'Muhammad Ali aged young because of the beatings he took'
Muhammad Ali aged prematurely owing to the punishment he took during his boxing career and "never knowing when to quit", his sparring partner, opponent and friend Larry Holmes, the former world heavyweight champion, said yesterday.
Holmes, world heavyweight champion between 1978 and 1985, who made 20 successful title defences and who fought Ali in 1980, said in an emotional interview from his home in the United States: "May his soul rest in peace, because he had a battle to fight for many years."
It has often been suggested that Ali may have been suffering symptoms of his long-standing illness by the time he fought Holmes in Las Vegas, with his speed and reflexes having already gone.
"Did Muhammad Ali not know when to stop? Did he not know when to stop taking the punches? Did he go on too long? I'll answer all of them," said Holmes of Ali, who died in the early hours of Saturday, aged 74.
"People won't like me for this, they'll say, 'You're jealous of him, you envy him'. But I don't. I loved that man.
"Number one: he did not know when to stop taking punches and he never knew when to quit. Boxing is about 'hit and don't be hit'. What happens is your mind makes a date your body can't keep and you have to learn to accept that.
"Ali aged young, but only because of the beatings over the years. They made him old before his time.
"Three fights with Joe Frazier, one with George Foreman, three with Ken Norton, those fights would have killed most people. He got hit and hit and hit - and hit in training, too.
"You don't take punches in the side of the head to prove how tough you are. I started working with Ali in 1971. I trained with him for four years as a sparring partner and he tried to prove every day how strong he was, taking punches to the head, to the body, to the head, to the body.
"I told him, 'Don't take no punches, the body is not made for punching.' And he took 'em.
"But I didn't hit him like that.
"Frazier, Foreman, Norton, they hit him hard like that. They wanted to hurt him - badly. Frazier didn't like him. Ali called him 'ignorant' and so on, but Ali had his way of trying to throw you off your key, off your game.
"And that's what he did. Frazier has gone, Norton has gone, now Ali has gone. Only me and Foreman are left now."
Holmes recalled Ali's kindness.
"I asked him to do me a favour. He went to a school for me, to the local prison and he came to say 'hi' to my mom. He never asked for anything in return. When I was working for him as a sparring partner, at the end of each week he would pay me. Sometimes there was a bonus of a few thousand dollars.
"I went all over the world with him. I went to Zaire with him, to London. He and I became very good friends. I saw him several months ago at the Hall of Fame and he didn't look too good. He didn't walk, he didn't talk, he was shaking a lot."
Theirs was the golden era, asserted Holmes.
"The new heavyweights aren't the same," he said. "I went to school with professors of boxing: Ali, Frazier, Norton, Foreman. These guys today are not. I don't want to knock them but I wouldn't buy a ticket to watch them, they'd have to give me tickets."
Holmes, recalling his fight with Ali on Oct 2, 1980, at Caesar's Palace, believes his opponent needed the money.
Ali had come out of retirement in an attempt to become the first four-time world heavyweight champion and already had slurred speech.
Holmes dominated, winning every round on every scorecard. At the end of the 10th round, Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, stopped the fight.
"When I was offered a fight with him, I wanted to do it to make money," explained Holmes. "I didn't care who I fought.
"It was difficult for him to fight me. I knew I could stop him. I knew what he didn't have and I knew what I had in me and knew he wouldn't beat me.
"When I retired at 52, I knew my time was up. I chose who to fight at the end and not get hurt. Mike Tyson knocked me out. I knew where I was at the count of four or five. I wasn't in good shape and I knew if I got up he was going to knock me out again, so I took the money and went home."
There is a time to retire, insisted Holmes, and Ali did not recognise that moment. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to make you understand when someone is messing with you," he said.
"Never mind how tough Ali said he was, every time he took a punch and he shook his head like it didn't hurt him, they were hard punches and they did hurt him. People might get mad at me for saying it, but had he not taken all those punches, he would not have been like he was. But I love Muhammad Ali. They don't make them like him any more. We were part of a special generation.
"I feel very sad that he has gone. We went from sparring partners, to opponents, to friends. I miss him.
"Ali did so many great things. He was good for boxing. He was good for America. He was good for black people. He stood up and would not be held down. He was a friend, a good father. That was my guy."