In this glittering facade of a city, Las Vegas, where time is suspended and reality banished, Muhammad Ali appropriately staged his last hurrah. He had said, “The first miracle is that I lost all that weight.” Ali was 254 lb. six months ago when he decided to come out of retirement, again, and 217½ lb. at last week’s weigh-in. “The second miracle is that L will beat Larry Holmes.” A man losing weight is hardly miraculous. The real miracle was that anyone believed in the second.
A legitimate hero since he won the light-heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Olympics as Cassius Clay, Ali went on to live up to all his boasts, all his predictions and his claim to being “the most famous man in the world. The greatest.” After winning back his title for an unprecedented third time against Leon Spinks in 1978, Ali retired. He said then that he wanted to set an example. “I don’t want to be like Archie Moore, Joe Louis, fighting when they’re too old, over the hill. I want to be an example to the black people of America in the world, that a black man can go out a champ, leave boxing with his money and his body intact.” Last week Ali’s millions of fans wished that, of all his promises, he had kept just that one.
To call it a heavyweight championship fight would be like saying that Las Vegas represents the zenith of Western civilization. To call it a fight would only be an attempt to assuage those who paid $500 each to sit at ringside on an asphalt parking lot outside Caesars Palace. It was a massive con from the moment Ali announced that he, father of eight, at 38, would reduce his blubbery mass to become “the onliest one to ever be a four-time champion.” That last week’s charade attracted the largest live gate in boxing history (24,780) is
simply testimony to one of the greatest flimflam men ever, and the gullibility of a world desperately short of heroes.
And so, 16 years, 220 days after Sonny Liston sat on his stool and didn’t come out for the seventh round making Cassius Clay the champion, Ali sat on his stool after the tenth round in Las Vegas. It had been tragicomic. Before the fight the sellout crowd, thousands of
whom were standing unable to get to or find their seats, chanted “Ali, Ali” and cheered as the former champ entered the ring. His hair, the grey rinsed out before the fight, glistened and he shuffled briefly. The undefeated Larry Holmes arrived almost 10 minutes later, a tactic once employed by his hero, now opponent. Ali feigned attempts to get at Holmes through the mob of would-be luminaries in the ring, a tactic wrestler Gorgeous George once employed, after whom Ali’s shtick is patterned. Holmes bumped Ali out of the foot-rosin box and the suckers loved every minute. “Man, they gonna mix it, they gonna battle,” screamed one, gold chains and medallions around his neck competing with the stars in his eyes glazed by a $3,000 bet on Ali.
But they weren’t going to mix it. Ringsiders counted 25 Ali punches in the fight, compared with 17 on-target Holmes jabs in one round. Ali pumped his right arm to lead the “Ali” chant that had rocked the stadium in Zaire in 1974, when he regained the title from George Foreman. The chant came but died quickly as Holmes burst from his corner and pinned Ali on the ropes in
the first round. The chant was replaced by an eerie silence that enveloped the stadium until after the tenth, when it was replaced by the sound of thousands of feet rushing to casinos.
Ali and his trainer, Angelo Dundee, had been confident that Holmes would tire around the tenth. Ali had relentlessly screamed “his behind will be mine by nine,” but perhaps only for one last rhyme. They felt Holmes would punch himself out, partly because he had gone 15 rounds just once in his pro career, but perhaps only because he had knocked out 26 of his 35 opponents. And so now the old bag of tricks was pulled out, again. Ali started by laying back on the ropes absorbing punches, reports of recurring blood in his urine and suspicions of previous brain damage echoing only in the minds of those who had not placed bets.
“I’ve been sparring with guys the same size as the Peanut (Holmes), but 60 lb. lighter. They fast, and I’m going to be too fast for Holmes.” The only speed Ali displayed was the quickness of his reversion to tired gamesmanship. He held his hands in front of his face, playing peekaboo, and dully staggered forward; he waved Holmes in to pummel him on the ropes; he stood with his hands at his waist flicking his head away from jabs; and, holding the rope in one hand, fended off Holmes with the other. Holmes fell into it, too, stepping back and wiggling his hips after flailing at a motionless Ali in the fifth. At the end of the sixth, the silence was broken by a chorus of boos for Ali after he had offered one good left the entire round.
For anyone who had seen the original shuffle, the one of artistry and purpose that devastated 56 opponents and rendered 37 unconscious, it was a time warp in sync only for those who had long hated the “uppity nigger,” “loudmouth draft dodger,” “black supremist Moslem.” For those who had marvelled at his ability, respected his convictions, admired and enjoyed his audacious wit, been touched by his sincerity and humility, been awed by his charisma and universal popularity, it was a time for looking away.
Holmes sat out the dance, recognizing fight fans’ thrill at the sight of sweat spraying across the canvas, knowing that it came from Ali’s gloves flicking short. He counter-punched the rare Ali overtures and his hard rights and uppercuts landed. The bag was empty. The only trick that worked was the one that filled the stadium and the closed-circuit outlets.
Angelo Dundee endured the tenth round on the steps behind Ali’s corner. He supported his head with his hand and, not heard above the mild noise at ringside, mouthed “next round.” Ali was to his right, against the ropes. The hands earlier held tauntingly at the hips were now not held high enough even to peekaboo. It ended with Ali to Dundee’s left, on the ropes. Ali slumped on his stool and his handlers jumped into the ring. Dundee wanted it stopped. Bundini Brown, whom Ali had tossed to the floor in a heated confrontation in a hotel room earlier in the week, wanted the charade to continue and tried to shove Ali back into the ring. Pat Patterson, one of Ali’s bodyguards, shouted to Ali’s adviser, Herbert Muhammad, “What do you want done?” Muhammad said, “Stop it, he’s getting defenceless.” The chant had been heard for the last time. It came weakly in the tenth, with Ali pinned “defenceless” on the ropes. But the millions watching and the $3,000 bettors dreamed that “Ali’s just sucking him in,” that there was going to be another miracle. “You the only ones he psyched out,” Larry Holmes told the media after the fight. “He fooled you all again.” Ali took home $8 million before taxes, Holmes about half that. Holmes remained the World Boxing Council Heavyweight Champion; Mike Weaver the champion of the World Boxing Association. But who would care? Last week the world lost another hero.
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