Superman vs Muhammad Ali – A concept so high, it’s illegal for it to drive. But what if I told you that this 1978 one shot comic book that pitted DC Comics’ Superman against legendary boxer Muhammad Ali in a fight for the very survival of the Earth isn’t just an outlandish good time, but a truly fantastic comic book in and of itself?
Because it really is that good.
Written by Neal Adams and partially Denny O’Neil with art by Adams, Superman vs Muhammad Ali was originally pitched by Ali’s promoter Don King, who sought to gain new ground for Ali in the comic world and was inspired by the success of the recently published Superman vs The Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century. By the time the story was approved by DC Comics and Ali himself in 1976, the heavyweight champion of the world had not only cemented himself as one of boxing’s greats, but a worldwide legend whose personality and beliefs had left a permanent mark on culture outside of his sport.
So who else could really challenge Ali as not only a powerful fighter but a champion of the people but Superman himself? The result was a comic book that not only appealed on the level of flashy stardom and wild fights, but a strong undercurrent of social and racial equality whose real life hero helped this message cross over from the multi-colored page and into the real world.
An Intergalactic Fight for Freedom
The setup for Superman vs Muhammad Ali may be the most comic book thing you’ve ever read. In his disguise as reporter Clark Kent, Superman interviews heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali when they are suddenly interrupted by the delegates of an alien race known as the Scrubb. The Scrubb have decided that humans are too dangerous and have decided to challenge humanity’s greatest representative in combat. Should Earth lose, the planet will be destroyed. However, both Superman and Ali believe themselves to be the best person to represent Earth, with Superman a naturalized Earth citizen despite being an alien born on another planet and Ali being a human from birth, both of whom have the fighting capabilities needed in such a dire time. In order to decide who should fight on Earth’s behalf, the two heroes agree to a boxing match, with Superman depowered to normal levels of strength and Ali teaching Superman how to box on his level.
Like all of his works during the ‘70s, Adams art is astounding, filled with perfectly rendered likenesses that are brimming with kinetic energy and emotion. The heroes pop off the page and sell every line of dialogue. Every punch is felt, every victory cherished. It’s not just the astonishing over-stuffed cover that is iconic here, every panel in Superman vs Muhammad Ali absolutely works. That’s also thanks to Dick Giordano and Terry Austin’s inks, which fill the page with eye-catching colors and create and vibrant universe as the backdrop to our heroes’ massive boxing match.
From start to finish, Superman vs Muhammad Ali is filled with all manner of over-the-top, grin-inducing moments that play off of its two iconic characters. Superman is the upright, bleeding heart boy scout with the will and strength to save the Earth. Meanwhile, Ali truly acts and talks like Ali in everything from the quiet, small moments to the big, braggadocios speeches leading up to his fights. It’s no wonder, Ali and his camp had to sign off on everything from his looks and movements to how he talked throughout the comic book. While this clearly means that Ali is painted in the best of lights throughout the story, it also means that it truly feels like the living, breathing boxing legend is there on every page, which makes the story all the more thrilling and emotionally resonant.
And for a silly super-sized comic about two heroes boxing aliens for the survival of the planet, Superman vs Muhammad Ali really does pack in the emotional moments.
Thrills and Morality in Superman vs Muhammad Ali
That’s thanks to the humanist heart of the comic and the way in which Ali’s real world-applicable morals are layered into the story. Yes, Ali was known to boast of his greatness and often trash talked his opponents as a way of getting into their heads before a fight, but he also had morals that defined much of his life as a member of the Nation of Islam. Ali was a major representative during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and stuck to his ideals as a conscientious objector when he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. The result was a conviction of draft evasion charges that led to him being stripped of his boxing titles and prevented from fighting for almost four years.
In the context of Superman vs Muhammad Ali, Ali’s refusal to let Superman simply take the mantle of Earth’s fighting representation is due to a belief that he is not only the best shot at defending the Earth, but also that he must fight in order to be the true representation of humanity’s ideals and strengths. However, his sportsmanship and respect for Superman shines through, as he helps to train him for their fight and clearly understands The Man of Steel’s good heart. In their showdown to decide Earth’s protector, Ali lays a massive beatdown on Superman. But when Superman refuses to go down despite being knocked out on his feet, Ali refuses to keep hitting him out of concern for his opponent and even tends to him when Superman finally goes down for the count.
And Superman is no slouch in this story either, as the iconic hero has just as big of a role to play within the narrative and his relationship with Ali creates a dynamic that really sells the central conflict of the book. Because Superman vs Muhammad Ali isn’t about who would win, it’s about what two heroes would due to save a world that they believe in. O’Neil and Adams really know how to capture the spirit of Superman, with this incarnation being perfectly in line with the late-70s all-American hero with a heart of gold and the strength to save the world. This is the classic, inspiring Superman that has struck a chord with readers for generations and whose ideals line up well with the bravado-laden Ali.
So it’s no wonder that the story’s climax is as thrilling and resonant as it actually is, despite the ludicrous nature of the plot. With Ali fighting the Scrubb’s representative and Superman battling a fleet of intergalactic warships, Superman vs Muhammad Ali really pivots on a few words, as the Scrubb emperor offers reeling Ali a deal, surrender now and humanity will become slaves instead of being destroyed. Ali’s enraged denial and comeback play off of massive amounts of subtext regarding slavery being offered to a Civil Rights activist like Ali, leading to a rousing climax that will surely cause anyone who has bought into the story thus far to cheer.
In the end, Superman vs Muhammad Ali does what traditional superhero comics are meant to do. It inspires, it excites, and it embraces the power of doing good in the world. For a man who accomplished so much and inspired countless people through a wild and uncompromising life, it says something that a comic book as outlandish as this can encapsulate the power and spirit of Ali as well as it does.
While it may seem like it has everything to make it a guilty pleasure, the simple matter is that Superman vs Muhammad Ali has all the heart, charm, craziness, and unique talent to make it a stone cold classic. Its messages of hope, the fighting spirit, and the goodness in humanity resonate nearly 30 years later.