This story originally appeared in the Oct. 13, 1980 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Round I had ended, and Muhammad Ali, slumped on the stool in his corner, knew then what the world would soon discover. The recently regained body beautiful was no more than a clever counterfeit. Ali was a Ferrari without an engine, a Rolex with the works missing. There was nothing inside. As Ali sat half listening to trainer Angelo Dundee, sadly he understood that the career that had burst so brilliantly into being 20 years earlier at the Olympics in Rome would end this night in humiliation and defeat in a Las Vegas parking lot.
The fight—if Ali’s painful performance against WBC champion Larry Holmes last Thursday in a temporary stadium erected by Caesars Palace can be called a fight—would continue for another nine rounds. But Ali, betrayed by a body that no longer obeyed the commands of his ego, knew after but three minutes of fighting that there would be no fourth heavyweight title; there would be no miracle. As others had before him, he had come back one time too many.
Ali would say later, “All I could think of after the first round was, ‘Oh, God, I still have 14 rounds to go.’ I had nothing. Nothing. I knew it was hopeless. I knew I couldn’t win and I knew I’d never quit. I looked across at Holmes and knew he would win but that he was going to have to kill me to get me out of the ring.”
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Ali, who would be sitting on that same stool 35 minutes later as Dundee signaled surrender before the start of the 11th round, did not come into the ring old and fat; he came in old and—for him—thin. Too thin. A blubbery 256 pounds just a few months ago, at the weigh-in the day before the fight he had balanced the scale at 217 1/2 pounds. And with his graying hair dyed black, to outward appearances he had wiped away 10 years. But while no one knew for certain then, this was to be his final victory. He had won the battle of the bulge but it had cost him—if indeed he had ever had any chance—the war. He had gained sleekness at the cost of strength and endurance. It was as though he had trained for a beauty contest and not for a fight.
As Keith Kleven, Holmes’s physical therapist, explained: “Getting his weight down, looking fit and trim, became an obsession with him. He thought if his weight came down everything else would fall into place. He lost at least 37 pounds in a very short period. He went too far. When you lose so much so fast, after such a dramatic change in diet and physical activity, there is a drastic change in the function of the body’s enzymes. Instead of losing fat, you begin to deplete muscle substance. Strength and stamina are lost. It wouldn’t have mattered either way, but against Larry the old man was merely a shell of his former self.”
Four weeks before the fight, as Holmes trained in his hometown of Easton, Pa., for a brief time it had looked as if it wouldn't matter if Ali weighed 217, 256 or 300 pounds. That was on the day the champion threw a right against sparring partner LeRoy Diggs and felt pain searing through his hand. It was the same hand he had broken in a bout with Roy Williams in 1976.
Holmes was rushed to the hospital, where X-rays showed there was no fracture this time. Still, there was this terrible pain. The punch had caused a severe bone bruise and soft-tissue trauma in the carpal bones of the wrist and the metacarpal bone junction just above the thumb. After consulting with Holmes’s manager-trainer Richie Giachetti, Kleven treated the fighter’s hand three times a day for two weeks. He also devised a foam cast that the champion wore under the tape on the hand during his workouts.
“And he wore the cast at night,” said Jake Holmes, the champion’s older brother. “Then we’d take it off in the morning before any reporters showed up. The hand hurt Larry but it kept improving, and we didn’t want people making a lot more out of it than it really was.”
When Holmes arrived in Las Vegas for his final three weeks of training, there was no visible evidence that he was in anything but excellent physical condition. He worked harder for Ali than for any previous opponent. He ran more, sparred more. In Easton, part of his roadwork was on a hill that soared nine-tenths of a mile almost straight up. In Las Vegas his route was out where the desert grades upward toward the mountains. Most mornings he ran five miles at a seven-minute pace. Every morning he ran with grim determination.
During sparring, Holmes worked over his hired hands with savage intensity, and when he was done he had boxed 210 rounds. “He was averaging 75 punches a round,” said Giachetti. “I counted rounds as high as 95. Now you know why he pays his sparring partners $1,000 a week and offers them a $10,000 bonus if they can knock him down. When Ali spars he’s playing; when Larry spars he’s all business.”
While “playing” on an afternoon 11 days before the fight, which would earn him $8 million, Ali, too, had experienced a sharp pain, in his left arm. He had pulled a muscle. The following morning several members of Ali’s staff went to the Desert Springs Hospital and tried to purchase an ultrasound machine and a muscle stimulator. They were asked if they had the required licenses to operate them.
“We'll pay any price,’ was the reply. “Just give us the machines.’
As has been his habit for years, Dundee, who has trained Ali since his second professional fight, arrived for the final stages of the former champion’s training. Dundee watched and he frowned, and then he watched some more and he began to worry. He saw the flat stomach and he was impressed, but everything else he saw left him depressed.
While sipping coffee in his room, Dundee put his fear into words. “The gym,” he said, “did you see him in the gym?”
“Yeah, he was doing nothing. Those sparring partners were all over him.”
“It's not that,” Dundee said. “Ali hasn’t won a round in the gym since I’ve known him. He’s the worst gym fighter in the world. But he always showed me flashes: 10 seconds, 15 seconds. Out there I begged him: show me something. Just show me a little. It wasn’t there. He didn’t have anything to show.”
In Room 301 of the same hotel Ali was once again—perhaps for the 100th time, or it could have been the 1,000th—watching a TV tape of Holmes’s lackluster but winning fight against current WBA champion Mike Weaver. Of all the fights Ali could have picked to study, this showed Holmes at his worst. Holmes had been ill from a virus that would have put most men in bed when he stepped into the ring against Weaver. An hour before the fight he was injected with a double dose of antibiotics. It was a miracle he could walk, much less fight.
When the tape ended, Ali stared at the flickering light. Then he said, “I got to go out and win the first five rounds to win the judges, to win the people. I’ve got to go right out and attack him, then stick and move. That’s why I lost to Spinks. I lost the first four rounds and I never got them back. I can’t lose this fight. I’ve shot off my big mouth too much. If I lose, the press will tear me up. You don't think I can lose, do you?”
The question hung in the air like the blade of a guillotine.
Gene Kilroy, the administrative aide who brings some semblance of order to the madness of Ali’s tumultuous entourage, finally sliced the silence. “It's no contest,” said Kilroy. “You’ll eat him alive.”
Satisfied, Ali went on, “I've got myself to the point where I’m so psyched, it’s either life or death. I’m a Kamikaze pilot. Holmes is only thinking about his little kids, his big house, his wife and his swimming pool. All I’m thinking about is winning.”
On a large mirror on one wall of Suite 4520 in Caesars Palace, Holmes had indeed taped up a huge hand-printed sign that said FIRST: MY WIFE, MY CHILDREN, MY FAMILY. MY HOUSE. P.S. MY POOL.
Over it was a picture of his wife Diane and his six-month-old daughter Kandy, and just to the right of this list of priorities, on purple art board, was an architect’s drawing of the home Holmes is having built in Easton. On another wall was a small picture of Ali. Luis Rodriquez, Holmes’s press representative and friend, had blackened both of Ali’s eyes with dark ink—an accurate prophecy.
Less than 48 hours before the fight, Holmes, his hand healed, and now weighing a fit 211 1/2 pounds, sat in the suite with Kandy planted on his hard left thigh. She gurgled a sentence and Holmes laughed as he translated. “She just said I was going to whip Ali,” he said.
Then the smile was gone; the moment became serious. “I hear that Ali was in his room at 5 a.m. watching films of my fight while I was sleeping,” Holmes said. “Why? Because he’s worried and he can’t sleep. We talked last night. We made a deal. We are going to meet in the center of the ring and we are going to fight until one of us drops. I’m not mad at him. In fact, I find him amusing. He makes me laugh. I’m a nice guy outside of the ring. But no one should mistake my kindness for weakness.” Holmes’s voice dropped and hardened. “In the ring I am a different person. All I’ve heard since I’ve been fighting is Ali, Ali, Ali. I’m sick of being compared to him. If Ali killed me in the ring I wouldn’t care. All I want to do is go out there and get the monkey off my back. I want to get him out of there as fast as I can. If I can knock him out with my first punch, then that is what I am going to do.”
Despite an unseasonably hot spell in Las Vegas, the night of the fight was relatively cool. No wind had been predicted, but a slight breeze had come up from the northeast, wafting refreshingly through the 24,790-seat open arena. At 8:07 p.m., Ali came into the ring. His face was grim. Seven minutes later, Holmes, appearing even more grim, followed him.
Then Ali and his sidekick Drew (Bundini) Brown went into their act. The sellout crowd, which had paid a record $6,200,000, began to chant, “Ali! Ali! Ali!” Grim no longer, Ali lunged as though to attack Holmes but was restrained by Dundee and Assistant Trainer Wali Youngblood. “I want you,” Ali screamed at the champion, who stonily ignored him. As Jake Holmes held up his brother’s green championship belt in answer to the crowd’s chants, Bundini charged toward Jake, who would probably go off at even money against a tank. There was a flurry of bumps and shoves and shouts, and subsequently Bundini decided to harass Holmes from a distance.
As the Ali-Bundini act swirled toward madness, Holmes, continuing to ignore them both, walked over to the box of resin dust. Ali tried to block his way. Holmes shoved him aside. “I just wanted to show him I wasn’t there to clown around,” Holmes said later. “I was there to fight.”
Finally, Referee Richard Green, who was getting fed up with the crowd scene, yelled to Dundee, “I'm going to have them ring the bell.”
“Please do,” said Dundee.
But Bundini wasn’t finished. “I want to bet $500,” he screamed at the Holmes camp.
“You got it,” said Giachetti, getting to him before Jake. The two men shook hands to seal the wager, and with that sanity reappeared. The ring was quickly cleared, and the fight was on.
Holmes came out with a rush, and Ali tried to fend him off with a wild looping right that missed. Holmes introduced him to his jab, which is a ripping weapon, fired hard and true, and is more damaging than most fighters’ hooks. Then he hooked Ali to the temple and drilled a right to the head. The tempo was set; the final chapter of a legend was being written under the darkened Nevada sky.
Ali’s jab, so brilliant in the past, was no more than a tired push. It was both little used and useless. In the first round he hit Holmes with one solid right hand over a jab. “A-li! A-li! A-li!” In the second round he scored with two rights. “A-li! A-li! A-li!” But even the chant seemed to have lost some of its fervor, its hope. From that point on there was nothing, only a condemned man waiting to be summoned from his cell.
But Giachetti was taking no chances. When Holmes came back to the corner after the second round, Giachetti said, “Did you see that right hand? That's all he's got.”
“I saw it,” Holmes assured his manager. “I saw it and I said, ‘Oh-oh, I better take a step back and get serious.’ ”
“Well, that's the punch I warned you about.”
What they didn’t know was that Ali didn’t have another right hand in his arsenal. He was through. All he had left was his mouth. After taking a beating in the third round, Ali followed Holmes to his corner shouting insults. The referee grabbed Ali and pushed him toward his corner. “You're scared to death,” Jake Holmes yelled at the retreating ex-champion. Larry Holmes took no notice.
By the fourth round Ali, an exhausted man trying to survive, had an ugly bruise under his left eye.
After the fourth round Giachetti told Holmes to work Ali into the middle of the ring. “The ropes are the only thing holding him up,” Giachetti said. “Get him out where he can fall down.”
Over in Ali’s corner Dundee was begging his man to fight. “I was trying to pump him up,” Dundee would say later. “But you can’t pump up what isn’t there. You can’t get water out of a dry well.”
It had almost ended in the fourth. Near the end of the round Holmes caught Ali with a vicious right hook to the kidneys. Ali’s knees began to buckle. Holmes thought the fight would end at that moment: “When the hook hit him he moaned and started to fall. Then all of a sudden he jerked himself up. His damn pride just wouldn't let him fall. There’s not another man on earth who would have been on his feet after that punch.”
Ali fought the fifth and sixth rounds like a man in a semi-daze. He was continually blinking as though trying to clear his head. When he wasn’t blinking, he just stared, as if trying to make out a figure moving swiftly through a fog. The figure was Holmes, firing bursts: lefts through Ali’s upheld hands, then thudding jabs down to the midsection. But after each brutal flurry, the champion would step back as though reluctant to go on battering this man who once was his idol and would not fall.
In the seventh, seemingly rejuvenated, Ali came out dancing, firing the jab, stirring hope in the hearts of the sentimental. But it was only the final gasp of a man who knows his difficult craft well but doesn’t know how to surrender. Ali fired 18 straight jabs; the first 17 missed. He danced for a minute and 15 seconds ... and then almost fell from exhaustion. After that, Ali didn’t throw a single meaningful punch. It was as close as Ali would come to winning a round.
After the eighth round Dundee warned Ali that if he didn’t start fighting, the referee was going to stop it. In the ninth Holmes hit Ali with a quick, tight right hook and followed with a stunning right uppercut. Held up by the ropes, Ali turned his back on Holmes and, cowering, covered his eyes with his gloves. It was almost unbearable to watch.
The fight should have been stopped then. But when Green hesitated, Holmes moved in for the finish. With tremendous will Ali forced himself away from the ropes and—with the crowd imploring “A-li!
A-l ! A-li!”—survived the round.
Barely able to stagger back to his corner, with ugly bruises under both eyes, Ali slumped onto the stool. “This is your last round,” Dundee told him. “One more round and then I’m going to stop it.”
There was no response.
When the bell rang for the 10th, Ali forced himself to his feet and staggered forward. Holmes was on him quickly: four jabs, a right, a hook, two jabs, a hook to the kidneys, a three-punch combination almost too fast to follow, and then a barrage that probably would have destroyed half of the heavyweight division. Incredibly, Ali was still on his feet.
And then the fight started in Ali’s corner. “That's it!” Dundee screamed at Green. “It’s over.” Bundini, tears streaming down his cheeks, clawed at Dundee’s sweater and begged, “No, one more round, one more round.”
“Take your goddam hands off me,” Dundee snarled. “He can’t take any more. He’s defenseless. Get the hell away from me. I’m the boss here. It’s over.”
On his stool Ali lifted his head as though to protest; instead he slowly let his head fall. He said not a word.
The furor was over nothing. Green said later that if Dundee hadn’t stopped it, he would have.
When he realized that the fight was over, Holmes, tears in his eyes, rushed across the ring and embraced Ali and kissed him on the cheek. “I love you,“ Holmes said. “I really respect you. I hope we’ll always be friends. Your house or my house, if you ever need me for anything, just call and I’ll be there.”
Slowly they led Ali from the ring to a nearby trailer that had served as his dressing room. He said he just wanted to lie down for a moment. Then Kilroy ordered a limousine to drive the battered fighter the few hundred yards back to the hotel. Upstairs in his suite they asked him if he wanted to undress and take a shower.
“No,” Ali said slowly. “I think I just want to lie down and rest for a little while.”
Within half an hour, Holmes and his brother Jake came to the suite and went into the darkened bedroom.
“Are you O.K., champ?” Holmes asked. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”
“Then why did you?” Ali asked, laughing softly.
Holmes hesitated; then, “One thing is really bothering me. They say I thumbed you. The referee came over in the third round and said your corner said I was thumbing you. Now don’t jive me. Did I thumb you?”
“No,” said Ali. “You didn't thumb me. I don’t know why they said that. I don’t know, Larry, something was wrong with me. Either I was too old or I was too light.”
“Both,” said Holmes. “Now I want you to promise me one thing: that you will never fight again.”
In the darkness Ali began the low chant that had been heard so often in the weeks preceding their bout: “I want Holmes. I want Holmes. I want Holmes.”
“Oh, Lord,” said Holmes, laughing. “Jake, let’s get out of here.”
Only a few hours later, at 4 a.m. Las Vegas time, Ali, his puffed and blackened eyes concealed by dark glasses, was up and being interviewed by David Hartman on Good Morning America. “Next I want to fight Mike Weaver, the WBA champion,” Ali said.
Oh, Lord! World, let’s get out of here.