Superman vs. Muhammad Ali
Cover date: Spring 1978
Writer: Dennis O’Neil (story), Neal Adams (adaptation)
Penciller: Neal Adams
Inker: Dick Giordano, Terry Austin
Reviewed by: Badr Bally
Our story opens with Clark Kent, Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen walking through the inner-city ghetto of Metropolis following up on a tip Jimmy got that World Heavyweight Boxing Champion, Muhammad Ali would be in the area. When they finally spot Ali, a mysterious alien appears, Lois tries to interview the mysterious visitor only to be shoved aside, Ali confronts the alien for that but gets slapped in the face by the alien who proclaims that he will speak when spoken to and Ali responds by punching the alien. Clark leaves saying he will contact the authorities but instead enters an alleyway and changes into Superman and flies off concluding that the alien wouldn’t come so arrogantly unless he had someone or something to back him up, as the Man of Steel reaches space, he is shocked to find a whole armada of spaceships.
While that was going on, the alien tells Ali, Lois and Jimmy that he is of the Scrubb, an alien race who prided themselves as warriors of valor and abilities and admire those who share those same traits even their enemies. He points out how the Scrubb took notice of Earth and view its inhabitants as warlike and savage people and consider Ali as the planet’s greatest warrior and he is to fight the Scrubb’s own champion. Ali declines saying he will pick his own fights, Superman appears and confronts the Scrubb demanding to know why an armada of Scrubb ships is orbiting the Earth, the Scrubb explains his planet empire view Earthling’s warlike nature as a potential threat and intend to prove their superiority challenging Earth’s champion to face their champion. Ali confronts proclaiming that if he did accept the fight then he would “whup their man”, Superman intervenes saying that he should be the one handling extraterrestrial matters, Ali responds saying that the Scrubb want an Earth man and that Superman doesn’t fit the bill because he was born on Krypton.
After a short argument, they turn their attention to the Scrubb visitor who contacts his armada ordering an attack on the cities. Superman flies off to stop the two missiles launched by the armada but is shocked when the missiles pass through him as they were made of plasma. As the missiles reach Missouri, Superman using his super-speed creates a huge vortex changing the missiles’ direction, causing them to crash in the Atlantic Ocean but to Superman’s horror, the explosion causes a gigantic tidal wave that’s heading straight for Bermuda. The Man of Steel clenches his fists and crashes them together creating a sonic blast that causes the wave to collapse.
Back on one of the Scrubb ships, one of the commanders informs the fleet that Superman’s resourcefulness and powers should be seen as a potential intergalactic chaos if Earth were to step into intergalactic space. The Scrubb commander orders a second attack that destroys an uninhabited island in the Pacific before Superman can reach it. The Scrubb visitor from earlier informs Superman that more attacks would occur unless Earth’s champion agrees to fight their champion, but Superman ponders whether it would be him or Ali. They both return to Metropolis where Lois, Jimmy and Ali were waiting to let them know the situation. Ali suggests a fight between him and Superman to see who gets to fight the Scrubb champion and in typical Ali-style verbiage says he will “whup” Superman but not too bad. An argument starts between the two before the Scrubb messenger stops them, saying that their fight will occur in 24 hours and should they refuse Earth will be destroyed.
The two would-be champions decide that Ali will train Superman in the finer points of boxing. They journey to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude to have his powers temporarily deactivated.
While in the Fortress, Superman in super-speed sets up a boxing ring, Ali laments that they have little time to train, Superman replies that their training will be held around a Kryptonian Continuum Disrupter, where a minute is equal to about an hour, basically stretching the 24 hour limit to around 2 months, on top of the ring is a fragment of the red sun, which depletes Superman’s powers. Ali gives Superman some pointers and boxing techniques.
While that’s going on, military missiles are launched at the Scrubb ship but were destroyed by their force field. It is here where we are introduced to the Scrubb’s leader Rat’Lar, who is obviously furious over this violation of their terms and threatens to respond with a full scale attack if this attempt is repeated. Rat’Lar also appears to be wise to Superman’s ploy to extend their training period and sends 3 robots to retrieve the two would be defenders of Earth. This group consists of two huge robots being led by a much smaller robot messenger, telling Superman and Ali that their time is up, our heroes make short work of the 2 larger robots but are stopped when the robot messenger warns that the Earth will be annihilated unless they comply.
As our heroes reach the Scrubb ship, they are greeted by Rat’Lar who informs them the fight will take place on the Scrubb’s home planet Bodace, which happens to circle around a red sun in order to make it a fair fight. They are introduced to the planet’s chosen champion Hun’Ya, an enormous hulk-like Scrubb who was born in a laboratory to create the perfect warrior and the one who the winner would fight against. Both Superman and Ali don’t appear to be impressed, which infuriates Rat’Lar, especially as Ali continues to mock Hun’Ya. On their way to their quarters Ali explains to Superman that it’s part of his strategy to rattle his opponent in order to make him lose his concentration, a tactic Ali has used throughout his career. Superman explains to Ali that his powers have uncovered a danger he can’t calculate prompting both of them to work out a plan.
On the day of the fight, many beings from other worlds are in attendance to witness the historic Superman vs. Muhammad Ali match, which is being broadcast on intergalactic television to thousands of other worlds. Both Lois and Jimmy are in attendance with Superman’s pal acting as commentator. Both fighters make their entrance, with Superman accompanied by Daily Planet editor Perry White who mentions he’s a Golden Gloves finalist, while Ali is accompanied with his usual entourage including coach Angelo Dundee, manager Hebert Muhammad and cornerman Bundini Brown.
The match gets underway; although it seems to be an even matchup early in the bout, it soon becomes apparent there’s a skill difference between the two. Ali being the superior fighter takes advantage of this and Superman takes a serious pummeling, but somehow refuses to fall; he stays on his feet all through the beating while the crowd watches on including a horrified Lois Lane who begs the fight be stopped. Finally, Ali stops the fight, urging the referee to call for a technical knockout. Superman then falls face-first on the canvas.
Now crowned Earth’s champion, Ali is set to face Hun’Ya. As the beaten Man of Steel is taken out on a stretcher, Ali follows to help tend to his wounds, which confuses Rat’Lar. Ali informs Lois, Jimmy, Perry and Rat’Lar that Superman is in critical condition and needs to be sent back to Earth. A ship that was to have Superman on board was deployed the following morning.
On the night of the main event, as Ali and Hun’Ya enter the ring, a mysterious being of light appears out of nowhere, revealing herself to be the Greek Goddess of Wisdom Pallas Athene (also known to the Scrubbs as Aurenim, their Spirit of Courage), she declares she will moderate the fight instead of the robot messenger as referee. As Ali continues his smack talk psychology an infuriated Rat’Lar demands Ali predict what round the fight will end. (Ali was known for predicting the round in which he would knock out his opponent.) After some chiding, Ali predicts that he’ll knock the alien out in the fourth round declaring “He’ll hit the floor in four!”.
Meanwhile, a figure that seems to be Ali’s cornerman Bundini Brown sneaks into the Scrubb command centre knocking out several Scrubb guards and is revealed to actually be Superman in disguise, as his recuperative powers enabled him to make a speedy recovery from the beating. As he uses the communication equipment, he disguises his voice to sound like Rat’Lar and orders the Scrubb space armada to return.
During that time, the match begins; however, Ali quickly starts to suffer from fighting the super-powered Hun’Ya. After much taunting from the Scrubb leader, Ali shows his determination to keep fighting. Miraculously, Ali gets a second wind and starts to fight back and starts to outbox the planet’s chosen champion. A paranoid Rat’Lar plans to order the Armada to attack Earth only to discover Superman’s deception and orders them back to Earth forcing Superman to face the incoming armada.
Back at the fight, Ali continues to pummel Hun’Ya and in the predicted fourth round, he not only knocks the alien champion out, but out of the ring as well. Yet after Ali is declared the winner amidst the cheers from the crowd, the Scrubb leader cries foul and decides to invade the now helpless Earth anyway, horrifying everyone in attendance.
In his showdown with the armada, Superman gets hit by the ships’ powerful beams that seem to cause some harm to the Man of Steel. Struggling, Superman makes one final effort and dashes through several of the lined up Scrubb ships like a superhuman torpedo, but again he is badly hurt, and is left drifting in space unconscious.
Seeing this as a perfect opportunity, Rat’Lar declares this battle a victory and that the Earth is to be destroyed. Just as Rat’Lar is about to give the go-ahead to his backup forces, Hun’Ya becomes enraged at Rat’Lar’s dishonorable tactics and attacks him. An enraged Rat’Lar orders the guards to arrest his former champion however the guards, who appear as equally disgusted at their leader’s action, refuse to follow his order. There will be no invasion. Earth is saved.
Superman is rescued and once again revived and greeted by his Daily Planet colleagues, Ali and even Hun’ya, who’s been appointed as the new Scrubb leader. Hun’ya explains that their now disposed leader convinced them that Earthlings were dishonorable and warlike, only for the tournament to show that the people of Earth valued honor, fairness and self sacrifice as the Scrubbs do, basically as Lois puts it “Fair Play” saved Earth.
Back on Earth, Ali and Superman have a private moment where Superman explains that thanks to his super hearing he overheard Rat’Lar before their bout and realized that no matter the outcome he was planning to destroy Earth all along. During their conversation, Ali reveals that he figured out Superman’s secret identity as Clark Kent, but implicitly vows to keep it secret. The story ends with the two champions shaking hands with Ali proclaiming, “Superman, WE are the greatest!”
Story – 4: Let’s not kid ourselves. On paper this sounds like a cheap gimmick by DC, by having their most iconic hero crossover with a popular celebrity at the time like Ali, however, thanks to Denny O’Neil’s skills as a writer, he took this gimmick and made it a fun read.
Superman as usual gets to shine in many scenes and pulls off some spectacular feats during the comic as well as his cunning when trying to stop the armada; the regular Superman cast are handled well enough in the story. Of course there’s Muhammad Ali himself, already both a beloved as well as a controversial figure. O’Neil was able to capture Ali’s larger than life persona, including his notorious attitude as well as his likable charisma that makes him come across as a fun character as well as making his place in the story feel natural and not out of place to the point the reader is rooting for him in the final bout of this story.
The scope of the whole situation feels epic enough that it keeps you on the edge of your seat, especially during the boxing bouts and Superman’s battle with the armada.
There are a number of gripes I have with the story. First it’s the Scrubbs themselves, while the concept of how they value honor is interesting, there are times where they come across as your generic alien race bent on attacking Earth, though you can argue that’s mostly due to time constraints in the story so this might be a nitpick on my part. The second gripe is that they wanted to pick Earth’s champion and their two main choices were Superman of course and Muhammad Ali, which if you were a big DC fan would find this confusing. I mean this is a universe where heroes like Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and Green Lantern exist and yet they picked Ali, a normal human to be among the two choices to fight their champion. When you think about it, it doesn’t make any sense but those gripes hardly ruined the story for me as it was sort of common at the time but it certainly wouldn’t fly today.
Let’s face it, this story is what it is, pure spectacle but that’s exactly why it works so well.
Also one small geek note: Superman basically has a Hyperbolic Time Chamber in his Fortress of Solitude, several years before Dragonball-Z used the concept, so yeah Sups beat Goku to the punch.
Art – 4: Artist Neal Adams was at the peak of his career when he did the artwork here, thanks to his acclaimed artwork on Batman and he doesn’t disappoint. The artwork was pure Bronze Age goodness with Superman looking (for the lack of a better word) SUPER. The regular cast are recognizable and he truly captures Ali’s likeness so well. There are parts where Ali goes from his comic book appearance to a more portrait like appearance. Normally these transitions would end up being quite jarring to look at, but Adams does a great job at balancing it out saving the portrait style for intense moments that it doesn’t interfere with the scenes and the events being shown.
The scope of the whole event feels truly out of this world as Adams give us some interesting alien designs for the attendees from other parts of the galaxy, which truly made this feel like an event on a galactic scale. He also captures the feeling of a boxing match, with the Superman/Ali fight being the highlight, as you really feel the effects of the amount of pummeling Superman gets in the fight that makes it almost painful to watch, which I suppose was the intent.
Once again, as with the story aspect, the Scrubbs are the artwork’s weakest link as apart from Hun’Ya, the Scrubbs themselves look quite generic especially compared to other alien designs in the comic. But that’s a minor nitpick with an otherwise fantastic illustration.
Cover Art – 5: In my opinion, this cover is Neal Adams at his best. For in order to sell a spectacle like this to your readers, you better have a cover that truly captures said spectacle and this cover does just that. That image of Superman and Ali facing each other in the ring has a ‘battle of the titans’ feel to it and the design of the comic’s title does feel like something out of a fight promotion ad. What really capture the scope of the event are the people in attendance, ranging from DC alumni, both DC characters and DC’s staff, to the many celebrity cameos on the cover. Truly a masterpiece of comic book cover art.
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