Muhammad Ali had the opportunity to go out on his own terms at boxing’s pinnacle when he retired after winning his 1978 rematch with Leon Spinks to become the only man to regain the heavyweight title twice. But he couldn’t make it stick, and neither could those closest to him nor boxing regulators in any jurisdiction where there was a chance for the circus that surrounded Ali to pitch a tent and make a dollar.
Maybe his final two losses — an 11th-round retirement against Larry Holmes on Oct. 2, 1980, that marked the only time Ali was stopped in 61 fights and a 10-round unanimous decision by Trevor Berbick on Dec. 11, 1981, in Nassau, Bahamas — were not the tipping point for his physical decline. Maybe they didn’t hasten the encroaching effects of the Parkinson’s syndrome that was diagnosed in 1984 and gradually eroded the quality of Ali’s retirement years until his death late Friday night in Scottsdale, Arizona.
After all, the brutal nature of three fights with Joe Frazier and three with Ken Norton, the pounding he absorbed from George Foreman while implementing the rope-a-dope strategy in 1974, the 15-round war with heavy-handed Earnie Shavers in 1977 and then two fights with Spinks in 1978 all had combined to degrade Ali’s health measurably. But the available evidence of the risk Ali faced near the end prompted Dr. Ferdie Pacheco to resign as Ali’s personal physician when his advice to retire after the Shavers fight was ignored.
“Ali has decided this is his shot, and he’s going to take it . . . we all kill ourselves in our own way,” Pacheco told me two months before the 1980 Holmes fight.
Pacheco learned Ali had a potential kidney problem from a doctor who conducted the physical exam before the Shavers bout at Madison Square Garden. “It’s worth the risk of being criticized by my colleagues in the medical profession to talk about him so that he knows there is a danger,” Pacheco said at the time.
One of the issues was microscopic blood cells found in Ali’s urine before the Shavers bout.
“One time in training, a doctor made a statement and said I had blood in my urine,” Ali said when I interviewed him at his Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, training camp before the Holmes fight. “I never saw blood in my urine, so I don’t think about it.”
Ali’s former physician was skeptical when the fighter passed an exam at the famed Mayo Clinic ahead of the 1980 Holmes fight. A brain scan found no lesions or organic brain syndrome, but Pacheco said tiny scars might have formed that wouldn’t show up on an EEG.
“How can you keep a guy from making $8 million in the ring because of something in your head that tells you he’s shot?” Pacheco asked back then. “He may take a beating when he doesn’t have to, but how do you prove that on a meter?”
With Ali cleared to fight by the Mayo Clinic, officials in Nevada proceeded with the Holmes fight, where the focus was on Ali’s near-miraculous loss of weight from 254 pounds when the bout was signed to 217½ pounds at the weigh-in. Days after the lopsided loss, Ali admitted he had taken a thyroid medication that facilitated the weight loss but left him dangerously dehydrated and weak.
After the fight, Holmes said he “held back a few times to keep from hurting him.” After leaving Ali doubled over in pain with a rib shot in the ninth round, Holmes said he told Ali, “Don’t keep taking all this. You can’t fight anymore.”
Ali came out for the 10th round, and though he threw no punches, cornerman Bundini Brown urged him to keep going in the 11th and Dr. Donald Romeo, the Nevada commission doctor, made no move to stop it. Trainer Angelo Dundee was the one who called the fight to a halt, and the next day, Ali said, “Under the conditions with me taking so many punches, I’m glad it was stopped.”
Ali admitted he had a desire to fight again. If it happened, Dundee said he’d be there to have someone who cared about Ali in the corner if he got in trouble. “It’s the right thing to do,” Dundee said. “Even if the fight is the wrong thing to do.”
Unable to get licensed in the United States, Ali eventually threw in with unknown promoter James Cornelius, who offered him a $4-million deal to fight Canadian heavyweight Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas. A search of records later revealed Cornelius was a felon facing an outstanding warrant for his arrest in Atlanta on charges he violated terms of probation received for a 1975 conviction on five counts of theft.
The promotion was rife with allegations of governmental corruption in the Bahamas, shady financial dealings and utter ineptitude in terms of promoting a major heavyweight fight. In the final week before the bout, Berbick threatened to pull out unless he received a letter of credit for the final $200,000 of his $300,000 purse. Several undercard fighters, including middleweight Thomas Hearns and heavyweights Greg Page and Scott LeDoux, also threatened to pull out.
Negotiations that reached Prime Minister Lynden O. Pindling resulted in him prevailing upon Victor Sayyah, a Colorado real estate and insurance executive with holdings in the Bahamas, and Bahamas World Airlines chairman Everett Bannister to agree to underwrite unpaid promotional expenses.
Satellite Sports president Sheldon Saltman, the cable telecast operator, threatened to pull out just over a week before the fight, he said, because no one had been paid to build the temporary stadium that was erected behind second base on a rundown high school baseball field. “All the material was lying on the docks,” Saltman said the week of the Berbick fight. “I had my bags packed.”
Sayyah came through with the money to get the production to fight day. By then, the story was Ali’s career-high weight of 236¼ pounds. As I wrote after the weigh-in, “The aging Islamic warrior tried on his old uniform and popped all the buttons.”
Ali hoped everything the doctors had told him about how thyroid pills depleted him for the Holmes fight was right. He was overweight, but at least he had no problem sweating.
Fight night was a disaster. The card was supposed to start at 6 p.m. Atlantic time but was delayed until 8:20 p.m. because boxing gloves had to be flown in from Miami. There was no ring bell, but television executive Saltman produced a cowbell prop and a hammer from his trailer.
“I became the commissioner,” Saltman said. “I told the officials the rules. I ran the show.”
It wasn’t much of a show. Manager Herbert Muhammad, photographer Howard Bingham, a longtime Ali friend, and Ali’s brother, mother and then-wife Veronica all advised him against fighting. But he went through with it anyway, hoping for what he called a “spiritual revival.”
It wasn’t close, but Ali went the full 10 rounds and came out in far better condition than after the Holmes fight. “I know myself better than anybody else, and I know it’s the end,” Ali said. “It’s not that the magic may be gone, it is gone.”
No one can be sure what physical toll those final two bouts added to a man whose career already had exacted a dear cost that showed before he faced Holmes and Berbick. The passion that drove Ali was evident the morning after his final fight when he met one last time with reporters who had traversed the globe covering not just his fights but the profound social impact he made.
Reflecting on all that, Ali said, “I was blessed to be the one.”