Sunday 24 March 2019

The last stand of punch-drunk Ali


By DAMIAN CORLESS Twenty-five years ago this week, Muhammad Ali climbed into a boxing ring for the last time. Pushing 40, Ali had been fighting at the highest level for 21 years. In his heyday, he had transformed and transcended his sport, floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.

His grace, nobility and intelligence, both in and out of the ring, had made him arguably the most famous and admired man on Earth. Tragically, by the time he touched gloves with the 27-year-old Trevor Berbick in December 1981, boxing had brutally robbed him of these great qualities.

A year earlier, the three times heavyweight champ had been lured out of retirement by the promoter Don King to fight the reigning world champion, Larry Holmes.

That fight had been billed as The Last Hurrah, but there was nothing to cheer about it. The Ali shuffle had long shuffled off and his co-ordination was gone. Shockingly, it later emerged that in advance of the Holmes fight, Ali had complained of tingling in his hands and slowness of speech.

In the ring, Holmes dished out a terrible pounding to the man who'd employed him as a sparring partner. Holmes later admitted that in humbling the great man, he had held back his best shots out of pity.

One year on, now even more a fragile shell of his former self, Ali distressed fans and family alike when he signed up to fight the much younger Berbick. His decision horrified even hard-nosed venue owners in the USA, who refused to host the contest. The bout was moved to Nassau in the Bahamas.

Ali took the Berbick fight for two reasons. One was pride. After 10 punishing rounds with Holmes, his trainer had thrown in the towel. The man known as The Greatest wanted to go out on his feet, and not slumped in a groggy heap on his corner stool. Like the latter-day Elvis, Ali had surrounded himself with a gaggle of toadies who indulged his punch-drunk delusions of invincibility.

There was a second reason why Ali made the trip to Nassau. He needed the money. Don King, a convicted killer, had coaxed him back into the ring with the promise of a final big payday - but then short-changed Ali to the tune of $1.2 million. When Ali threatened to sue, the notoriously slippery King reportedly persuaded the brain-damaged boxer to settle for a suitcase containing $50,000 in cash.

Billed as The Drama In Bahama, Ali's last fight was a desperately sad and shabby exit from the sport he had once raised to such lofty and dignified heights. Ali was out of shape.

The outdoor event before a crowd of 11,000 started late because no one could find a key to the front gate. There were not enough gloves for all the boxers on the bill, so they had to share. The rounds were signalled with a cowbell. The ring itself was built to cowboy standards.

Much more disturbing was the violence in the ring. Ali took a beating from Berbick, losing a unanimous points decision. Afterwards he expressed satisfaction that he'd stayed on his feet to the final bell, saying: "I came out all right for an old man." There would be no more comebacks.

The loss to Berbick was a needless fifth defeat in a career of 56 wins, including victories over Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Ali turned professional after winning a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics and by 1967 he was undefeated World Heavyweight Champion with nine title defences under his belt.

But Ali was to prove himself much more than a great boxer. He became an icon many times over. A black icon. A civil rights icon. An anti-war icon. When he embraced Islam, shed his 'slave name' of Cassius Clay and refused to fight in Vietnam on religious grounds, the US authorities tried to crush him.

He was stripped of his titles, banned from boxing and prosecuted for dodging the draft. After being robbed of his best fighting years, he did the near impossible and won back the World Heavyweight title, with his bouts becoming global TV events.

But there was a price to pay for his miraculous second coming. The dancing Ali of the 1960s slowed in the 1970s and took more punishment as a consequence. In 1984 he revealed that he was suffering from Parkinson's Syndrome. It is widely believed that the beatings of his latter career were responsible. Tellingly, Trevor Berbick - who was murdered last month and his nephew charged - was forced to quit boxing when scans revealed a clot on the brain.

Ali, who turns 65 next month, is now wheeled in an electric buggy and is virtually mute, but he continues to travel the world as a goodwill ambassador for the UN. In 2003 he visited Dublin to meet the athletes in the Special Olympics.

Muhammad Ali's tragedy is that he just couldn't quit while he was ahead. His triumph is that, for millions around the world, he will always be The Greatest.

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