Muhammad Ali, the greatest heavyweight of them all, only fought in Fabulous Las Vegas, for many people the greatest, most glitzy and magical place for the big fights, a veritable handful of times. Ali’s finest victories, his career-defining and immortalised ring triumphs, took place in locations such as Zaire, Manila, Miami Beach, Houston and New York.
The three-time heavyweight king of kings did have a few memorable fights in Las Vegas – years before Fight Town, as Vegas became known, took over when it came to hosting the Super-Fights – but by and large, Ali did his best stuff, he worked his magic, far away from The Strip.
Ali, when still known as Cassius Clay, boxed the giant (for the time) Duke Sabedong at The Las Vegas Convention Centre in June of 1961. This, Clay’s seventh pro fight, saw him outbox a man who towered over him (the late, great Angelo Dundee once told this writer how the win over the tall and long-armed Sabedong proved to him that Ali would have beaten both Klitschko brothers) – winning a wide ten-round decision.
Cassius Clay never again boxed in Vegas, his return there taking place in 1965 when, as world champion and known the world over as Muhammad Ali, he defended the crown against Floyd Patterson. The November 1965 fight, Ali’s second title defence, also took place at The Convention Centre. Former champ Patterson, suffering from a bad back, was no match for the peak Ali, being TKO’d in round-12.
Ali next brought his greatness to Vegas in June of 1972, and by this time he was an ex-champion who had suffered both a near four-year layoff and a pro defeat. Ali met Jerry Quarry in a rematch, once again at The Convention Centre. Quarry gave it a go as he always did but he was stopped in the seventh.
Ali’s next appearance in Vegas, in February of 1973, came against British trier Joe Bugner; yet again at The Convention Centre. A dull encounter saw Ali win a wide 12-round unanimous decision. For some reason, Ali wound up fighting Bugner a second time, in Kuala Lumper in 1975.
The Ali Ron Lyle met at The Convention Centre in May of 1975 had recently regained his title by shocking George Foreman in Africa. Now by far the most recognisable human being on the planet, The Greatest had a tough night with the gutsy ex-con. Eventually stopping Lyle in round-11 when behind on points, Ali’s magic was clearly beginning to fade. Ali would never win another fight in Las Vegas.
Huge underdog Leon Spinks upset Ali at The Las Vegas Hilton in February of 1978 and one particular magazine headline read “The Greatest is Gone.” The 15-round decision loss could have spelled the end, but Ali of course came back.
But then, in October of 1980, Ali had the fight he never should have had. Facing new champ Larry Holmes at Caesars Palace, a 38 year old Ali was badly beaten. This fight, a huge money-spinner (for Don King and for others, but not Ali himself) never should have been allowed. That it played out on such a grand stage only made the sad spectacle even worse.
Ali would enjoy happier times in Las Vegas years later when, as a majestic guest of honour at ringside, The Greatest would sit and watch the best current fighters try and imitate him. Ali’s prime came too early for the Vegas boom years, his finest fights and nights taking place elsewhere.