Muhammad Ali, who died late Friday night, persistently boasted of being The Greatest, but he couldn’t really be that without some help. The three-time heavyweight champion of the world also faced some truly great opponents, such that his triumphs seemed larger and his defeats were even more extraordinary. He fought the greatest and won: George Foreman in The Rumble in the Jungle. Joe Frazier in the greatest trilogy of boxing ever. Ken Norton and Leon Spinks, losing to both and winning the rematches. And Superman.
Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was published in the spring of 1978, between Ali’s February loss to Spinks and the September rematch where he took the heavyweight title for the third and final time. The comic book is a riot of 1970s pop culture, as outsize as anything befitting Ali could be.
Neal Adams illustrated the cover, dotted with A-listers of the era among the spectators: The Jackson 5, Ron Howard of Happy Days and the cast of Welcome Back, Kotter (which includes Gabe Kaplan and John Travolta); the Osmonds, Yoko Ono and Presidents Ford and Carter. The setup works surprisingly well for what would otherwise be as lopsided a proposition as Batman v Superman: Aliens had challenged Earth to a fight, with the fate of the planet on the line, and so Earth needed to determine its champion. That’s easily Superman, right?
Not so fast, says Ali, because Supes ain’t of Earth. So the two work it out, Superman fights without his powers against Ali — and loses. Badly. He gets stretchered off to a hospital the same way Ali was after Frazier whooped him in 1971. That sets up Ali against the aliens’ champ, whom Ali KOs in the predicted round, per the usual, while Superman takes care of the invading fleet stationed around Earth. At the end, Ali learns Superman’s secret identity.
Ali had long since transcended his sport as an influential figure, particularly in politics for his refusal to enlist or be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War a decade before — which cost him his title and a three-year ban from prizefighting. It was inevitable that he would dominate pop culture for as long as he was a champion. It is fitting, though, that Muhammad Ali — even after losing his title — was the boxer who got to fight Superman. And he won. That’s greatness.