Firstly, let’s get the foundations of this debate laid. Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali are the top two sportsmen of all time, no contest. Two hugely iconic, handsome, intelligent and very successful athletes who transcended their own sports and entered mainstream culture, politics and public consciousness’s across the world. Dominating their chosen fields for decades and taking the lions share of the coverage, revenue, marketing and legacy of both boxing and basketball respectively whilst simultaneously making the step up to iconic immortality. Few others have come close; Pele, Michael Schumacher, Lance Armstrong, Babe Ruth, Carl Lewis (for example) are all at the races but not in the same stratosphere as MJ and Ali. Of these two global giants I would argue that Michael Jordan is the greater and here’s five reasons why:
Both men were hugely, hugely successful but Jordan edges it on sheer weight of trophies and also, crucially, the context within which he won them. Six NBA championships, Five times league MVP, ten top-scorer titles, three top steals awards, Rookie of the Year 1985, fourteen times an All Star of which three were MVP performances, NBA Defensive Player of the year, the list goes on and on. He didn’t win these awards against chumps either. He mixed it up with Hall of Famers and legends of the game. Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal were all peers and opponents. He took on the dynasty of the Boston Celtics in his rookie year and scored a record 63 points in a playoff game against them, in their back yard. He tore the back-to-back Championship winning Detroit Pistons a new one despite them assigning players specifically to kick the shit out him. He was, and remains an untouchably successful basketball player. Muhammad Ali, as we know, won the Heavyweight Championship of the World on three occasions. Sensationally beating Sonny Liston in 1964, upsetting the odds ten years later against Foreman in Zaire and winning his title back off Leon Spinks for the last time in 1978. He was involved in four (arguably five) of the top ten boxing fights of all time and fought at a time when heavyweight boxing was undoubtedly in its prime, albeit a quite corrupt prime. Unfortunately a lot of his big fights were non-title bouts and for that reason Jordan edges it on sheer success. A good example of this is that fact that Ali famously won a gold medal which he threw off a bridge in disgust but it’s less well known that Jordan in fact won two, in 1984 and 1992.
Okay there’s a context issue here, sports stars are paid much, much more these days than their equivalents in the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and even Nineties. That’s just plain economic evolution. Therefore it’s maybe fairer to judge them against each other post retirement, as in what they are worth now. Ali has made more since retiring than he ever did in the ring that is obvious he did however rake in a record $10 million for the Rumble in the Jungle. According to Forbes his name now generates somewhere between $4-7 million a year and he sold his naming rights for $50 million in 2006. Undoubtedly Ali is still a plump cash cow but Jordan looks like a morbidly obese Elephant next to him. Despite earning $30 million in salary and a further $40million is sponsorship on an annual basis when playing he eclipses that in retirement. The Air Jordan brand is worth $800 million a year in global revenue to Nike and Mike coins a healthy $45 million off that per year in royalties alone not to mention his other endorsements business interests and investments. Last year Forbes clocked him at number 20 on their richest celebrity list. For a man with the official job title Head of Basketball Operations at the Charlotte Bobcats that’s pretty good going, just don’t mention Spacejam.
Knowing when to call it a day is a crucial benchmark of sporting greatness. Watching a stalled and slightly pathetic Schumacher stuck in F1 traffic just now is just painful. “Give it up Michael” you think, “give it up Michael” he thinks, and “keep going Michael” his money men say and money talks. Both Ali and Jordan suffered from being wheeled out of retirement more often than the Planet of the Apes franchise, inevitably once their wallets started wheezing it was back on with the gloves and sneakers. The true tragedy being that Alis multiple comebacks have hurt him more than Jordans ever could. Most notably his health has suffered but his boxing record and legacy were also outpointed after 12 long rounds too. Jordan at least had the good sense to bury his famous Chicago Bulls Number 23 jersey and opt for a more sober Number 45 with the Washington Wizards. In that respect he didn’t come back and tarnish his prime image thus protecting that phase of his career indefinitely. Both were competent performers even when past their best but Jordan did more to protect himself and his image than poor Muhammad Ali could.
The legacy of Jordan is every branded global superstar from Tiger Woods to Maria Sharapova from Kobe Bryant to Michael Phelps, every spots person signed and branded by hollow eyed executives and marketed to within an inch of their blood, sweat and tears to “Be Like Mike”. The hype needn’t be supported by sporting success either. Never was this clearer than during the desperately indicative multi-million dollar bun fight over the branding of 18 year old LeBron James before he’d made a senior start in the NBA. The colossal sportswear giants may as well have had competing packs of Jerry Maguire types chase young LeBron round a paddock on horseback clutching red hot branding irons and suitcases of cash. Air Jordan’s success created this hysterical marketing monster and his blueprint for global success lives on and on. Ali’s sporting legacy is less tangible. Culturally there’s no doubt he broke the mould, struck massive blows for the civil rights of Black Americans and became a huge inspiration for many people across the planet. In sport however, his vocal stylings have been inherited by many a deluded boxer, wrestler and MMA fighter, rarely able, as Ali did, to back up his claims with his gloves. They rhyme, they dance, they wind up punches but they also get ‘knocked the fuck out’ too. Ali’s often cruel taunts come across into todays PC world as a bullying and antiquated con trick, as exemplified recently by David Haye's lack of class in Hamburg. There’s no doubt that Ali has inspired generations of boxers and athletes but it’s Mikes legacy that shapes the modern global sport star as we know it and will continue to do so for a long, long time.
The Top Gun Theory
This is a simple on-the-back-of-a-fag-packet analogy that nails the debate. MJ is Iceman to Ali’s Maverick. Think about it for a while and it starts to make sense. Muhammed Ali was talented, charming, cocky, wild and a bit of a risky prospect just like Tom Cruise’s character. In the Val Kilmer role Mike was cold, corporate, technically outstanding and unrelentingly focussed on winning. Society and the sporting world couldn’t tether Ali nor could the Navy contain maverick in Top Gun, both flaunted the rules in an irresistible and dangerous way. The Iceman and Jordan on the other hand were the corporations. They embodied the best the navy/sporting world could channel and took it to the highest echelons. In Top Gun there’s no doubt that Tom Cruise was the star of the show but it was Iceman who won the Top Gun Trophy and was able to fend off five Russian MIGs single-handedly whilst Maverick sweated over Goose’s dog tags. The case in point is this; Maverick/Ali = noise, talent and thunder, Iceman/MJ = winners. Just don’t get me started on the Bundini/Goose analogy...