The recollections of Muhammad Ali are mostly a glittering kaleidoscope of golden glory, dazzling performances, phenomenal courage, captivating oratory, extraordinary exploits and unforgettable encounters on the picturesque landscape of his genius.
Watching him trying to fight Larry Holmes was excruciating, frightening, mental torture for all who adored him and could only be done through half-open fingers.
They used to say they never come back but of course they do. Ali kept on coming back. So often that many believe the penultimate return to the ring, forty years ago today, drove home the most devastating of all the nails in the living coffin which is Parkinson’s.
Watching Muhammad Ali be brutally beaten by Larry Holmes was painful and heart-breaking
Ali shouldn’t have been allowed to fight and 40 years on it still leaves a sour taste in the mouth
Holmes idolised Ali and even admitted before their fight that he feared for the Greatest
The brutal memory of the dark night of October 2nd in Las Vegas is burned as if by a cowboy’s branding iron into the minds of the 24,790 crowded into the temporary stadium erected in the car park at Caesars Palace and the two billion glued to their screens around the world.
That the sledgehammer should be wielded by Larry Holmes made it all the more agonisingly poignant.
Holmes had been lead sparring partner to The Greatest for many years and was reluctant to agree to his request that they share in what Ali expected to be his last big pay-day.
‘I worry for the man,’ said Holmes. ‘I love him.’
His fears for the health of his great friend were well-founded and would become grim reality.
Holmes had ascended to the WBC heavyweight title, one of the several belts which had been in Ali’s possession previously, and was becoming acknowledged as a great world champion in his own right.
Ali’s latest retirement had followed his regaining of the WBA title in a rematch with Leon Spinks two years earlier. Despite that victory concerns were growing already for his well-being and when the Holmes fight was announced the Nevada State Athletic Commission insisted on sending Muhammad to the Mayo for neurological examination.
Don King guaranteed Ali eight million dollars for a last big pay-day despite fears over his health
Ali’s huge heart and resilient chin soaked up a lot of punishment despite losing every round
The clinic’s findings were not made public until after the fight. Shamefully so. The report included these statements: ‘Mr Ali showed a slight degree of missing when he tried to touch his nose with his finger. He had difficulty co-ordinating his speech and did not hop on one foot with the expected agility.’
Astonishingly, the document concluded: ‘There are no specific findings to prohibit Mr Ali from boxing.’
On that remarkable basis, Nevada granted his license.
On that basis, promoter Don King guaranteed Ali eight million dollars and Holmes six million.
On that basis Holmes was obliged to proceed with his onerous task, that of destroying his idol. Not so much in a fight as by a prolonged execution.
On the only night of his life he regretted his nickname, The Easton Assassin, he did all he could to put the earliest possible end to a gruesome beating.
Holmes did all he could to put the earliest possible end to a gruesome beating
Ali admitted after the fight he had been slurring his speech and felt tinglings for some time
First with his punches, which inevitably Ali’s huge heart, self-damagingly resilient chin and mountainous courage kept soaking up even though he was losing every round.
Then by repeatedly stepping back from his stationary but still-standing target and imploring referee Richard Green to intervene.
Cruelly, for both fighters in this dreadful case, no stoppage was forthcoming. Not until the eleventh round when Ali’s renowned trainer Angelo Dundee threw in the towel from the corner.
Ali mumbled a protest against the first and only stoppage of his 61-fight career but privately he shared in the general sense of relief, admitting soon after that he had been feeling a tingling in his hands and slurring his speech for some time.
That revelation further enraged Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s ‘Fight Doctor,’ who had quit the team two fights earlier when begging him to stay retired and said now: ‘All the people involved in this fight should be arrested. This was an abomination, a crime.’
Ali’s Fight Doctor said the people involved in making the fight ‘should be arrested’
Astonishingly he fought Trevor Berbick a year later in what was a sad end to a majestic career
King had entitled this event The Last Hurrah and as a vicariously transfixed world turned away no-one believed Ali would actually fight again.
We were all mistaken.
Fourteen months later he made his final comeback, against Trevor Berbick, in a decrepit, unfinished stadium in the capital of the Bahamas, Nassau.
Although he managed to win a couple of the ten rounds the decision against him was unanimous and it was an undistinguished conclusion to a majestic career.
But the dignity would shine through the ensuing, extraordinarily long struggle against the ravages of Parkinson’s, despite which he championed a myriad of humanitarian causes as nobly as he reigned supreme over boxing.
And when, finally, at 74 just four years ago, he lost that heroic fight the whole world both mourned and celebrated the most recognisable being on planet Earth.