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Muhammad Ali: The Root of All Evil

By Geno McGahee

On October 2, 1980, defending WBC Heavyweight Champion, Larry Holmes, 35-0, 26 KO’s, was making his 8th title defense against returning former champion and ring legend, Muhammad Ali, 56-3, 37 KO’s.

Holmes lived in the shadow of Ali, known mostly as one of the better sparring partners that the self proclaimed “Greatest” used during preparation for his big fights. Holmes was often bet against by his own promoter, Don King, going into bouts but would always come out on top, but resentful toward the sport and fans that he felt slighted by.

The courage of Holmes was in question throughout his career due to a loss to Duane Bobick in the amateurs where he was stunned and didn’t react well. On a personal mission to stop the ridicule, Holmes took his career very seriously and would not be embarrassed again.

In 1978, Holmes would take on Earnie Shavers in a WBC Title Eliminator. It was a fight that many favored Shavers because of his devastating punch, but he was neutralized and the wide decision would go to “The Easton Assassin,” leading to his spirited title winning effort against Ken Norton. In an even fight, Holmes gave more, taking the final round and becoming the champion, but respect would not come easy.

Going into the Ali fight, Holmes was coming in with a full head of steam, with knockout wins over Mike Weaver and Shavers in a rematch that saw both fighters down. Ali had retired two years prior after regaining his title from Leon Spinks, but the lure of the fame and incredible fortune brought him back.

The fighters would split 10 million dollars. Eight of that would go to Ali and the remaining two to Holmes, because Ali was the draw. Despite the objections of many around Ali, he took the fight and began to train, but his sparring sessions were scary one-sided beatings. Ali couldn’t pull the trigger and when examined, failed on the reflexes test, which was something that he was most known for.

On top of taking beating after beating in sparring, Ali began taking thyroid medication for a condition that he did not have and he took far more than he was prescribed, losing weight quickly, but also losing any strength that he may have had.

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, a friend and corner man to Ali was very concerned, and had asked Ali to stop fighting after the “Thrilla in Manila,” the third encounter with Joe Frazier that went 14 agonizing and brutal rounds. It ruined both fighters. Ali continued and, to his credit, won against some good fighters like Jimmy Young and Earnie Shavers, but he was not the same fighter that he once was. Not even close.

In 1978, Ali took on the 6-0-1, Leon Spinks, and the lack of conditioning, advanced age, and lack of reflexes caught up with the champion, as he was outworked and defeated by the green Spinks. He would take the title back seven months later and leave the sport, but the giant ego and continual need for money brought him back when Don King came knocking.

King could not sell Holmes, but could absolutely sell Ali. He had promoted the defining fight for both Ali and himself in 1974 with the “Rumble in the Jungle” as Ali upset the undefeated George Foreman by TKO to regain the title. King would follow up with the promotion of an unlikely title defense against Chuck Wepner. Wepner had no chance to defeat Ali, but the story was the sale. The everyday man with a dream against the heavyweight champion, but the promotion failed, but Sly Stallone was inspired to create ROCKY. So, it wasn’t all bad.

The love/hate relationship between King and Ali continued. King used some of the stooges that would cling on to Ali to get to him often to maintain the relationship and get “The Greatest” to do what he wanted him to do. In 1980, he didn’t have to do much to convince him to come back, outside of the 8 million dollar paycheck.

The fight was set and Ali predicted a victory in nine rounds, something that he had done before, as Holmes struggled desperately to come up with poetry about the fight, but failed miserably. The fight wasn’t about predictions or poetry, but the fans got lost in the aura of Ali and began to believe that he had a chance to upset a prime Holmes.

Behind the scenes, Ali was taking vicious shots in sparring, many hitting his kidneys and he wasn’t able to return fire. He covered up and spoke to his sparring partner, giving the impression that he was playing with him. He told his trainer that he is using the strategy where he absorbs punishment in sparring to get accustomed to it so it won’t bother him inside of the ring. Considering that he was able to take some punishment from the much stronger George Foreman and come back strong, most believed him, but this wasn’t the same Ali.

When the press saw Ali at a fit 217 pounds, they were impressed. He looked like Ali of old, but the thyroid medication was mostly responsible for the low weight, and it was also responsible for him not being able to do more than four rounds of sparring at a time and the difficulty he had even breathing inside of the ring. He could have easily died against Holmes the night of the fight.

Fight night in Las Vegas on that October night was electric. One man fought for respect while the other fought for money and the hope that he could once again find the formula to upset an undefeated younger champion.

The opening bell rang and Holmes dominated the passive Ali and as the rounds went on, the punishment continued. It became a sad sight for many, watching a man that was a hero to them, get beaten continuously. Holmes, not being the biggest puncher in the world, actually hurt Ali, as he was unable to knock him to the floor. A bigger puncher would have turned out Ali’s lights, which would have been far less destructive in the long run.

The beating would end when Angelo Dundee saw enough and wouldn’t allow his fighter to take any more punishment, despite Bundini Brown’s protests. Brown was one of the most unsavory characters in the Ali camp, but he was able to suck up to the fighter enough to earn a place.

After the fight was stopped, Holmes returned to the locker room and sobbed. He has beaten up a man that he liked and respected, although he still considered it the passing of the torch and the ticket to the big leagues and to respect. It didn’t happen. People hated Holmes for beating up Ali and the resentment continued for the underrated and underappreciated champion.

Recently, Ferdie Pacheco made a statement that all involved with this fight should be held criminally liable, which is laughable. Pacheco also supported the relentless and cruel treatment of Joe Frazier, so we know he is rather blind when it comes to Ali. The only one to blame for the beating of Ali is Ali himself and his greed.

He didn’t take the bout for legacy. He didn’t take the bout because he was poor. He took the bout for the money and boxers take beatings every day for far less money. There should be no sympathy for Ali or criminal charges against anyone that organized the fight. It was a fight between a has been and a prime champion. It happens all the time and the end result is typically the same. It’s a sad sight to see a one time great pummeled, but the greats don’t go out any other way. They need to be convinced to leave, and Ali was…well sort of.

Amazingly, Ali would return to face Trevor Berbick one year later and lose a wide decision. Shortly after the Berbick fight, Ali would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and his deterioration would be publicly displayed. It’s terrible to see that happen to anyone, but when you look at the punches Ali took throughout his career, it was nearly inevitable.

Ali remained rich and famous despite the condition and Holmes amassed a fortune but still does not seem to get the respect he deserves. The fight with Ali did little for the career of Holmes and did more damage to an already damaged Ali. The love of money being the root of all evil is probably the best saying to apply to this fight and the end result.

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