human race.
Rest well, Champ. This world will be poorer without you, but the next world will be that much richer. You’ll never stop being The Greatest of All Time-and-Space!