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Better not sell the old man short

Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes title bout once figured to be a mismatch—it’ll be anything but

This story originally appeared in the Sept. 29, 1980 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.

The Terrible Table stands on shining aluminum legs that dig deep into the thick carpeting of Suite 301 of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The table, a three-by-seven-foot instrument of torture, like much of the decor in the suite, is a glaring orange, and it is on its shiny vinyl surface that Muhammad Ali, at the age of 38, will win—or lose—in his bid for an unprecedented fourth world heavyweight championship. The table is Ali’s rack, his Iron Maiden. On it he has torn down and rebuilt the body that had become so bloated during the past 25 months. Whatever happens on Oct. 2, when Ali meets Larry Holmes, the undefeated WBC heavyweight champion, in the specially erected $800,000 outdoor stadium at Caesars, one irrefutable fact will stand out: Ali, grossly out of shape only a few months ago, will be in better physical condition than at any time since he fought Joe Frazier in Manila in 1975. And in better physical and mental condition than at any time since he battled George Foreman in Zaire in 1974.

Once this figured to be the fight no one would want to see: Ali, flabby and floundering, would be stung into submission by the flashing jab of a man eight years younger; he would inevitably be hammered onto the canvas by a boxer who had 27 knockouts in 35 fights. It would be no more than a grotesque replay of the 28-year-old Rocky Marciano vs. the 37-year-old Joe Louis, of the tough young fighter against the venerated but vulnerable former champion whose comeback could end in nothing but the sad tolling of nine-ten-and-out.

It won’t happen that way.

From The Vault: Every Ali Cover Story

It is 6:15 a.m. and Ali, after a six-mile run alone across the Dunes Golf Course that began at 3:30, sits in the drawn-curtain half-light of his bedroom and watches a videotape replay of Holmes knocking out Mike Weaver—now the WBA champion—last year at Madison Square Garden. In the kitchen, Lana Shabazz yawns as she sets about preparing Ali’s breakfast: scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast and two large carafes of fruit juice. In the living room, asleep on a sofa near the Terrible Table, is Luis Sarria, the silent Cuban who directs Ali’s calisthenics and rubs him down.

As he watches the Holmes-Weaver fight, Ali speaks, at first softly: “When I was 256 pounds of fat and all out of shape and watching this film, I was worried. I didn’t know if I could do it. It was sooo strange. I asked myself: Can I do it? Can I make myself fast enough to beat this man? I was [his smile can be seen in the blue-white light of the TV set] worried. Very worried.”

A few days before, Ali had shaved the mustache that, together with a facial softening resulting from no exercise and too many sweets, had prematurely made him look middle-aged. Now his face is slim and firm. So is his body. It is as if he has turned the clock back to 1971, when he was 29.

“Look at that,” Ali, now shouting, remarks as he watches the two small figures pummeling each other on the screen. “Holmes is slow and wide open.” Ali’s left hand snakes out, jabbing and, before the eye can focus on it, cocking and jabbing again. “There! There is where I get him. Pop! Pop!” Leaping from the bed, Ali concentrates on the screen. “Pop! Pop! Bam!” The left flicks twice, quickly followed by a streaking right.

“Holmes is down!” Ali yells as he narrates the picture he sees in his mind. “Ali goes to a neutral corner ... seven, eight, nine, 10! And for the world-record-setting, never-to-be-broken fourth time, Muhammad Ali is the heavyweight champion of the world. I can see it happening. It’s there. Now that I got my weight down and I’m in shape, I know I can do it. Man, I got confidence. I can see it in my mind just as if it was happening right there on the screen. Look at that: Weaver is sooo slow, and Holmes is having trouble hitting him. Right now Holmes is tired. You got to walk to Holmes, just keep walking at him and make him work. He gets tired. Sooo tired. Man, I’ll eat him alive.”

Pumping jabs, Ali comes perilously close to flooring the TV set as he shouts, “Pow! Pow! Pow! I see it all now: He’s exhausted, it’s my fight now. Bam! The right hand over the tired jab. Look, he’s talking to Weaver. Well, he ain’t heard no talking like I’m going to talk to him. I’ll really talk to him. He’s no Liston. He’s no Foreman. He’s no Frazier. He’s only Larry Holmes, and he’s nothin’. He’s just the man between me and my fourth title, and I’m going to beat him so bad it’s going to be a total mismatch. Look at that,” he says, pointing toward the TV. “That’s awful. If I didn’t know Holmes, hadn’t seen all that publicity, I’d ask: Who’s that bum?”

In another wing of Caesars Palace, on a floor one story higher, Larry Holmes is lying face down on a light purple couch. The champion has complained of a slight soreness in his back, and Richie Giachetti, his burly trainer and co-manager, kneels as he massages ointment into Holmes’s thick, distinctly defined latissimus dorsi muscles.

On the floor, his feet stuck under one end of the curved couch, is Jake Holmes, the champion’s older brother, who is sweating through 35 sit-ups. A short, powerful man, Jake has a weight problem, which leads to training camp bets with his brother. So far during training for the Ali fight, Jake has dropped 28 pounds, putting him at a trim 198 and leaving him $200 heavier in the wallet. Another 18 pounds would earn him a $10,000 bonus. “Only way I can get that low,” Jake moans, “would be to cut off a leg.”

“Might not be enough,” observes the champion. He winks at Giachetti.

A knock at the door cuts short the repartee. It’s room service. A liveried waiter, in obvious awe, wheels in a cart carrying Holmes’s breakfast: scrambled eggs, three slices of ham, toast and a couple of carafes of fruit juice.

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“What’s that stuff on top of the juice?” Jake asks suspiciously.

“Pulp,” says the waiter, who is busy getting two autographs from the champion. “It is fresh squeezed.”

Holmes shifts to a sitting position and begins to eat, not as if he’s hungry but as if he’s performing an act dictated by the time of day. There is growing concern that he will enter the ring in the same mood. For certain, Holmes wants to beat Ali, to beat him badly, and to that end he has trained long and arduously. But the fierce compulsion that drove him to become the heavyweight champion may have become diluted, not so much by his success as by his maturation from a tough junior high dropout to a respected businessman-benefactor in his hometown of Easton, Pa. Additional fame and fortune have little appeal for Holmes. The change has clearly left him more of a man, but perhaps less of a fighter.

Since winning the championship from Ken Norton in June of 1978, Holmes hasn’t been in against anyone who came within a long ton of his class. Yet, both Weaver and Earnie Shavers—one no more than a muscular journeyman, the other well past his prime—almost toppled him from his hard-won throne. In each instance only Holmes’s great courage and pride brought him back from defeat: a rally after Shavers dropped him in the seventh round that resulted in an 11th-round TKO of Shavers and a return from lethargy against Weaver that had the same result in the 12th round.

“There’s something very wrong with Holmes,” says Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer for 19 years. “It’s physiological. I don’t know what it is, but after seven or eight rounds he runs out of gas. He has nothing left. It’s the George Foreman thing. But then, like Foreman, he’s only an earthling. People fail to understand that: Muhammad Ali is Muhammad Ali, and compared to him all other men are mere earthlings.”

But in confronting mere earthlings Ali can call upon only three weapons: a stinging left jab, a righthand counter over the top of his opponent’s jab and the mystique of being Ali. The last is the most powerful weapon in this limited arsenal.

“Bull,” growls Holmes, almost spilling his orange juice. “To me Ali is not God, but godless. Not Superman. Not a miracle worker. He’s a human being, just like you and me. He got his weight down, and he thinks that will make him young again. Well, it won’t. Ali can’t turn back the clock; no one can. And look at who he beat. Frazier was a midget. Foreman a robot. [Floyd] Patterson a rabbit. [Archie] Moore was old. [Cleveland] Williams old. [Sonny] Liston old. Just about everybody he fought was old. Now he’s going to find out how it feels to be an old man fighting a good, fast young man. I really believe I’ll knock him out. I have a great deal of respect for myself. I know what I can do. And I know what he will do—and I’m ready for it.”

What Ali intends to do is fight in flurries lasting a maximum of 30 or 40 seconds. The rest of the time Ali must rest and marshal his reconstituted body to wring another burst of 29-year-old power from muscles that have lived another decade. And all the time, fighting or resting, he must keep Holmes busy. The strategy is to keep the champ working until he tires, as he has in recent fights. Then, about the ninth or 10th round, Ali will throw that stunning right counter over a wearied jab and it will end. If it doesn’t, no matter. Ali, fighting for another title at an age when a lot of cops and firemen are thinking of their pensions, can go 15 rounds. Like a wild horse, he’ll keep going until he drops. But to avoid an early fall, he must not only control his own pace but dictate Holmes’s as well.

“Holmes expects me to run, to grab and hold,” says Ali. “The man is in for a surprise. I am going to win the first four or five rounds and then he’s going to get scared and make a mistake. Holmes can’t come from behind. He panics. If he panics against me, the right hand will end it. If he doesn’t panic, it won’t matter. I’ll win the early rounds, he can have the middle rounds if he earns them, but the late rounds will be mine because he’ll be too tired to do anything more than try to survive.”

Panic and too much regard for the Ali mystique are what Holmes must avoid. Holmes is a superior boxer. He could do some things as a preliminary fighter that Ali never tried to do as a champion. His jab is as good as Ali’s, perhaps better. That classic weapon is what Holmes’s reputation is built on. But because his jab is so quick and powerful, it has tended to obscure the fact that Holmes has a repertoire of effective combinations. He can throw combinations that Ali may not have had thrown at him. And certainly Holmes’s hook is far superior, if for no other reason than that Ali throws a hook about as often as Halley’s Comet emblazons the sky. “I don’t hook,” says Ali. “It leaves me open to a right hand. I don’t like getting hit by right hands.”

As well he might. Holmes’s right hand can be devastating. The question is: Can Holmes throw the right hand, or a hook, when it will finish a fighter? Against Shavers last year, Holmes repeatedly begged Shavers to retire honorably, on his feet. As Shavers staggered about the ring, Holmes pleaded, “Earnie, quit. I’m afraid I’m going to hurt you bad.”

“Screw you,” Shavers snarled back. “You’re making a million dollars. Fight!”

And Holmes needed almost four rounds from the time he regained control of the bout to stop the stumbling Shavers.

With his ability as a finisher in question, it becomes all the more imperative that Holmes devise a strategy that will prevent Ali from setting the tempo of the fight. When Ali goes into his rope-a-dope to rest, which he will do frequently, Holmes must not wear himself out banging uselessly against Ali’s protective shell of arms. He must take a step to either side and then unleash his potent hook to the kidneys to make Ali lower his guard. That was how Spinks won the title in his first fight with Ali.

And Holmes must have an answer to Ali’s habit of grabbing an opponent behind the neck and pulling his head strongly downward. He did it 137 times in his second, victorious fight with Frazier. While to onlookers this maneuver appears to be only annoying, part of Ali’s disdainful ring showmanship, in fact it tends over the course of several rounds to paralyze the vertebrae of an opponent’s neck as he bucks and twists to free himself. The tactic subtly wears a man down. It’s innocuous enough at first, when it causes just the neck to tighten up. But as the rounds go by, the weariness spreads from the beleaguered neck to the arms, then the legs, and eventually even a superbly conditioned body rebels against the need to maintain balance while trying to press forward.

“I hope he tries that,” says Holmes, finishing off a piece of toast. “He grabs my neck and I’ll kill his kidneys.”

The rope-a-dope?

“Then I’ll show you a dope on the rope.” Standing, Larry uses Jake to demonstrate how he’ll attack Ali. He loops wide hooks to the lower back, he fires a quick right uppercut and then hooks to the temple with his left. “The uppercut turns his head and sets up the chin and the temple area for the left hook,” Holmes explains. “This is where you hit Ali: high on the side of the head in the area of the temple. That’s what’ll get him. That, and moving side to side and hooking to his kidneys.”

The demonstration complete, Holmes resumes his breakfast. For a moment he appears deep in thought; then: “This is not only Ali’s last hurrah, but it could be mine, too. If I lose this fight, I might never fight again.”

To the observer, it seems the thought of never fighting again doesn’t disturb Holmes, an impression reinforced by the champion’s next words. “I traveled with Ali as a sparring partner and I saw all the things I thought I wanted,” he says, speaking as much to himself as to those in the room. “But now I’ve got all those things, and I’ve learned that they aren’t as important as I once thought they were. Sure, I want to beat Ali, to finally get the recognition that I'm the real champ. But I’m not crazy about the limelight. I get up in the morning, I want to be alone. I go out to dinner, I want to be alone. This Ali fight has given me more publicity than I’ve ever had, more than I want. I belong to the public, but I belong to myself, too.”

Holmes leaves part of his breakfast on the table. Hunger—for food or fame or even fortune—is no longer the driving force in his life.

It is the following morning, and Ali, draped with a white bath towel, is lying belly down on the Terrible Table. Lloyd Wells, the keeper of the calisthenics log, is reading aloud newspaper stories about the upcoming fight. Ali half listens as he watches Today on television. Wells finishes a story written by Tommy Lopez in The Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“That it?” Ali asks.

“Yeah,” says Wells as he turns through the sports pages. “Wait, here is a story where Don King picks Holmes to win.”

“Read it,” Ali orders.

“... King said, ‘Father Time has caught up with Ali. Yesterday’s champ will not be today’s champ....’”

There is an angry look on Ali’s face and he suddenly rolls over on his back. With a grunt Ali does his first sit-up of the day. There are 13 cruel variations of the exercise that have been given names like the Belly Buster, the Scissors Mambo, the Leg Spin, the Bo Bo Circle and, the worst, the Green Bay Packer Run-’Em-Out-of-Camp Rock.

It was to the Terrible Table that Ali went to get into condition to destroy Spinks in their second fight more than two years ago. For that one he did 8,024 sit-ups in 39 days. “What was the one-day record for Spinks?” Ali asks after his 42nd Belly Buster.

Wells looks up from the purple ledger he uses to record each day’s work. “It was 517,” he says.

“I’ll beat that today,” says Ali, as he resumes driving his body back through the years. The total for this day will be 536 sit-ups. It is Ali’s 39th day of serious training, and his sit-up total is already 10,000, even. There are still 22 days until the fight with Holmes.

On the afternoon of this day, Ali also boxes 36 straight minutes without rest, using seven sparring partners. He weighs 224 pounds, and the rolls of fat that jiggled through his most recent fights have disappeared. He’s 29 again.

The betting had opened with Holmes favored 3–1 and had dropped to 2–1. On the day Ali sparred nonstop for more than a half-hour, the odds were 9–5. The next day they dipped to 8–5. “The odds are dropping like my waistline,” says Ali with a laugh. Then his voice hardens and the words come as darts. “They say I’m going to get hurt. When did I ever get hurt? They say I got brain damage. Liver damage. They all lied. I spent three days at the Mayo Clinic. They stuck wires in me; I looked like Frankenstein’s monster. I passed every test. Look how pretty I talk. How could I have brain damage? I’ll show those lying....”

For Ali, this 60th professional fight, for which he’ll receive $8 million, is The Big One. Again. That’s all he needs. It has been said that he has made a critical mistake by not having a tune-up. The simple truth is that he probably couldn’t beat any other decent heavyweight because any other heavyweight would be, to him, meaningless. Ali has always had a problem walking up a gently sloping hill, but he can race up a mountain.

“I’m the underdog,” he bellows happily. “God, I love it. Just tell me I can’t do something. Tell me it’s impossible. Tell me I’m not the greatest.”

Put it all in a computer and the winner comes out Holmes. He’s a superb champion, he’s eight years younger than Ali and he’s in excellent condition. In the last two years he has had seven fights to Ali’s none. He’s unbeaten.

There’s just one thing that he isn’t: he isn’t Muhammad Ali. No other earthling could be.