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Remembering the Vulnerable Muhammad Ali

June 3rd, 2016 · No Comments · Boxing, Olympics

I twice saw Muhammad Ali perform in person. On both occasions he came across as a shattered man.

In the ring, in 1980, when Larry Holmes gave him a savage beating in Las Vegas.

And again at the Opening Ceremonies for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when he was already firmly in the grip of Parkinson’s disease as he struggled to light the Olympic cauldron.

It does make a person wonder if he will be remembered primarily for his colorful, incandescent and controversial career as boxer and public figure … or for his long decline of 35-plus years, which ended with his death today at age 74.

From his surprise knockout of Sonny Liston to take the world heavyweight title, in 1964, and for the next two decades, Ali was probably the best-known human on the planet.

But the sport that made him famous, beginning with a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, almost certainly helped drive him into the shadows as the Parkinson’s, which may have been diagnosed while he was still fighting, made it difficult for him to walk or talk.

And we know how short everyone’s attention span is, these days.

Time will tell. The outpouring of media coverage marking Ali’s death suggests his fame has legs.

But if anyone else had seared into his or her memory the struggling, pitiable figure of Ali’s final heavyweight title fight and his trembling return to the Olympic movement at Atlanta … it will be more difficult to recall the man at the top of the mountain so often in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ali had been out of boxing for two years when he agreed to meet the unbeaten heavyweight champion Larry Holmes in a temporary stadium in the parking lot of Caesar’s Palace on October 2, 1980.

Ali’s previous fight, against Leon Spinks, had been a victory, which gave him a share of the heavyweight title. He had retired, for at least the third time, and he was seeking to become the first man to hold the heavyweight title on four occasions.

It was a huge event. Did “The Greatest”, at age 38, still have enough to defeat the 31-year-old Holmes? Fans spent a record $6 million to find out for themselves.

In the days before the fight, reporters were astonished at the sight of a svelte Ali, seemingly transformed (by a “miracle”, he said) by losing 35 pounds while training for the bout — perhaps due to weight-loss drugs.

He looked sleek, but he had nothing in the ring, that hot Nevada night, and that fight was an example of how Ali was exploited by promoters and his sport and, yes, his fans.

I was at ringside for the fight (which can be seen here in its entirety), and it quickly became clear that Ali’s strategy, if he had one, was a rehash of the “rope-a-dope” tactics he had used in his brutal victory over George Foreman in Kinshasa — when Ali allowed Foreman to beat on him through the early rounds before he turned to the offensive against an arm-weary Foreman and took his title.

But by the fourth or fifth round, Ali had thrown barely a dozen punches (all of which were celebrated by the majority of the crowd of 25,000), and it was increasingly clear the fight could end only one two ways — as a unanimous decision for Holmes or a knockout of Ali.

It was the latter. Ali was exhausted and Holmes went after him relentlessly. He shot jabs into Ali’s face dozens, scores of times. In the ninth round Holmes hit him with an uppercut and followed with a blow to the kidney that some say caused Ali to scream.

He lasted one more round, barely able to hold up his gloves in front of his face. Referee Richard Steele should have stopped the fight before it actually ended.

Ahead of the 11th round, Ali’s corner decided he could take no more punishment. Bundini Brown, a long-time Ali insider, begged for one more round, but trainer Angelo Dundee can be heard clearly, on the video, telling Steele “I am his second and I’m ending the fight.”

Some have suggested Ali had a near-death experience, in the aftermath of that fight (just as he did in the Frazier fight in Manila), the penalty for his courage and tenacity.

We got a clearer look at what boxing did to him at Atlanta, 16 years later.

Those who saw the Opening Ceremonies that year remember the emotional high point of the event — the buildup to the lighting of the cauldron, and how the identity of that person was a closely held secret.

My recollection is that the Olympic torch was handed off several times in a lap around the stadium track, a sort of relay of top American sports personalities, and Janet Evans, the swimmer, took it up to the top of the stadium — where Ali was waiting on a darkened platform.

The crowd erupted when they saw who was taking the torch … and then almost immediately began to fret that Ali might not be up to a simple task — lighting a rocket that would light the cauldron.

He was shaking so violently that it seemed almost inevitable he would drop the torch, and he had expressed concern that he might. The extent of his decline was a surprise to most of us, who knew he had been ill with Parkinson’s but had not seen him in public in years.

He lit the cauldron.

Off and on, over the past 20 years, writers have wondered how much damage boxing did to Muhammad Ali. It would seem safe to say: “A lot.”

He took heavy punishment from Foreman, from Earnie Shavers, from Holmes and, most of all, from Joe Frazier in their celebrated trilogy of carnage.

Ali’s ability to stay on his feet, to reach the final bell, likely did him no favors, over time. He lost five bouts, but only in the Holmes fight, in 1980, did he fail to go the distance, going out on his stool, a glazed look on his face.

Those are the two moments I was in the same venue as Muhammad Ali, and I remember them more clearly than any of his fights.

His fans will choose to recall other moments, in the ring and outside it, that they prefer to cherish, and good for them and good for the memory of Muhammad Ali.


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