A sad chapter for the ‘Greatest’

By Tom Donelson, BASN Staff Reporter
Updated: November 1, 2009

IOWA CITY (BASN) — “Muhammad and Larry” tells the story of Ali’s title fight against Larry Holmes in 1980.

This ESPN documentary plays like a tragedy as we witness the decline of Ali before our eyes.

In 1980, Ali was offered $8 million to fight Holmes, who received $2 million despite being the reigning champion and being at the peak of his career.

After the third Frazier fight, Ali was never the same. While he kept the title for three years with one brief interlude after losing to Leon Spinks, his decline could be seen with every fight.

When he defeated Spinks in their rematch, Ali retired.

The reality was that Ali showed that he was past his prime as he needed 30 rounds to capture one fight out of two against an inferior opponent.

Just a few years earlier, Spinks would be a sparring partner not a threat to his title. But by the time Ali faced Holmes, he was but a shadow as a fighter.

For Holmes, this was a bittersweet moment for he had to defeat a man who he liked and respected.

Like Rocky Marciano, who ended Joe Louis’ career; Holmes had to end the career of a legend reluctantly.

The most amazing aspect of the fight was that Ali managed to fool much of the public.

Ali had the world believing that a miracle would happen and he would capture his title back from Holmes but this was an illusion.

In July of 1980, Ali went to the Mayo clinic to check his neurological and retinal functions.

The physicians noticed the first symptoms of neurological damage as he had short term memory and trouble with touching his nose with his hands.

Ali was not physically capable of fighting for a world championship and the Nevada boxing committee kept the report private despite insisting on it.

His words were slower and while he looked sleeked after losing 30 pounds, this only hid the truth that Ali was but a shadow as he looked slow in his workouts.

One of his physicians prescribed a thyroid medication and this aided his weight lost, but it also slowed Ali down even further.

The slim looking Ali proved to be a mirage.

It was obvious that the shell game became exposed as Holmes came out in the first round connected with sharp combinations that nailed Ali flushed.

Ali threw maybe a punch or two in the first round but beyond that; he had nothing.

Holmes couldn’t bring himself to knock Ali out but his corner pleaded with Holmes to knock out Ali.

One of Holmes’ cornermen advised his fighter to finish off Ali and as he said later in an interview, “It was the merciful thing to do.”

In the ninth round, Holmes laid a right hand to Ali’s body that forced him to gasp out loud but Anglo Dundee waited until the end of the 10th round to end the fight.

Ali would not quit as Holmes hoped he would after taking punishment round after round.

Even the end was surreal as Drew Bundini Brown yelled at Dundee to allow Ali to continue, but Dundee should have ended the fight earlier . Rarely does one ever mention or review this fight.

It was the invisible fight as little is written or discussed, but it represented boxing at it worst.

Ali had no business fighting a younger fighter at his peak and boxing world allowed itself to be purposely fooled that Ali could actually win.

What drove this fight was money as Las Vegas saw a bonanza and those who surrounded Ali knew that hehad compromised health for a boxer.

Physician Freddie Pacheco had quit Ali’s team a few years earlier when it became obvious that he was suffering long term damage.

He viewed this event as criminal and boxing historian Frank Lotierzo told me that much of his present health problems were exacerbated by this fight.

Ali was brutalized in a way he was never in his career with the exception of his trilogy with Frazier.

This was the fight that provided the tipping point for Ali as far as his health.

He would fight a year later and lose to Trever Berbick in a unanimous decision. For Ali, it was victory that he managed to go the distance. But when a fighter is satisfied with moral victories; a boxer has been fighting too long.

He had his moral victory, but the skills that blessed the ring were long dissipated.

For Larry Holmes, he never got his recognition until long after his career’s over but he proved to be one of boxing great heavyweights but for many, he was the guy who followed ‘The Greatest” and he never escaped his shadow.

Nor did this defeat of Ali enhance Holmes’ reputation.

He was simply the guy who beat an old Ali.

Like Ali, he tried one comeback against the young Mike Tyson and lasted four rounds.

He then joined George Foreman on the over 40 tour in the 1990′s as he fought for the heavyweight title twice in his mid 40′s but he never achieved what Foreman did in the 1990′s (i.e., win a heavyweight title), but he was still a top ten fighter.

His two title losses were unanimous decisions including one to Evander Holyfield.

Holmes finished his career in his early 50′s but by the time he finally left the ring; he finally got his recognition as one of boxing’s great.

When he defeated Ali, he gained nothing for he still remained in Ali’s shadow and it would take years before he established his own legacy. Even in the 90′s, George Foreman proved more popular than Holmes.

George learned to be a brilliant self-promoter and actually captured the heavyweight title in a dramatic fashion with a 10th knockout of Michael Moorer in a fight that he was losing by a wide margin.

Holmes still lives in Easton, Pennsylvania and seems to be at peace with himself. But for one night, he was given the assignment to be executioner of a legend’s career.

A job that he reluctantly did.