By Tom Gray: On October 2nd 1980 the most infamous sacrifice in the sport of boxing took place. Larry Holmes vs. Muhammad Ali was a gothic horror story involving greed, money, politics, incompetence, betrayal and brutality. What was promoted as a legitimate super fight became a nightmare and may have contributed heavily to the shocking physical decline of heavyweight boxing’s greatest practitioner, Muhammad Ali.
Ali had regained the title for a record third time in September 1978, which flatters to deceive. He had previously lost the crown by split decision to a 6-0-1 novice named Leon Spinks, which was a barometer of how far the thirty six year old champion had slipped. The fact that he had to go the distance in a sluggish New Orleans rematch to win back the WBA version confirmed the fire was out. Spinks would be knocked out in the first round of his very next contest by South African puncher, Gerry Coetzee, and would never hold another world title.
Larry Holmes cut his teeth under Muhammad Ali, working as a sparring partner between 1973 and 1975. He was a tall, fluid boxer with a fabulous left jab and effective lateral movement. The Easton Assassin had fought in relative anonymity since turning professional in 1973 but five years later he outscored the fearsome Ernie Shavers to earn a shot at the WBC title, which was held by Ken Norton. This was Holmes coming out party and he displayed every facet of a great champion, boxing beautifully and gutting it out when required against a dangerous opponent. Both men fought as though their lives depended on the result and the 15th round was a brutal display of chin checking, with Holmes taking a well earned split decision. He would reign as champion for over seven years.
Muhammad Ali officially retired in June 1979 at a press conference in Los Angeles; “I’m happy to be getting out! I mean it’s been hell!” He was all smiles but looked as though he meant it and the retirement party was at The Forum. Ali held court in style, performed the shuffle for his idol, Sugar Ray Robinson and thanked thousands of his fans who attended. Ali had recently co-starred in a movie called Freedom Road with Kris Kristofferson and there was also a huge amount of endorsement deals on the table, so life looked good after boxing. He was one of the most recognizable faces on the planet and retiring as a champion was the perfect ending.
Larry Holmes picked up the reigns and defended his title seven times in twenty months, with all the victories coming by knockout, although it wasn’t easy work. Mike Weaver had pushed the champion to the limit at Madison Square Garden and Ernie Shavers had floored him with arguably the hardest single right hand ever thrown in a 1979 rematch. Holmes had shown immense heart to come back and stop both men, thus proving that there was no obvious weakness in his armory. Put simply – Larry Holmes was an awesome talent and an extremely courageous champion.
Only months had passed and Ali was not settling into retirement. He appeared in ill advised television commercials that would have been more suited to a minor celebrity and the public fanfare had died off. Muhammad Ali talking up Roach Killer or Birdseye Quarter Pounders was hardly going to replace the roar of the crowd. Many people were urging him never to fight again with the most publicized detractor being Ali’s former personal physician, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco. He had left Ali’s camp after coming across test results that were recorded following a 1977 title defense with Ernie Shavers. He forwarded a copy to Ali himself, Herbert Muhammad (Ali’s Manager), Angelo Dundee (Ali’s trainer) and Veronica Porsche (Ali’s wife). Not one person responded despite Ali’s kidneys, being literally, on the verge of falling apart. Ferdie Pacheco would later explain the silence by stating; “People were in the business of keeping the golden goose alive! I was in a different business”
Rumors of an Ali return surfaced in early 1980 with the target being fellow American and new WBA Champion, John Tate. This plan fell apart when Tate was knocked cold by Mike Weaver in the final round of his first title defense. Ali was then approached by Don King who offered him eight million dollars to fight Larry Holmes. Ali was 38 years old, had been off the radar for almost two years and he was unlikely to get many more paydays of this caliber. The former champion had children, alimony payments and a celebrity wife who enjoyed mixing in high society. The money appeared to have Ali hooked; “An ill prepared man would fight Larry Holmes for eight million dollars!”
When Ali officially announced his comeback a MAYO clinic physical was organized and a boxing license would only be granted if he passed. The tests included basic reflex analysis and challenged his hand eye co-ordination. Arguably the quickest and most skillful heavyweight in history being subjected to such tests might seem redundant but the results were shocking. Ali had difficulty touching the tip of his nose from distance, occasionally slurred his speech and did not “hop with the agility that was expected”. Considering he would be swapping punches with the number one heavyweight on the planet you could compare that to him failing his times tables prior to sitting a test on plutonium physics. Ali, unbelievably, was cleared to fight, however these test results only confirmed that he could live a normal life, not that he was ready to participate in world championship boxing.
With his license granted the living legend returned to training in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. For the majority of his career Ali had merely sharpened his tools in sparring and worked subtly on his craft – he never took liberties. His sparring partners for the Holmes fight were Marty Munroe and Tim Witherspoon and both men were finding it hard to miss the target. Ali covered up taking blow upon blow and when he did fire back, still came off second best. Holmes, by contrast, put out a $10,000 reward to any sparring partner who could knock him off his feet and punished all who tried. He felt disrespected with the fight being promoted as an Ali fight and was determined to get the monkey off his back. While speaking with Howard Cosell on ABC television Holmes stated; “I see you are calling this fight Ali vs. Holmes. It should be Holmes vs. Ali” This comment spoke volumes about the respect that Larry sought throughout the entirety of his career.
The fight took place at a temporary arena located outdoors in the car park at Caesars Palace. Leon Spinks knocked out Bernardo Mercado and a young Michael Dokes maintained his undefeated record, on the undercard. Ali entered first and began playing to the crowd as Holmes rushed to the ring appearing unfazed and anxious to get the fights started. If anything Larry appeared disdainful and twice turned his back on Ali, touching his own behind with his glove. The message was clear; “Kiss my ass! You’re in trouble!” The referee was Richard Greene.
This reporter watched a DVD of the fight for the first time in years but won’t be providing a round by round summary. It makes disturbing viewing and most of the action is repetitious, here are some of the notes; “Ali’s timing awful, “Ali barely throwing”, “Ali trapped in the corner, being used for target practice”, “Ali tortured with the jab as it explodes in his face repeatedly”, “Ali looks battered”, “Holmes having a cakewalk”, “Ali draped over the ropes in obvious agony”, “Rib breaking body work by Holmes”, “Horrible right hook to the kidneys by Holmes echoes around ringside and again”, “Holmes clearly holding back. Doesn’t want to hurt Ali, perhaps fearful of a fatality”
Angelo Dundee stopped the fight at the end of ten rounds with the former champion broken and slumped in his corner. There is an argument that he could have done that several rounds earlier but Ali was a victim of his own success, having provided so many miracles throughout his career. In 1974 George Foreman appeared to have Ali helpless only to be sensationally knocked out in eight rounds and “The Rope a Dope” tactic had become part of boxing folklore. However, Ali’s lack of activity against Holmes was not tactical but physiological, his ageing body could not respond to the withering assaults that he had previously been able to absorb. Furthermore, it has since become public that Muhammad Ali was taking medication during training camp and was lucky to escape with his life.
During the course of training camp Ali had been going through periods of deep fatigue. He would frequently stop during road work and his energy levels were never consistent. On the basis of “observation only” Ali was prescribed a drug called Thyrolar, which is used to treat thyroid deficiency. How any doctor could diagnose such a condition without conducting the proper tests is mesmerizing and worst still the former champion was taking double the prescribed dosage, believing the drug acted as a vitamin. Ali’s weight plummeted to 217lbs, which was the lightest he’d been since knocking out George Foreman but he appeared visibly week and shaky. During the contest the ex champion was bone dry, his body overheating but unable to sweat due to a lack of fluid as he endured thirty minutes of atrocious punishment.
There is no way that Ali could have beaten Larry Holmes in 1980, whether he had drugs in his system or not, in fact there’s an argument that Holmes could have beaten him two or three years earlier. Had both men met in their primes, it would have been a heavyweight classic for the ages with Ali starting a slight favorite but that’s not the point. In the end Ali was sacrificed by the very sport that he had helped revolutionize.
Ali would fight for the final time in December 1981, suffering a ten round decision loss to the unheralded Trevor Berbick. The fight took place in the Bahamas’ because Ali couldn’t get licensed within the United States. It was drab and listless and although Ali was more active, he appeared slower than ever. His health declined quite rapidly and he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984. Larry Holmes would go on to become one of the greatest heavyweight champions of all time. Angelo Dundee would guide the great Sugar Ray Leonard to Ali like glory throughout the eighties. Veronica Porsche divorced Ali in 1986. Herbert Muhammad left boxing and had a successful career in business before passing away in 2008. The referee, Richard Green, took his own life shortly after officiating the tragic Ray Mancini vs. Duk Koo Kim contest and Don King would go onto earn millions and millions of dollars.
The fight happened thirty years ago but it never really goes away, nor should it. It has frequently appeared on ESPN Classic, which is an oxymoron if ever there was one, and it was also subject of a fascinating documentary released last year. Ali shouldn’t have left the game in the manner he did but tragically not much seems to have been learned from his athletic decline. Evander Holyfield, aged 47, continues to struggle in fights, as he does in interviews, and the same level of greed and ineptitude continues to this day.
Don’t hold your breath for that to ever change.