Wednesday (April 18) is the 80th anniversary of Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1. (Action Comics #1000 is currently on sale at a comic book shop or digital retailer to commemorate the occasion.)
At The Comeback, we like to cover sports and pop culture, among the many topics of interest. So for Superman’s 80th birthday, it seems entirely appropriate to remember the time when the Man of Steel faced arguably the greatest boxer and cultural sports figure of our time, Muhammad Ali.
Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was published by DC Comics in 1978, which makes this year the 40th anniversary of the comic book spectacle. The 72-page special wasn’t published in a normal-sized comic book edition, but in an oversize, “treasury” format — approximately the size of a tabloid. The Man of Steel meeting The Greatest needed bigger pages to accommodate such a magnificent team-up.
The oversize edition also allowed for a larger cover, a wraparound spread in which illustrator Neal Adams not only depicted the two titans in the ring, but also populated the audience watching the bout with many famous faces from the real world and comic book universe. (According to Adams, he took over the cover from artist Joe Kubert, after Ali’s people weren’t happy with the likeness that had been drawn.)
As Gizmodo’s Andrew Liptak detailed, faces in the crowd included celebrities Johnny Carson, the Jackson 5 and Andy Warhol. Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were also in the audience. Superman’s contemporaries included Batman, Barry Allen and Diana Prince (who curiously weren’t suited up as The Flash and Wonder Woman, respectively), and arch-nemesis Lex Luthor. (Wikipedia has a full list of which public figures were drawn on the cover.)
So just what global or intergalactic event took place to put Superman versus Muhammad Ali in a boxing match? In the story written by Denny O’Neil and Adams, an alien race called the Scrubb wanted its champion to face Earth’s greatest fighter. The fate of the world was at stake. If the Earth’s fighter lost, the Scrubb would destroy our world. Both Superman and Muhammad Ali stepped forward to fight for Earth. Ali, however, asserted that he was the more suitable champion for Earth because he was human, not from the planet Krypton.
The Scrubb’s leader decides to resolve the dispute by pitting Superman and Muhammad Ali against each other. But doesn’t Superman have superhuman strength and bulletproof skin? How could Ali beat that? The fight between the two would take place on the planet Bodace, which orbits a red sun like Krypton did. So Superman would have no powers. Rather generously, Ali offers to train Superman in boxing at the Fortress of Solitude. But they only have 24 hours to work with. Even with Superman’s speed, that’s not much time.
Amazingly, Howard Cosell didn’t call the fight. Instead, Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen did the play-by-play for the intergalactic broadcast. (Maybe DC Comics couldn’t get Cosell to sign off on using his likeness?) Imagine how many articles we would’ve gotten out of that at Awful Announcing had we — or the internet — been around in 1978.
So how did the fight turn out? Probably as you might expect. Um, spoiler alert?
But remember, the winner of the Superman-Ali bout still had to fight for Earth’s survival. No worries there. Ali went on to defeat the Scrubb’s champion, Hun’Ya, knocking him out (and knocking him out of the ring!) in the fourth round, as predicted. (“He’ll hit the floor in four!” said Ali.)
As this was going on, Superman — who recuperated quickly, despite being under the red sun — made sure that the Scrubb couldn’t destroy Earth if Ali had lost. That didn’t matter once Ali knocked out Hun’Ya, of course. But Superman’s sneak attack enraged the Scrubb’s leader enough to try and carry out an attack with backup forces. Hun’Ya was an alien of honor, however, and having lost fair and sqaure, he made sure the Scrubb stuck to the terms of the agreement.
Some other interesting trivia from Superman vs. Muhammad Ali:
** Ali reportedly allowed his likeness to be used on two conditions: 1) The Elijah Muhammad had to approve of the comic book, 2) Ali had to learn Superman’s secret identity in the story. (According to rumor, Ali wrote his own dialogue as well.)
** The comic book was originally scheduled to be published in 1977 when Ali was still heavyweight champion. But while production of the book was delayed (largely due to Adams’ schedule with illustrating other titles) to the spring of 1978, then the fall of that year, Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks. Fortunately for the story, he regained the title from Spinks around the time that the comic book was published.
** Neal Adams drew a similar cover pitting Ali against Michael Jordan for a special issue of ESPN The Magazine in the year 2000.
A hardcover edition of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali was released in 2010 and is available for purchase from DC Comics or sellers like Amazon.