40 Years Ago: When Muhammad Ali’s Incredible Career Ended In Sad Fashion

By James Slater - 12/11/2021 - Comments

If only the one and only Muhammad Ali had gone out when he should have, if only he’d hung up the gloves when he should have. Right after the historic, title-regaining win over George Foreman would have been a good time to go.

Or maybe after the hell of Manila and Joe Frazier fight-three? Or, at the latest, after the very historic revenge win over Leon Spinks which saw Ali become the first-ever three-time heavyweight king. But no, Ali came back, yet again, and he ended up going out a loser.

After The Greatest had done everything he possibly could in the ring by becoming a three-time champ, it wasn’t long before Ali pushed his luck too far. Ali had found himself another challenge: that of becoming the first man to win the heavyweight crown four times!

Ali, drained by taking thyroid pills, was an empty shell against Larry Holmes in October of 1980 and he was stopped for the only time in his pro career. But if Ali’s fight with Holmes was one fight too many, the 39-year-old was able to make it TWO FIGHTS too many. It was 40 years ago today when Ali, needing money as well as fame, returned to face “a top contender.” Enter Trevor Berbick.

Ali, insanely, still had ambitions to make good on his four-time champion ambition. If he could defeat Berbick, a solid heavy, if nothing too spectacular, Ali would get his chance; or so he thought.

All these years later, when we know the full and awful price Ali paid for having fought on for far too long, the thought that he would have had another fight if he had he beaten Berbick is chilling.

Ali’s quality of life was poor in the 1990s and 2000s, until his passing in 2016. Had Ali’s brain been subjected to yet another fight, it would have been an even worse existence for the man who everyone always felt would go out on top.

Against Berbick, Ali came in at a career-heavy 236 pounds, his body soft and fleshy. But at least Ali was able to fight back against Berbick; this was something he was unable to do against Holmes. And in the fight in Nassau, Bahamas, Ali even managed to win a few of the ten rounds the bout was scheduled for.

Ali couldn’t dance like he once could, but he did make an effort to get on his toes and to also pump out some punches. There was no snap or sting on Ali’s shots – he could no longer float like a butterfly or sting like a bee, but against the physically strong but lumbering 26-year-old from Jamaica, Ali was able to hear the final bell – the bell used for the fight being a cowbell, as no standard bell was available.

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In fact, the whole show was something of a farce; with ticket sales poor and the under-card boxers all having to share the same dressing room. It was no way for the finest heavyweight boxer of them all to go out. But finally, at last, it was over. Ali had fought his final fight. No longer would he put his health, his life even, on the line. To this day, those two final fights Ali had bug the hell out of his fans. It could have been an almost perfect career: three-time champ, three losses but each of them avenged – Ali waving goodbye with a satisfied smile on his face. Instead, Ali ended up leaving on as sad a note.

As for Berbick, his life met a most grizzly end, as he was shockingly murdered by his nephew and an accomplice; his dead body found in the grounds of his own church. Sad is not the word here.