Muhammad Ali fought all of the greatest boxers of his generation over the course of his 21-year career inside the ring, but in 1978, he fought his greatest opponent yet on the pages of DC Comics: Superman.
Legendary comic artist Neal Adams was the man tasked with putting the greatest boxer of all-time onto the pages against The Man of Steel himself. In the story, Superman and Ali both step up when the leader of the alien Scrubb race, Rat’Lar, calls upon the greatest champion on Earth to take on the top Scrubb fighter. When they can’t agree on who is the truly the greatest, Rat’Lar pits them against one another and Ali eventually takes down Superman (who was fighting without his powers) with a knockout.
Neal Adams noted that the idea came from Julius Schwartz at DC comics, who thought that teaming up the two would be a great idea. Everyone laughed at first, but the company’s publisher decided to go forward with it. They contacted Ali and went through lengthy negotiations to get approval to use his image.
The cover famously features many real life celebrities who traveled to the planet Bodace to see the epic fight. However, since some of those celebrities didn’t give DC permission to use their likeness, Adams had to get creative.
Adams took over the cover, making some major changes. The same framing and format remained, but he populated the crowd with a number of cameos that included real celebrities such as Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, Lucille Ball, Johnny Carson, Ron Howard and Andy Warhol (and many more). Adams also included DC employees such as Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel and fictional characters such as Barry Allen, Batman, Lois Lane, Lex Luther, Diane Prince. (Here’s a complete list)
Several people, including John Wayne, didn’t give approval to use their likenesses, so rather than redrawing the faces completely, Adams opted to add moustaches to faces.
Perhaps the most fascinating tidbit revealed was that not only was Ali rumored to have written his own dialogue, he also only agreed to have his likeness used if his character got to find out Superman’s secret identity.
I guess even in comic books, it pays to be the Champ.