Ali vs Berbick: The Final Goodbye
There can’t have been a more depressing end to a boxing career than how Muhammad Ali signed out on a truly memorable and often historic run in the sweet science.
Ali could have resisted the urge to keep chasing further glory and the need to fight his dwindling finances. He didn’t and we know what he suffered as a result.
The revenge win over Leon Spinks in 1978 to win the world heavyweight title for a then-record third time would have been the perfect time to wave goodbye, although in truth it should have come after that brutal savage affair in Manila, if not even sooner. The clock had been ticking since Zaire, a near miracle of a victory, but it came at a price.
But Ali always had a reason to fight on, and after his skills had eroded passed any resemblance of what they once were, promoters still had use for him. A dirty dollar to be earned without any thought of decency or human life.
Ali had returned in 1980 to face an old sparring partner, but Ali was the old one. Another fighter to learn the hard way that there is no fountain of eternal youth.
Ali had nothing left in his ageing body, Larry Holmes battered him plain and simple, like a lamb to the slaughter. The punches absorbed never left his body.
The faded fighter took a frightening beating, Holmes showed compassion which others lacked. Knowing what we know now, that fight carries new meaning. A shameful night of exploitation and disregard for the health of a great champion.
Ali needed protecting from himself that night, many failed him when he needed them the most. Some in the Ali inner circle voiced their concerns, they were not heard.
“I’m worried that my daddy might get hurt,” Jamillah Ali aged just 10 when these words were uttered.
It had the look of a horror movie with real life-changing consequences. As his ring skills eroded slowly over the years, the quality of life would erode much quicker.
That should have been the end, but boxing has a way to go beyond the deepest depths. The denial, the excuses formed a similar predictable narrative. When Ali initially couldn’t get a license to fight again, boxing eventually found a way.
Ali approaching 40, didn’t need the fight, very few wanted to see it. Major TV networks passed as did many journalists who had seen enough, we all had.
The gravy train needed bleeding one last time, it went to Nassau in the Bahamas in 1981. Trevor Berbick a heavyweight deemed safe enough to satisfy plenty.
Berbick, the reigning Commonwealth and Canadian heavyweight champion, had challenged Larry Holmes earlier in the year, despite that loss, Berbick was still ranked 4th by the WBA. In practically any other era Berbick would be passed off as willing but ordinary and the fact that he would later win a version of the world heavyweight title says plenty about that generation of fighters.
The mental and physical scars were forgotten, Ali still wanted world titles, Mike Weaver the WBA champion the intended and incredibly optimistic target.
The promotion was farcical and shambolic, James Cornelius a convicted felon was the man at the helm. An outstanding FBI arrest warrant to his name, some would say the fight would be his biggest crime.
Predictable arguments over money threatened the fight, Berbick had contractual obligations with Don King from his fight with Holmes. King went to Nassau to meet Berbick, in his hotel room he was badly beaten up by five men. The finger was pointed at Cornelius, he denied any involvement.
The amateurish organisation would have been laughable if it wasn’t so serious, in many ways. The show started two hours late, a key to open the gate to the near-derelict stadium couldn’t be found, if only it had stayed that way. There were only two pairs of gloves for the undercard fights. Nobody bothered or cared enough to bring a bell, a cowbell found in a truck came to the rescue. Ali deserved better than this.
Ali looked better than he did against Holmes, but that isn’t saying much. An improvement on that night wasn’t hard. The decades of abuse and decay still very much on display. As one writer said, the genie had long left the bottle
It was relatively close until Berbick took over in the closing rounds, and threatened to stop Ali. After a bad 7th round, the old master danced from memory in the 8th, a little sight of what he would have done to Berbick in his prime, or even when he was on his steady decline. In Nassau, Ali was way beyond even that.
Ali wanted to finish by throwing punches and not slumped, looking pitiful on his stool. He managed that at least if nothing else. To the detriment of his health, Ali never lost his heart or courage, and that incredible resilience to absorb punches.
At the end of the 9th round, Ali stood still for a few seconds that seemed to last much longer. Ali looked at that point that he was about to fall face-first to the canvas. The weight of effort and pain Ali had placed on his ageing body looked as though it was about to show in the most brutal way. Ali bravely dragged himself off the stool for 3 more long minutes. One last act of defiance.
The magic had long since gone. It was billed as ‘Drama in the Bahamas’ but there was no drama only more trauma, predictability and sadness. A fight nobody can really enjoy, and that includes Trevor Berbick who prevailed after 10 rounds in a forgettable fight for many reasons:
“It was like beating my father and my hero at the same time and it was not very enjoyable.”
Everything about the night was regrettable and unnecessary. It was the last goodbye, Ali finally admitted the truth:
“I feel used up,” Ali said post-fight, used was a more accurate assessment of his final years in the sport he had graced so magnificently:
“I’m glad it was me who ended his career. Somebody else might not have been as compassionate.”
Berbick knew better than most what it was, and what version of Ali he beat. But was it compassion or his own limitations?
In winning Berbick did save us from more of the same. Ali finally accepted what deep down he must have already known. The final retirement came too late, a heavy price already being paid for his refusal to accept the inevitable. Picking Berbick was a small act of mercy, intended or not. It could have been much worse, that would come much later.
There were still words of delusion whispered in his ear in the immediate aftermath from people who should know better and from those that knew nothing. Trying to convince Ali had done good or had even beaten Berbick, thinking about the meal ticket that comes with a name that never dies, forgetting that their fighter might.
The consequences of carrying on too long didn’t need any benefit of hindsight, even a child knew what was coming. The fears of Jamillah Ali would become a reality, but it had already started.
A pre-fight medical report before the Holmes fight said:
‘Mr Ali showed a slight degree of missing when he tried to touch his nose with his finger. He had difficulty co-ordinating his speech and did not hop on one foot with the expected agility.’
Shamelessly and tragically Ali was still allowed to fight Holmes, it was a dark night for boxing, but even what we saw in 1980 wasn’t enough. The old champion had to be resurrected one final time to face Berbick.
Cornelius said in fight week he wanted Ali back in the ring, we know why.
The three-time world heavyweight champion lost his long and brave battle with Parkinson’s in 2016 at a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. Ali was 74 when all the fight finally left his body.
It shouldn’t have ended like that. Ali couldn’t let go and more importantly many couldn’t let him go. Always a lethal cocktail. Fighters always think they have one more fight left, the whispers in the ear with monetary motivation, the final convincing noise.
Without the fights with Holmes, Berbick and the other wars he had late into his career it would have been different. Ali gave us memories no other fighter will come close to giving us. An incredible fighter, who stayed in the sun way past the time he should have walked away.