Remembering When Muhammad Ali Took On Superman

With the passing of boxing great Muhammad Ali, comic book fans will likely be inundated today with [...]

(Photo: DC Entertainment)

With the passing of boxing great Muhammad Ali, comic book fans will likely be inundated today with the image of Neal Adams's cover to Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, a comic from the 1970s in which a de-powered Man of Steel boxed the then-heavyweight champion with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.

...And if you haven't seen that book before, there's a decent chance you're wondering if it's real, or one of those Photoshopped covers like The Thing vs. Rocky.

Well, it's a real book, by some of the greatest DC creators of the time. The 72-page, oversized comic centers on Superman teaming up Muhammad Ali to thwart an alien invasion of Earth. It was written and drawn by the award-winning Green Lantern/Green Arrow creative team of Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams, with figure inks by Dick Giordano and background inks by Terry Austin.

Here's a short feature on the issue done on History's Pawn Stars:

Here's the story: Rat'Lar, the leader of a an alien race called the Scrubb, challenged Earth to pit its greatest champion against Scrubb's own, with the idea that if Earth refuses, the Scrubb will destroy the planet from space.

Superman and Muhammad Ali each come forward to volunteer, with Ali objecting that Superman is both not tehnically human and also that his powers give him an unfair advantage and that Ali is objectively The Greatest.

Rat'Lar insists that Superman and Ali should fight one another on a world orbiting a red sun, so that Superman will lose his powers for the duration fo the battle and the better fighter would win. At the Fortress of Solitude, Superman uses Kryptonian technology to temporarily "disable" his powers so that he and Ali can train together.

The Superman vs. Muhammad Ali match is broadcast to Earth and thousands of other worlds throughout the DC Universe, with Jimmy Olsen providing color commentary. Once Superman is de-powered, Ali easily proves himself as the better fighter, beating Superman badly enough that Ali himself tries to stop the fight and have a technical knockout declared, only to have Superman collapse and be called as a true knockout while the conversation is taking place.

Next, Ali faces the Scrubb champion, an alien named Hun'Ya. Despite his typical bravado and trash talk -- with some prompting, Ali predicts he'll win the fight in four rounds -- the champ struggles because, unlike Superman, Hun'Ya isn't fighting without his powers.

While Ali fights, Superman recovers. Disguised as Ali's cornerman Bundini Brown, the Man of Steel sabotages the Scrubb armada from inside their command ship -- but in trying to take on the armada by himself, he finds himself injured and floating in space.

Back in the ring, Ali manages to overcome Hun'Ya and knocks the Scrubb champion out of both the fight and the ring in the as-previously-predicted fourth round. When Rat'Lar, furious at Superman's sabotage and Ali's victory, prepares to renege on his agreement with Superman and Ali and attack Earth anyway. Hun'Ya, an honorable champion, is having none of that and deposes Rat'Lar, taking control of the Scrubb for himself, helping to rescue and revive Superman, and making peace with Earth as Rat'Lar had promised.

After returning home, Ali reveals that he had deduced Superman's civilian identity as Clark Kent, but assures the Man of Steel he won't tell. The two embrace, and Ali declares them to both be The Greatest.

Ironically, the comic was delayed a handful of times and by the time it was finally released, Ali had lost his championship to Leon Spinks. He would defeat Spinks later in the year and reclaim the title, but at the time of the comic's publication, Ali wasn't the heavyweight champion. It didn't change --hell, even the actual loss to Spinks, and other losses he'd had before and would have after didn't change -- the fact that he was The Greatest, and that this comic is a singular piece of pop culture history that likely could never have been made at a different time or with a different fighter.