“He’s no Liston. He’s no Frazier. He’s only Larry Holmes, and he’s nothin’. I can see it now. Pop! Pop! Bam! Holmes is down. Eight, nine, 10! For the world record setting, never to be broken forth time, Muhammad Ali is the Heavyweight champion of the world!”
Muhammad Ali, the former three-time Heavyweight champion, was making his return to the ring.
In late September, he again graced the cover of Sports Illustrated just days before his bout with Larry Holmes and proclaimed he would win the title for a record fourth time.
A native of Louisville, Kentucky, and now 38, Ali (56-3, 37 KOs) would scrap ideas of retirement after a two year hiatus. His last action in the ring was in September 1978, redeeming himself against Leon Spinks in their rematch.
Ali, the former champion, would meet Holmes, the current champion, on October 2.
The year was 1980.
A new decade was born and change ruled the day.
The 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty won their last Super Bowl in January over the Los Angeles Rams while incumbent president Jimmy Carter would soon lose in a landslide to Ronald Reagan in just five weeks.
In the boxing world, Holmes, now the sitting WBC Heavyweight champion and former Ali sparring partner, was undefeated and fighting for recognition and respect.
At 31, Holmes (35-0, 26 KOs) was no slouch. He owned a wicked left jab and a pulverizing right hand. His battle for legitimacy was, in large part, due to following the incomparable Ali.
From Easton Pennsylvania, Holmes was dubbed “The Easton Assassin.” After winning the title from Ken Norton in 1978, Holmes went on to beat Earnie Shavers and Mike Weaver, among others.
Holmes was slowly establishing himself as the dominant force within the division. This fight would mark the eighth defense of his crown against the legend, Ali. In his seven previous defenses, not one opponent saw the final bell.
Still, the confidence that the public had in Ali was unmistakable. He was like Superman or the Incredible Hulk. No obstacle was too big. No opponent was insurmountable.
He had been there and done that so many times before in defeating the likes of Liston, George Foreman, Frazier, and Spinks. Many simply expected him to win.
That unshakable belief was reflected in the betting line. Holmes opened as a 3-1 favorite. Those odds quickly dwindled to 2-1 and ultimately settled in around 9-5 by fight night.
Could he again pull the rabbit from the hat and bring home the crown?
There was, however, an uneasy backdrop in the lead up to the fight.
Rumors swirled that the Nevada State Athletic Commission demanded that Ali be cleared by the Mayo clinic. He completed a neurological exam in which the findings were not publicly shared prior to the fight.
The conclusions, not made public until after October 2, indicated that Ali had difficulty touching his finger to his nose. In addition, he encountered trouble when hopping on one foot and struggled in coordinating his speech.
Years later, a thorough account of the examination was outlined in Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times.
The fight, however, went on as planned.
Billed as “The Last Hurrah,” Holmes and Ali would meet on a Thursday night at the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. A 24,790 seat arena was constructed for the fight in which the live gate totaled $6 million dollars, a record at the time.
Scheduled for 15 rounds, the bout was broadcast on closed-circuit television. Howard Cosell was on hand to call the action as the fight would later be replayed on ABC.
Although the calendar read October and some parts of the country had cooled down after a long summer, the temperature in Las Vegas reached 100 degrees the day of the fight.
With both men now in the ring, Chuck Hull introduced referee Richard Greene and then the fighters.
Ali taunted and harassed Holmes during Hull’s introductions. He continued at center ring where Greene had difficulty getting through the final instructions. As both camps joined the verbal fray, Greene hollered, “Shut up! Shut up! Quiet!”
Cosell summed up the moment, “Alright. That scene spoke for itself. Ali trying to psyche Holmes.”
Ali was clearly trying establish a return to yesteryear and grab the mental edge while playing to the packed house at Caesars.
Holmes, outwardly, appeared unfazed.
Round 1 began with Holmes charging right at Ali. If there were five gears, Holmes started in fifth.
Ali, wearing white trimmed in black, held his hands high in peek-a-boo fashion. The pro-Ali crowd roared whenever their man moved or punched. Halfway through the first he landed a sharp right hand to Holmes jaw. The Ali supporters boomed.
Holmes, sporting white trunks trimmed in red, attacked behind his long left jab while occasionally firing left hooks to the head and to the body.
After three rounds, Cosell summarized the first nine minutes, “Larry Holmes has won the first three rounds quite clearly, quite cleanly. Ali has thrown one right in the first round that did score. That’s been about the size of it. The rest has been talking to Holmes.”
As the rounds advanced, Holmes dictated the flow and remained in command. Ali flicked a weak jab, almost pushing it forward. His right hand was eternally cocked but it seemed stuck on the launch pad.
As the minutes ticked away, Ali was proving what all of us already knew. His chin was rock solid.
The middle rounds saw Ali moving more towards the ropes and into the corners. The use of the rope-a-dope formula that had worked so well in Zaire against George Foreman was not effective on this night.
Now in Round 7, Ali, with some discoloration under his left eye, was moving side to side more effectively. His jab was finally landing with some of the old snap. The crowd began to rally behind him as Cosell observed, “The crowd is responding. Ali getting in and out in a hurry with the jab.”
Despite his movement and having found his left jab, Holmes continued to hold the upper hand.
Prior to the fight, Ali had predicted, “Holmes will be mine in nine.” As the ninth round began, a chant built from the ringside crowd, “Ali! Ali! Ali!”
Round 9 was far from an Ali round. Holmes stepped on the gas as Ali retreated. The chants for the former champion ended as quickly as they had begun as Holmes began to batter the once great legend with a brutal pounding against the ropes.
A series of Holmes rights and lefts bounced off Ali’s head and body.
A saddened Cosell’s voice rose, “Oh, he’s ready to go. This must be stopped. It is a sad way to end. Legends die hard and Ali is learning that even he cannot be forever young.”
Ali climbed from his stool to his feet to begin the 10th round. As Holmes pressed forward, he retreated into a defensive posture against the ropes.
Holmes peppered Ali with his jab, looking almost as if he was unwilling to throw anything else. Nearly all three minutes of the 10th round took place with Ali’s back against the ropes.
After being battered throughout Round 10, Ali slumped on his stool. Cosell bellowed, “This fight should be stopped!”
Angelo Dundee, Ali’s long-time trainer and confidant, mercifully moved to bring the action to a halt.
With Greene now in the Ali corner, a back and forth erupted over whether the fight should continue. Trainer Angelo Dundee screamed at Greene, “I’m the chief second! I stop the fight!”
An emotional Cosell continued, “He would not give in, Angelo Dundee. He cared about his fighter too much.”
And that was the end, after 10 rounds, Holmes had stopped Ali for the first time in his career. The crowd was eerily silent as Hull delivered the obvious verdict.
Larry Holmes remained the Heavyweight champion of the world.
Not surprisingly, all three judges gave Holmes every round of the fight.
The aftermath, including the release of Ali’s Mayo clinic results, was just as painful. Rumors swirled of a possible misdiagnosed thyroid deficiency and medication prescribed to treat it. Some argue that the medication prescribed bedeviled his metabolism and speed.
Ali’s former cornerman and physician, Ferdie Pacheco, had asked Ali to retire years before. He ultimately left the Ali camp in 1977. After the loss to Holmes, a disturbed Pacheco commented.
[otw_shortcode_quote border=”bordered” border_style=”bordered”]All the people involved in this fight should of been arrested. This fight was an abomination. A crime. – Ferdie Pacheco[/otw_shortcode_quote]
Ali returned to the ring one final time 14 months later, losing a decision to upstart Trevor Berbick.
Holmes went on to dominate the division for years to come, running his record to 48 wins without a loss before losing to Michael Spinks in 1985.
Many fans still question whether the Holmes-Ali bout should have taken place. Boxing history is, however, replete with numerous former champions returning to regain the title. After all, Ali himself had done it twice before.
In any event, it is still a difficult fight to watch as Ali had meant so much to so many.
Prior to his post-fight interview with Cosell, Holmes cried in his dressing room after the fight. The result was even difficult for him to swallow. He was always up front in saying that Ali was his hero.
It was a night in which a legend’s career ended so painfully. So many around the world, including Holmes, were reduced to tears because of it.