Today in 1979, Muhammad Ali, who had made boxing history in his previous fight when he had defeated Leon Spinks in a rematch to become the first man to win the heavyweight crown three times, announced his retirement. If only “The Greatest” had been able to make it stick. Ali, aged 37, had not fought since September of 1978, when he avenged a loss he should never have suffered in the first place, and he had next to nothing left.
Sure, Ali had whipped himself into great shape for Spinks II, but his win also had a lot to do with “Neon Leon” having had a turbulent training camp (reportedly going AWOL at times, on one occasion being found in a shack drinking moonshine whisky). Ali did look pretty in the sequel, held in New Orleans before a massive crowd, but it was clear to keen observers how little pop Ali had in his gloves at this stage in his career. Really, it was astonishing (and not necessarily in a good way for Ali’s long-term health) that Ali was still fighting in 1978, what with all the brutal fights he had been through – Frazier in Manila, Shavers at The Garden for two particularly damaging fights.
But now, as per his big announcement, Ali was done. As he said, he was well invested, he was healthy and he was going out on his own terms. For a little over 15 months, anyway. Ali, soon growing bored, convinced himself he had what it took to become a FOUR TIME heavyweight king. Larry Holmes was one target, John Tate and then Mike Weaver were also looked at. Ali chose his former sparring partner and “The Last Hurrah” was on for Las Vegas in October of 1980.
Anyone who has seen the fight will know how painful it is to watch; how agonizing. Ali, having gulped down a ton of thyroid pills (thinking they were vitamins) looked good, but inside he had absolutely nothing left. At all. Ali’s former doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, who had quit the team after the Shavers battle, went as far, years later, to say how the fight was “a crime.” It should never have been allowed, and a good honest physical, as well as a brain scan done on Ali, would have let any competent doctor know as much.
But even against Holmes, when he was a shell, Ali refused to quit. Angelo Dundee, over the protests of Bundini Brown, made the call; too late. Ali had been stopped for the one and only time in his long career. Fans at ringside were in tears. It was that awful. This shouldn’t have been how it ended for the greatest heavyweight of all-time. It wasn’t.
Insanity was revisited a little over a year later when Ali, almost 40 and this time allowing his body to look it, having dispensed with the thyroid pills, took on Trevor Berbick. This fight, perhaps a sadder affair than the Holmes beating, perhaps not, saw Ali go the ten round distance and at least throw punches, even winning the odd round. It doesn’t bear thinking about what Ali might have done had he been given the decision in The Bahamas.
Finally, thankfully, mercifully, it was the end. Ali was at last convinced of what almost everyone else in the world knew, that he was finished.
Ali’s final record reads 56-5(37). It should have read 56-3(37). But for Ali’s immense ego, it would have.