In 2011, ESPN The Magazine was trying to figure out its role in the universe. The brain trust had been rolling out some special edition issues, focusing on some giants of the sporting industry.
The Dale Earnhardt one did well, and they moved forward with a Muhammad Ali one. I furnished a story, my pal George Kimball did, others were asked to submit articles. The stand alone special was finished. And then it sat. And sat more.
Word trickled down, it will run when The Greatest is gone.
I didn’t love that plan. It was a switcheroo, and while not macabre, exactly, I was slightly amused by the theory that I could see Ali outliving the people who made the decision to commission then work and then hold it. Looking back, I think I was affected by the death of Kimball, that summer. He influenced my entry into the fightwriting sphere and I was his “editor” at The Sweet Science website, though I never changed a word he sent me.
So…Ali fought his Parkinson’s with the same verve he did Liston and Frazier and Foreman. But his time called and he exited the stage on June 3, 2016.
ESPN Mag is honoring Ali with an issue largely devoted to GOAT, and it hits newsstands and Kindles Friday. Some material from the standalone was used, much not, because, among other reasons, writers had died, and that material really couldn’t be properly fact checked.
Here’s the story I wrote for the shelved Ali special, titled, “Time Beats Ali.”
Muhammad Ali walked to the ring for his final ring battle with the countenance and gait of a man approaching the electric chair.
The Ali entourage on December 11, 1981 wore visages fit for pallbearers as the fighter once known as The Greatest walked leadenly towards the squared circle in a decrepit sandlot ballfield for a fight billed as “The Drama in the Bahama.” They knew that their leader, looking down the barrel at 40, had looked like a shell of himself in training camp as he readied to battle his ostensible foe, a crude heavyweight named Trevor Berbick, a guy who a prime Ali would’ve diced up in three.
Ali’s body, once a sleek vehicle for the ladies to marvel at, and the men to eye with envy, betrayed a fondness for cake, and pie and ice cream. That everyman blubber around the midsection had refused to melt to a level of tautness befitting the three time former heavyweight champion of the world, now maybe the best known being on the planet. That was not a surprise to anyone who saw in weeks prior saw a huffing Ali hop into his limo after a lame stab at roadwork in Nassau.
His training mirrored the milieu. This last waltz was an amateur night production, put together by a flimflamming used car salesman who lived in LA, befriended Ali, and re-fashioned himself into fight promoter.
It was like The Three Stooges put the promotion together. They only had two pairs of gloves for six fights scheduled, so boxers had to take them off, and hand them to the next guy. No one thought to bring a bell to signal rounds, so someone rustled up a cowbell, which the timekeeper banged with a hammer.
The circumstances in Nassau were shady, and the production shoddy, certainly not befitting sporting royalty. But it was the way it had to be in Ali’s home stretch, because the great ones need to be injected with a hot-shot of reality to get it. To understand that the run has ended, that you can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time, but you can’t fool time.
How long had Ali been compromised? Most trace the beginning of the end, the logical point to have pulled the plug, and walk away faculties somewhat intact, to the Thrilla in Manilla. That was the third fight with Frazier, when Muhammad faced a man who’d been pushed over the edge by race-based cracks. Being called a “gorilla” stung Frazier to a core more sensitive than one might presume such a prizefighter might be shielding. “I want to hurt him. If I knock him down, I’ll stand back, give him a chance to breath, to get up. It’s his heart I wants,” Frazier said before the Oct. 1, 1975 classic. “Why does he call me Clay? That’s my nigger slave name,” Ali countered, just as sensitive as his nemesis til the end of time. Both absorbed abuse to the head and body that would’ve had the masses of men surrendering at the halfway point. But these two, for fifteen rounds, were determined to decide who the better man was. On that night, it was Ali, but the cost was considerable. “It was,” he said after, “like death. Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of.”
It would have been logical to step away then. But how much “logic” is found in the arena of prizefighting, where men risk limb and life for money and satisfaction of knowing one’s capability when severely tested?
Ali would however fight ten more times after his Manilla flirtation with the afterlife. His crew lined up softies for him, pillow-fisters like Jean-Pierre Coopman, Jimmy Young and Richard Dunn. Challenge still appealed to Ali, though, and the beefier purses that came with it. He met Norton for a third time, and beat him, in 1976. By now, his top attribute was probably his chin, though. He didn’t conjure an image of a pugilistic Astaire anymore, but he could still sell his chances. He could make you believe he could summon “it” one more time, thumb Father Time in the eye, defy organ trauma dished out by punchers the likes of Earnie Shavers. Before their Sept. 29, 1977 meeting, Shavers, who had scored 52 KOs in 54 wins, described his punches’ effects: “Sometimes I can feel the flesh separating from the bone.”
What in God’s name was Ali, now 35, by no means a pauper, doing testing himself against such a destroyer? Short answer–he was happiest when he was fighting. Not that there wasn’t a parade of dissauders trying to get him to walk away.
They didn’t like that Ali’s words, once delivered with the same crispness as the jab which stopped Sonny Liston’s offense cold, often came out in an indecipherable heap. The right hands Shavers landed that would’ve knocked an ox cold, those couldn’t have helped matters. His personal ringside physician, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, counseled Ali to walk away after he won a unanimous decision, and when the Champ didn’t, he departed Team Ali.
But the fighter would not be put off. The same stubbornness he displayed in the ring rose up when folks called for him to exit the stage. That call didn’t lessen when on Feb. 15, 1978 he was outworked by a man who’d fought just seven pro fights, Leon Spinks. Ali gave critics the rope-a-dope; he let ‘em have their say, and then did things his way. In front of a record 63,350 fans at the Superdome in Louisiana, Ali won a unanimous decision, and no end of satisfaction as he again defied those who counseled retirement.
He did it his way, on his terms, on his timeline, when he hung up the gloves in July of 1979: “I beat them all and now I’m giving it up as champion. Now isn’t that beautiful? I’m the first black man to go out champion. I’m the only one to win the title three times, and I’m getting out clean.”
But getting out, and staying out, are different deals altogether. Ali would still draw crowds after the Superdome triumph, but the buzz wasn’t the same. By March 1980, a 270 pound Ali wriggled into his trunks, grabbed the dusty gloves, and waddled back into his arena, where he was a master of the domain, in his comfort zone.
It’s not to say Ali was in a state of obliviousness; he told people that regaining the title from ex sparring partner Larry Holmes would be a “miracle.”
“I’m not 38 like other Americans,” Ali boasted. “I’m not a normal American. I’m a Superman. I will destroy Holmes.”
No miracle occured on Oct. 2, 1980. “The verbal truculence does not equal fistic truculence,” Howard Cosell said as he watched Ali get schooled by his ex employee. By the fifth, the WBC champion Holmes’ jab had flicked off some of Ali’s dye, leaving gray hairs on his temple for all to see. Nobody there needed the visual cue; it was obvious that Ali had nothing on that night, but the ability to yap (“I’m your master, I’m your teacher,” the relic taunted the relevant) and the only drama left by the eighth round was: would Ali be stopped for the first time?
After the tenth, trainer Dundee, given word by manager Herbert Muhammad, told the referee that Ali was done. Ali sat spent on his stool, looking at the floor, as the crowd buzzed at the perverse coronation. “For Muhammad, he must face the final curtain,” said a mournful Cosell.
Ali contemplated the closing of the curtain. But an alibi emerged. He’d been given a medication after being diagnosed with hypothyroidism. He took too much of it, it sapped him, he claimed. A doctor backed him up. He cited glowing reports from the Mayo Clinic, and docs at UCLA and NYU, as evidence of his fitness.
Bolstered by enablers disguised as healers, and loyal team-members who felt they should be there for the cleanup after the party raged on, Ali decided that he would soldier on. “You tell me no, I can’t do it, I say you lie,” he said.
Only brutal truth was on display in the Bahamas. Ali, a month away from his 40th birthday, did some dancing on this night, but he was more chunky moth than ethereal butterfly. He had his moments over ten rounds. But not enough to convince the judges. “We have a unanimous decision,” the crowd heard. 97-94, 99-94, 99-94…for Trevor Berbick.
It sure looked like the end of the line for the Greatest. But would he feel what others saw, that his skills had eroded, and no amount of situps, or prayer, or anything would change that?
“Father Time just got me,” Ali said in a hoarse whisper. “I’m sure this is enough to convince people.”
And he never fought again.
More importantly than convincing the people, the fans, he’d convinced himself that his career was over. The stubborn streak, which had served him so well in tackling oversized tasks before, and had become a malignant trait, pushing him toward self destruction, was tamed. He finally realized that he was a normal American, that if he’d been Superman, he was susceptible to the same Kryptonite that gets all of us.
“The people of the world will love me more now,” he said after, “see I’m like them. We all lose sometimes. We all grow old. We all die.”
His legacy wasn’t diminished by those last two fights. They played out as they had to.
Demanding he quit on our terms to save ourselves from subliminal reminders of our own decay would’ve been presumptuous at best. For all he gave us, Ali deserved to go out when he wanted, and how he wanted.