It’s proven so, so hard for a number of great fighters to exit the sport on a win. So often we’ve seen legends battle on for too long; taking that ‘fight too many.’ Sadly it happened to at least three of the immortal heavyweights featured in the now 30 year old “Champions Forever” video tribute (still a fantastic watch a full three decades on).
In fact, it could be argued how all five greats featured in “Champions Forever:” Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes and George Foreman went out on anything approaching a hight note.
Kenny Norton arguably suffered the most traumatic final fight of his career when it comes to the ‘Fabulous Five.’ In his final fight, in May of 1981, Norton accepted a bout with the undefeated and big punching Irish/American, Gerry Cooney. The fight lasted all of fifty-four seconds. Norton, then aged thirty seven, was dispatched in chilling fashion. Stuck on the ropes, Norton was a sitting duck for Cooney’s huge, powerful swings and they connected flush on his jaw. With referee Tony Perez appallingly late jumping in to rescue him, the fight could very well have turned into a tragedy. Thank goodness Norton was okay afterwards. Needless to say, he retired immediately after the fight.
Both Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali also suffered a bad experience in their final ring appearance; both also taking place in 1981. Frazier, having his first fight since being sent crashing by George Foreman in their second encounter in 1976, Joe came back to box one Floyd “Jumbo” Cummings. The thirty seven year old Frazier looked awful. His left hook had seemingly lost all its power and his speed and timing were all gone too. The bout dragged on for the full ten rounds. At the end, despite most observers thinking Cummings had definitely won, the judges had scored the fight level. Frazier escaped back to retirement with a gift draw attached to his record, leaving intact the statistic that showed only Ali and Foreman had ever beaten him.
Next up in this gloomy look back, was the final fight in the long and astonishing career of the man known as The Greatest. Ali, insanely returning to the prize ring after the awful beating he’d been subjected to in his other misguided attempt to regain his fistic prominence, against world champ Larry Holmes, signed to fight Trevor Berbick. This was perhaps the saddest end a great heavyweight king ever suffered.
The fight took place in Nassau in The Bahamas and was incredibly amateurish in its presentation. Promoted by an ex-con, Ali v Berbick was a very shoddy affair. Not only was there no proper bell at ringside (infamously, a cow bell, of all things was used instead) but neither were there alternate pairs of gloves for the boxers. After each bout, gloves had to be taken off the fighters leaving the ring and given to the two entering it. It truly was the most unfitting way for the fighting days of The Greatest to come to an end. Ali boxed as if in slow motion, while the clumsy Berbick wasn’t much better. In his prime he would have won in embarrassingly easy fashion, yet now, aged almost 40, Ali was soundly out pointed over the ten rounds. His career was over, finally.
Foreman at this time was a 300 pound preacher, some years ahead of his unlikely ring return. Yet even George, who achieved the unthinkable in his comeback, went out a loser – to Shannon Briggs in 1997. Okay, most had/have Foreman winning this fight, and it’s certainly arguable how “Big George” left the sport with the better showing of “The Fab Five,” even if he exited with a loss. But what about Holmes? Larry was the last of the “Champions Forever” to walk away, not doing so until 2002! But the “win” that came, over novelty act Butterbean, was a cash boost for Holmes and nothing more.
Still, of the five great heavyweight kings, Holmes is the only one to have retired on the back of a win. Make of that what you will.