At the height of Michael Jordan’s popularity, the basketball legend joined forces with Bugs Bunny to defeat the Monstars in an intergalactic game of hoops in the 1996 animated hit, “Space Jam.” While sharing screen time with Warner Bros.’ ‘wascally wabbit’ proved to be a commercial success, MJ’s comparison to Bugs did nothing to further elevate his status as an out-of-this-world athletic specimen.
Had he been compared to the Man of Steel, maybe Jordan could have been his generation’s super man. However, nearly two decades earlier DC Comics chose another iconic sports star worthy of sharing a cover with Superman in the form of none other than The Greatest: Muhammad Ali.
This week, DC Comics re-releases its 1978 classic, “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali,” as a 96-page deluxe edition (7.0625" x 10.875") and an 80-page oversized facsimile edition (10" x 13.25"). The story features the Last Son of Krypton teaming up with the Louisville Lip to defeat an alien invasion of Earth.
In a story written by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams (“Green Lantern/Green Arrow”) with art by Adams, Dick Giordano and Terry Austin, an alien race called the Scrubb demands that Earth’s greatest champion battle their world’s greatest fighter. Both Superman and Muhammad Ali step forward to determine who is truly Earth's greatest fighter and Superman temporarily loses his powers and faces Ali in the ring.
Renowned author and sports historian Bert Randolph Sugar told CBR News exclusively that even if Superman had remained super-powered, The Champ could have delivered a knockout punch.
“Ali would be smart enough to step on his cape,” offered Sugar, a regular boxing commentator on ESPN, HBO, and Showtime and former editor of “The Ring,” “Boxing Illustrated” and “Fight Game” magazines. “Besides, Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet, but I think Ali is still faster.”
While Sugar can’t remember specific details from the “Action Comics” issues he read growing up in Washington, D.C., he said for those familiar with the 1950s TV show, “Adventures of Superman,” the Man of Steel exposed a Kryptonic chink in his armor in nearly every episode.
“I always loved watching ‘Superman’ movies and the old ‘Superman’ television show with [George] Reeves as opposed to [Christopher] Reeve,” said Sugar. “The bad guys would shoot bullets at him and they would bounce off his chest but when they threw the gun at him, he’d duck. What the hell was that? If he’s going to duck guns, he’s going to have to duck Ali. He’s not going to have Ali’s fist bounce off of him.”
Sugar also doesn’t remember Superman ever knocking anybody out.
"[Superman] would do all matter of things to them but did he ever knock anybody out with one punch? He must have, but you can’t remember it. And you’re the expert,” Sugar quipped. “Ali could knock out a man with one punch. And he was running after all these people. Superman had a humane side to him, and so did Ali, but we’re talking about knockout power. So I’d have them rated even in that category.”
The two larger than life men may be equals in terms of knockout power, but Sugar said Ali would dominate in the department of head games.
“Ali would shame him during the weigh-in,” laughed Sugar. “He would mention Kryptonite like he mentioned ‘acorns’ to Ernie Shavers or ‘mommy’ to George Foreman. And if he can beat Foreman and he can beat Sonny Liston, both of whom were supermen - men that I always say would have met Jack at the top of the beanstalk - then he can beat Superman.”
The author of more than 80 books including “Boxing’s Greatest Fighters” and “100 Years of Boxing,” Sugar completely understands why Ali was chosen to star opposite the most iconic superhero in the history of comics. Ali transcended his sport and was a hero for young people from all walks of life and of all races and creeds.
“Ali stood up for his rights as opposed to being drafted for the Vietnamese conflict, so he held a special place amongst younger people, especially young men, who identified with him. And who is the primary audience of comic books? Young men. So he was appealing to comic book readers too.”
Sugar, a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame, admitted that, sadly, the sport of boxing doesn’t have a superstar today that comes close to matching Ali’s popularity nor one heroic enough to share the cover of a comic book with Superman.
“Boxing doesn’t have a superhero. When you do a book like ‘Superman vs. Muhammad Ali,’ you’re basically acknowledging that Ali is a superhero. The only ones that boxing has today that are even on people’s radar are smaller boxers, like [Manny] Pacquiao and [Floyd] Mayweather. They’re both 145 pounds. Or 147. Ali was 212 to 224. The only ones that size today are the two Russians - the Klitschkos - and they would pose no problem for Superman.
“It’s really a legacy to Ali because we don’t have heroes like him anymore. It’s like that Paul Simon lyric, ‘Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?’ We just don’t have any. Who are our heroes? The reality show idiots? We just don’t have heroes today in pop culture. They’re all on reality shows. They’re nobodies.”
“Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” will be re-released this week by DC Comics. Bert Sugar’s next book, “The Ultimate Book of Boxing Lists,” which he co-wrote with Teddy Atlas, is in stores on January 11, 2011.