It’s an anniversary that most fight fans would rather forget.
On October 2, 1980, Larry Holmes, making the eighth defense of the WBC heavyweight title he won from Ken Norton two years earlier, picked the wings off “The Butterfly” at a temporary arena erected outside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Despite Holmes frequently and charitably holding back on his offense, the 38-year-old Muhammad Ali was passive throughout, and a capacity crowd of some 24,370 fans that hoped to witness a great fight found themselves at a heavyweight championship funeral. Angelo Dundee, Ali’s longtime chief second, closed the casket at the end of Round 10.
Amazingly – or alarmingly – Ali managed to get licensed for one more bout, “The Drama in Bahama” against Canadian brawler Trevor Berbick in December 1981. The former three-time heavyweight champion and living legend performed better – due largely to the fact that he was in with Berbick and not Holmes – but he still dropped a 10-round unanimous decision to a man that he would have outclassed with ease in his heyday. It was an ignominious ending to a glorious 21-year professional career.
Ali’s health declined quite rapidly and less than three years later he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome. Sixty-one professional fights; many of them classic wars, hundreds of rounds of sparring and a propensity to play out the legendary rope-a-dope routine over and over and over again took a nightmarish toll on arguably the greatest sportsman that ever lived.
“To be honest, I saw it coming,” said Larry Holmes, who was employed as Ali’s sparring partner between 1971 and 1975. “I knew Ali, I was around him, and he didn’t want to stop, he just kept fighting. I would say, ‘Man, you need to stop taking all these punches’ and he would say, ‘shut the hell up!’ or ‘get the hell out!’ That’s just the way he was in later years.