Muhammad Ali And The Greatest Trash-Talkers In Sport

On the anniversary of Ali's final fight, we take a look at the greatest smack-talkers from the world of sport
07:00, 11 Dec 2023

On this day in 1981, Muhammad Ali boxed for the very last time. While his ten-round loss to Trevor Berbick was entirely forgettable, his legacy was the opposite. Not only in the ring, but out of it, Ali's supreme confidence shone through. It often manifested in trash talk, something which he sharpened into an art form. He's not the only one. Here are The Sportsman's picks for best sporting trash-talkers.

Basketball: Larry Bird

There have been a pantheon of elite trash-talkers that have taken to the court over the years. Kevin Durant, Shaquille O’Neal and Michael Jordan could all have made this list in their own right, but Larry Bird trumps them all. The Hick From The French Lick’s antics are legendary and whether it was Jordan, Magic Johnson or Reggie Miller standing in his way, nobody was safe from the Boston Celtics’ legend's smack talk. 

MMA: Conor McGregor

To quote the man in question, “Who the f*ck is that guy?” 

“That guy” is unquestionably the greatest trash-talker to ever step foot in the Octagon. McGregor is a bona fide superstar and one of the highest paid athletes in the world, thanks to his brash personality as much as his phenomenal fighting prowess. McGregor’s career is littered with iconic put-downs, helped no doubt by the explosion of social media during his time at the top. Nobody has delivered as much top-quality smack talk as ‘Notorious’ in recent memory.

Cricket: Merv Hughes

The gentleman’s game? Pah. Sledging, cricket’s term for trash-talking, is an integral part of the sport and we’ve seen a number of sublime sledgers over the years. However, few can compare to fast-bowler Merv Hughes. Hughes has a back catalogue of trash-talk thicker than his iconic handlebar moustache, but our personal favourite came against England batter Robin Smith. Smith was having a tough day at the office against Hughes, prompting the Australian to snidely comment: “If you turn the bat over you’ll find the instructions” 

Football: Brian Clough

Brian Clough is quite simply one of the greatest managers the beautiful game has ever seen, but outside of collecting silverware like stamps, the Derby County and Nottingham Forest legend was the king of cocky and controversial remarks. Whether he was claiming he wasn’t the best manager in the world “but he was in the top one”, or in a war of words with rival Don Revie, Cloughie was always box office. 

In fact, his trash talking was so good, it even drew the attention of Ali. “I heard all the way in America, heard all the way in Indonesia, that this fella talks too much,” the boxer once said. “They say he’s another Muhammad Ali, there’s just one Muhammad Ali. And I want you to [know], whoever you are, you’re not a fighter and you don’t take my job. I’m the talker. Now Clough, I’ve had enough, stop it.”

Tennis: John McEnroe

John McEnroe is one of the most outspoken stars to ever take to a tennis court, but the American’s blustering bravado extends much further than just his famous 1984 Wimbledon tantrum. The aptly named ‘SuperBrat’ was a menace when it came to trash-talking, from telling Brad Gilbert that he doesn’t belong on the same court as him, before adding “you’re the f***ing worst”, to stating that he had more talent in his pinkie than Ivan Lendl did in his whole body. It’s fair to say that we’ve not had anyone quite like McEnroe since.  

Wrestling: Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson

The jabroni beating, pie eating, trailblazing, eyebrow raising, people's champ, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is in a class of his own when it comes to smack-talking in wrestling’s squared circle. With catchphrases like "if you smell what The Rock is cooking”, “just bring it,” and "The Rock's gonna take his boot, shine it up real nice, turn that sumbitch sideways, and stick it straight up your candy ass!" - nobody could control an audience like this WWE superstar.

His sizzling charisma had fans eating out of the palms of his hands, transforming into one of the world’s biggest superstars, a status Johnson still holds to this day. 

Boxing: Muhammad Ali 

Muhammad Ali’s wit was quicker than his hands and while he may be the greatest fighter in the sweet science’s long and storied history, his star-billing was as much a product of his bombastic nature out of the ring as it was for his incredible talents within it. There’s very little to be said about The Greatest’s smack-talk that hasn’t already been said, so instead we’ve decided to list our top five (out of thousands) favourite lines from the true king of trash.

On Sonny Liston: “If you like to lose your money, then be a fool and bet on Sonny, but if you wanna have a good day, then put it on Clay.”

On Joe Frazier: “Joe’s gonna come out smokin’ but I ain’t gonna be jokin’. I’ll be peckin’ and a pokin’, pourin’ water on his smokin’. And this might shock and amaze ya, but I will destroy Joe Frazier.”

Ahead of the Rumble In The Jungle with George Foreman: “I have wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, threw thunder in jail. That’s bad. Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so bad, I make medicine sick.”

Also on Foreman: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. George can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Now you see me, now you don’t. He thinks he will, but I know he won’t. They tell me George is good, but I’m twice as nice. And I’m gonna stick to his butt like white on rice.”

After winning the world title in 1964: “I am the greatest, I'm the greatest that ever lived. I don't have a mark on my face.”

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