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Ali, who died of septic shock on Friday at the age of 74 after decades of battling Parkinson’s disease, was the cornerstone of a heavyweight triumvirate that also included Joe Frazier and George Foreman, whose flair and ferocity kept boxing at the forefront of the cultural conversation.
They were themselves the heirs of Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston.
And amid the the social turmoil of their age they made the heavyweight world crown relevant worldwide.
Even the names of the bouts still resonate: Ali-Frazier 1, known as ‘‘The Fight of the Century’’ pitted the two undefeated heavyweight champions in famed Madison Square Garden with seemingly the whole world watching and taking sides.
Frazier absorbed tremendous punishment but relentlessly out-worked Ali and dropped him in the 15th round to win by unanimous decision and launch an epic trilogy capped by the ‘‘Thrilla in Manila’’.
In between there was the ‘‘Rumble in the Jungle’’ in Kinshasa, where underdog Ali’s now famous ‘‘rope a dope’’ strategy saw Foreman punch out his energy and Ali pounce for an eighth-round knockout of his previously unbeaten foe.
It would be a decade before another heavyweight erupted on the scene with such force, but the chaos surrounding Mike Tyson extended beyond the ring and eventually doomed a reign that mattered less and less to the general populace as a confusing array of sanctioning bodies proliferated and niche-marketed pay-per-view became the norm.
Tyson’s meetings with Evander Holyfield came too late, and the emergence of Britain’s Lennox Lewis foreshadowed a European grasp on the division guaranteed to dull interest in America.
In recent years it’s been left to the little guys to add lustre to the sport.
Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao can lay claim to boxing’s most recent ‘‘Fight of the Century.’’
But their 2015 bout in Las Vegas failed to pack the visceral punch fans expected from two fighters long considered the best pound-for-pound performers of their generation.
The Hollywood celebrities and sports stars jetted in, but left unsatisfied.
‘‘We waited five years for that,’’ ‘‘Iron’’ Mike Tyson tweeted, after a fight that will go down in history not for what happened inside the ropes but for the colossal amount of cash it generated.
Mayweather and Pacquiao have both since retired, Pacquiao pursuing his political career in the Philippines as Mayweather appears to mull a match with Conor McGregor, a star of the mixed martial arts stage that is taking bites out of boxing’s fan base.
It would be a social media circus worthy of fabled boxing promoter Don King – and a far cry from the dazzling destruction promulgated by Ali and his greatest rivals.
But then Angelo Dundee, who trained Ali for two decades, noted that ‘‘Muhammad ruined us for everybody.’’
‘‘He was great outside (the ring); he was great inside,’’ Dundee said before his death in 2012.
‘‘We got so accustomed to it, we thought we deserved it.’’