AFTER 20 years spent achieving the apparently impossible, Muhammad Ali has finally run out of miracles.
The old maestro, bidding to become world heavyweight champion for an unprecedented and unattainable fourth time, was pounded into a humiliating corner retirement at the end of 10 one-sided rounds against his former sparmate Larry Holmes in Las Vegas on October 2, 1980.
The greatest career in the history of sport closed with undignified scuffle between trainer Angelo Dundee, who wanted to save his man further indignation, and long-time acolyte Bundini Brown, who was pleading for “just one more round”.
Dundee had his way, and boxing owes him for that. It was painful enough to watch the destruction of a legend: it would have been unbearable to have watched him suffer the ultimate degradation of a knockout defeat.
Ali, being Ali, refuses to acknowledge the inevitable and admit that he has reached the end of the long road, but the decay of those once marvellous skills was apparent to the 25,000 crowd in the makeshift arena at Caesars Palace car park and to the millions of TV and closed-circuit viewers around the world.
All that remained was the courage which had sustained him through three championship reigns and 60 fights against the best heavyweights that a three-decade career span could offer.
To paraphrase what he used to say about some of those opponents, his pride made an appointment which his 38-year-old body couldn’t keep.
Ali could shed the weight (he reduced by over three stone to 15st 7 1/2lbs) but he couldn’t shed the years.
He was never in contention against a man who might yet emerge as the best of Ali’s successors.
The veteran didn’t win a single round or even share one. It was as monotonously one-sided as Holmes’ previous WBC title defences against Alfredo Evangelista, Ossie Ocasio, Lorenzo Zanon, and the rest.
He absorbed a steady beating, until even Holmes himself started to hold off and plead with him to quit. “I asked him ‘Why do you keep taking this?’ but he just said, ‘Fight, sucker, fight’,” the unmarked champion said afterwards.
It was a sad exit, and Ali of all people deserved better. He used to boast that he would never be forced, like Joe Louis, into an ill-advised comeback but the temptation of an $8m payday was too hard to resist.
Holmes took the fight for $3m, and the chance to step at last out of the shadow of the man against whom all future champions will be compared. It was an emotional victory for the 30-year-old Holmes, who wept in the ring afterwards as he told Ali “I love you, man.”
“When you fight a friend and a brother you can’t get happiness. All I achieved was money”, he told a packed press
“I fought the best heavyweight fighter in the world. Ali is a hell of a fighter and a hell of a man. He proved that he could go for the title for a fourth time, and that’s a great achievement.
“Of course he shouldn’t fight again, but how can I say he was wrong to fight this time? Nobody is wrong for doing what they want to do.
“I thought the referee should have stopped it sooner. I was trying to knock out Ali out, but I couldn’t. If I could have got rid of him in the first round I would have.
“He tried to psych me, but he couldn’t. I worked with the guy for four years, and I knew everything he could do. Ali fooled some of the writers, but he couldn’t fool me.”
Ali, his faced bruised and puffy, did not attend the conference but said next morning that he planned to fight on, with Mike Weaver’s WBA version of the title as his target. However, it’s unlikely to happen. Public opinion will force him into retirement, and in any case another Ali venture would not be a commercial proposition. Boxing’s great deceiver has conned the punters once too often, and they will not pay again to watch a once unmatchable talent going through the motions of fighting.
It’s such a shame that he couldn’t have kept his word and stayed retired after that marvellous night in New Orleans two years ago when he outclassed Leon Spinks to become the first and surely the last three-time heavyweight champion.
I suspected at the time that his decision was not final, and wrote in my report of the Spinks fight that “when you’re Muhammad Ali, there’s always one more mountain to climb.”
But now, surely, he has climbed his last mountain. There was concern before the fight about Ali’s slurred speech and physical deterioration, and the awful, sustained beating to the head that he took from Holmes will add to that concern.
The fierce heat in the open-air stadium took its toll on both men, but probably more so on the veteran. It was 104 degrees at ringside during the undercard (the show started at 4pm) and 89 degrees by fight time. The temperature inside the ring , under TV Lights, must have been considerably higher. Ali has fought and won under trying conditions before (in the heat of Zaire, against George Foreman, and the humidity of Malaysia, against Joe Bugner) but he was a younger and fitter man then.
He had driven his body into remarkable condition for a man of his age, and in terms of physical appearance he looked like the Ali of old (he even dyed his hair to hide the grey patches).
But he couldn’t do anything about the lost years and the faded skills. The timing and the reflexes were gone, and his movements were ponderous and predictable.
Once or twice he tried to dance and run, in a cruel parody of the performer he once was, but Holmes chased him and hit him with jabs on the move… something that would have been unthinkable in his peak years.
The only moments when it really was like the old days were during the preliminaries, with Ali clowning and conducting the chanting of his name and then leading the crowd in booing when Holmes was introduced.
He made a playful grab for Holmes’ WBC championship belt, and went through his old routine of lunging at his opponent during the referee’s instructions while Angelo Dundee (who, as always, looked rather embarrassed and annoyed by the playacting) “restrained” him.
Holmes, in magnificent condition at 15st 1 1/2lbs, stood impassively while all this was going on but exploded into action at the first bell.
He banged in a solid jab at Ali’s face, a left to the body, and then two more jabs and a right to the head. Ali looked startled, and gave ground with, already, a reddening patch under his left eye.
Ali kept his gloves high, but Holmes almost contemptuously curved punches around the guard to Ali’s head.
The crowd roared encouragement as Ali landed his first scoring punch two minutes into the fight, a long right to Holmes’ head, but he didn’t keep the attack going and Holmes jabbed him steadily for the rest of the round.
The fight pattern was set, and it did not vary in the second as Holmes’ jab kept Ali on the defensive. Ali taunted the champion, calling to him and slapping his gloves together in a “let’s fight” gesture, but Holmes ignored the clowning and hit him with jab after jab.
There wasn’t a solitary worthwhile punch from Ali, and the round ended with him penned in a corner.
Holmes opened the third with a big right to the head, and followed with three jabs and another right, all on target. Ali tried to rally with a couple of rights and a left hook, but they were cumbersome punches and easily evaded.
Holmes kept him backed up and under pressure, and again the challenger spent the last 30 seconds of the round with his back to the ropes. Ali pulled a face at Holmes as the bell sounded, but wasn’t fooling anyone.
What was most suspected had already been established; he simply didn’t have the tools for the job any more, and even allowing for the man’s one-time genius for tactical innovation it was impossible to see what strategy he could devise to save him from a defeat which was looking inevitable.
Bundini Brown shouted at him during the interval: “You’ve got to land some punches, champ – he’s winning the round”, but Ali either would not or could not respond with more action when the bell sounded for the fourth.
Holmes snapped off another burst of jabs, and now that red under Ali’s left eye was looking lumpy and bruised. Ali tried a right which Holmes blocked, and then retreated to a neutral corner.
He dropped his guard to taunt Holmes again, and took a heavy right to the head. Ali grabbed the top rope with his right hand, more for clowning effect than for support, and hit out at Holmes with his left.
Referee Richard Green (who, under Nevada Commission practice, left the scoring to the three WBC-appointed judges) warned Ali for it, but the old veteran stayed in the corner and Holmes was picking his punches as the round ended.
Ali came out for the fifth on his toes, and the crowd whooped with delight as he caught Holmes with a left jab in the face. Holmes mocked him by an exaggerating sway from the waist, and then pressured him into the ex-champ’s corner as Ali lacked the stamina or the legs to keep the dancing going.
Ali scored with a couple of body punches early in the sixth, but Holmes came back with a four-punch flurry before going back to the jab. The crowd booed the lack of excitement and action, and Ali responded with a fair left hook before retreating yet again to a corner.
The seventh was a sad round, with Ali looking heavy-legged, old and tired. Holmes once more mocked him by dropping his arms and doing a pretend stagger, and when Ali tried to dance and jab on the retreat Holmes went after him and caught him repeatedly with lefts.
Holmes came out of for the eighth looking mean and eager, and pounded heavy rights at Ali as they stood in the challenger’s corner. Ali eventually escaped to the centre of the ring, and fully half a minute elapsed without either man attempting to a punch.
(Holmes claimed afterwards that he deliberately stood off Ali at this point, out of compassion).
Finally, Holmes moved back on the offensive and caught Ali with right after right, so many that referee Green went over to the corner during the interval to check on Ali’s condition.
The ninth was a shocking round, probably the worst of Ali’s long career. He was in desperate trouble on at least three occasions as Holmes landed with a whole succession of heavy rights.
At the bell Ali turned to Holmes and gave him a weary tap of acknowledgement, an admission that the fight and, indeed, his career, had gone beyond recall.
He could have been pulled out then, and certainly referee Green would have had every justification for stopping it at any time during the one-sided 10th. Ali moved as if he was in a very daze, and Holmes landed every punch he threw.
He seemed reluctant to move in and finish the job, and jabbed him at will throughout the round. At one stage I counted seven in a row, all landing in Ali’s battered face.
As soon as the bell sounded Angelo Dundee turned toward Green to offer surrender, but Bundini Brown yelled at him and grabbed Dundee’s white jacket to pull him away from the referee. There was a brief scuffle, while the defeated fighter sat slumped on his stool, eyes closed, but Green accepted Dundee’s decision and walked toward Holmes with his arms spread wide to indicate the end.
It was a chaotic and unseemly finale to a marvellous career, but then I don’t think that this is the way Ali will be remembered. As with Louis’ KO by Rocky Marciano, posterity will draw a veil over this last sad chapter in the Ali story.
The excitement, the glamour, and the skills are gone, but the legend will endure.