One of the weirdest tropes in super hero comics is the real life celebrity crossover, when one of our heroes from the Marvel or DC universe meets a real life personality on the comics page. While this gimmick runs the risk of making a story feel dated pretty quickly, sometimes the result was so charmingly bizarre, it carved out its own place in pop culture history. That’s where I’d put the boxing match between Superman and Muhammad Ali.
Based on a story concept by Dennis O’Neil, this oversized one-shot from 1978 was written and penciled by the great Neal Adams, with inks by Dick Giordano and Terry Austin. In classic super hero team-up fashion, what begins as a boxing match between the last son of Krypton and the greatest boxer on planet Earth ultimately leads the two heroes to join forces to prevent an alien invasion. It’s a crazy story, to be sure, but it ranks as one of the most fun celebrity comic book crossovers in DC history.
Always ready to pay tribute to particularly cool/ weird nostalgia, NECA has captured this iconic comic book moment in toy form with a Superman vs. Ali box set, and it is awesome. There’s a lot of clever reuse here, both in terms of the figures’ tooling and the paint apps, and everything comes together perfectly. Superman reworks the Christopher Reeve body into an appropriately proportioned late 70s era comic version. The figure is helped along by a fantastic new headsculpt by Kyle Windrix and Jason Frailey, a perfect rendition of what might be Superman’s most iconic look. Similarly, Muhammad Ali borrows the body from Rocky and is topped off with a stunning all new portrait of the boxing legend.
Taking things one step further in regards to this match-up’s comic book roots, both Superman and Ali are painted in bright, primary tones with heavy ink detailing outlining the angles of their faces, their clothing and their muscles. NECA has done similar paint work in the past on lines like their Mirage style Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the retro video game collection, but there is something so simple and straightforward– yet still highly stylized– in the paint work by Jon Wardell and Geoffrey Trapp that leaves Kal-El and Ali feeling truly unique. The deco is spot on to the artwork of Adams, Giordano, and Austin, making these two figures appear as if they truly stepped off the comic page into the three dimensional world.
There’s a few surprises in this box as well, some good and some disappointing. The most exciting is Superman’s alternate bare hands, allowing you to remove the boxing gloves and end up with a much more neutral, all-purpose comic Superman in the outstanding NECA style. The figure features both fists and classic flying hands, in addition to his boxing gloves, which offers up a ton of variety in posing him on his own or against his opponent. Ali suffers from a less exciting surprise– his trunks see a return to the heavy, thick rubber of the early Rocky figures, which greatly inhibits his leg movement. I wish NECA had reworked the shorts using a softer, more pliable rubber, as it would have freed up so much of the great articulation in this sculpt. And the wonderful, fluid articulation of the Reeve Superman body Ali is pitted against makes it even harder to ignore those overly stiff legs.
As far as I’m concerned, the limited articulation on Muhammad Ali is far from a deal breaker in a set so otherwise outstanding. I love the highly stylized paint apps, the incredible accuracy of the new portraits, and even the packaging, a window box that showcases both figures very nicely against a boxing ring backdrop, and a funky, faux weather-worn 70s comic art aesthetic introducing both contenders and hyping up their “Fight to save Earth from Star Warriors.” The display is so nice, this was the first time in many years I found it kind of difficult to want to even open the box in the first place. I’m glad I did, because as cool as this set looks in package, these figures are too much fun to keep cooped up.
The Superman vs Muhammad Ali two-pack is available now at Toys R Us, NECA’s eBay store, and specialty retailers. Look for more DC crossover two-packs (including the Aliens and Predator crossovers revealed at Toy Fair) coming from NECA later this year!