Sunday, 1 October 2017

Muhammad Ali: Shadow of a boxer

Muhammad Ali, at right, taking a jab from heavyweight
champion Larry Holmes in the 1r 1980 fight
He may have floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, but by the time the 1980s rolled around Muhammad Ali was just a shadow of the champion he once was.

When I heard he had passed away, I was saddened by his loss, but reminded of the last, sad years of his career.

Opening bell
The first time I saw Ali fight was back in 1978, in an era when fights were still on regular TV. He was defending his heavyweight championship against Leon Spinks. My outstanding memory of Ali was how he was extremely defensive, holding his gloves to cover his face while Spinks was clearly the aggressor.

I was cheering for Ali at the time, because he was the champion I guess, but he was clearly not the better fighter. He lost that fight by decision, and with it his heavyweight championship.

We watched “Eight is Enough” right after that, because the fight went late. That’s what I remember – Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks, and Dick Van Patten.

There was a rematch but I never saw it. I think it was televised, but I was doing something else. I was glad to hear Ali had learned his lesson. He came out swinging and took back his heavyweight championship.

It was all downhill from there.

Holmes is were the heart is
Ali retired after winning the heavyweight championship for an unprecedented third time. In the meantime, Larry Holmes beat Ken Norton for the title, and established himself as champion.

Motivated, in part by money, Ali launched a title challenge, coming out of retirement to face Holmes for the heavyweight championship.

The three-time champ and current challenger had nothing left. Holmes completely took over the fight, winning every round on every scorecard, when Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee stopped the fight in the 11th round. It was Oct. 2, 1980, and the decade had not started well for Ali.

Muhammad Ali, at right, taking a shot from Canadian and Commonwealth
heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick in 1981.
It was Ali's last fight, a 10-round loss by unanimous decision
With a whimper, not a bang
Still unable to come to terms with retirement, and dreaming he could become the first four-time heavyweight champion, Ali fought one last time, and it was not the way to conclude such a storied career.

He travelled to Nassau, the Bahamas to fight Canadian and Commonwealth heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick, who was ranked fourth by the World Boxing Association and would go on to be a World Boxing Council heavyweight champion. It was Dec. 11, 1981 and Ali came in not in the best shape, 18 pounds heavier and 12 years older than his 28-year-old opponent. Berbick went the distance with the former three-time champion and beat him in a 10-round unanimous decision one month short of Ali's 40th birthday.

Muhammad Ali said afterwards that was it – and it was. He had fought his last fight.

Parting thoughts
It is unfortunate Muhammad Ali even made it to the 1980s. He had such a storied career – epic struggles with the best boxers of his generation such as Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, and Sonny Liston. He had beaten them all, taken a beating from many of them, and provided countless memorable moments for boxing fans.

He could have easily rode off into the sunset after regaining his title from Leon Spinks. There is no better crowning achievement to a career than doing something no one else had.

Ali had just become the first ever three-time heavyweight champion. What a way to end it.

Instead, he felt the need to come back. When he did, he was not the same fighter, and lost all the fights he had in the 1980s.

It is unfortunate. He was a shadow of the boxer he once was.

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