Muhammad Ali is known for some of the most dramatic, entertaining and iconic fights in the history of boxing, but his final fight, 40 years ago today, is far less well remembered.
Ali gave us the Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manilla and the Fight of the Century during his glittering career.
The former heavyweight champion of the world is considered by many to be the greatest to have walked inside the ropes.
However after an incredible 21 year career, split in two due to a suspension earlier after refusing to fight in Vietnam, it all came to an end in the saddest of ways.
Ali shot to fame in the 1960s, beating Sonny Liston to become world champion and then defending his title 10 times, before it was stripped from him during his suspension in 1967.
He returned three years later but it took until 1974 for him to win the world title back, another 10 defences went before he finally lost the world title in the ring, though he won it back.
By 1981, he’d finally been stopped for the first time in his career, when Larry Holmes won every round until Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee threw in the towel.
The fight dubbed ‘the Last Hurrah’ really should have been the former world champion’s final walk out of the ring, after being battered by Holmes, but instead he limped on for one more.
Ali came up against Trevor Berbick, who would end up becoming the only man to fight Ali, Holmes and Mike Tyson, in a fight which wound up being named ‘Drama in Bahamas.’
The bout had to take place in the Bahamas because no American boxing boards would give ‘The Greatest’ a licence to box.
Perhaps unsurprisingly he claimed he was as fit as ever, and even brought medical records to the press conference to prove so, but he did weigh in at his heaviest ever for a fight.
Legendary sports writer Hugh McIlvanney was not impressed with the training he saw the great heavyweight put in, having seen Ali at his absolute best in the past.
“A man who has missed the last bus after the bars close takes more out of himself on the walk home than Ali had done with what we were supposed to regard as roadwork,” McIlvanney wrote in the Observer.
Ali had training sessions for the public to watch but they lasted just 20 minutes and the Q&A sessions held afterwards would often last longer than the physical work.
As well as the problems with his training, the 39-year-old revealed that even his trainer wasn’t sure about the comeback.
“Angelo thinks I shouldn’t be fightin’,” Ali said the week of the fight, “He’s coming in to work the corner but he thinks I’m shot, my legs have gone. But Angelo’s not me. He don’t know what I’ve got.”
Ali also boasted about how week a sparring session with Tommy Hearns had gone, with Hearns on the undercard in his comeback fight following his September loss to Sugar Ray Leonard.
“I had a four-round brawl with Hearns, and it was right on,” the former world champ said
“With Tommy?” Dundee, who arrived late to Nassau, asked.
“Stickin’ and jabbin’. Over his jab. Trading punches. Getting him in the corners. One on one.”
“I love you going with little guys,” said Dundee. “I love it.”
The drama really kicked off just days before the fight with Don King flying to Nassau to get the money he claimed he was owed.
King was Berbick’s promoter and wanted as much as $200,000 from the ‘mysterious’ Sports Internationale (Bahamas) Ltd, who were promoting the fight.
After landing in the Bahamas for his step aside money, King then accused the company’s president James Cornelius and four unidentified men of beating him up and threatening to kill him.
Cornelius was nearly the cause of the fight not going ahead as well, as per the New York Times’ report on the night.
Just an hour before the broadcast Berbick had still not been paid all of his money, as Sports Internationale ran into issues.
He was given a credit note on the Thursday, but it wasn’t for all his money, with the Jamaican born fighter declaring ‘I want all my money before I fight.’
By 5pm Saturday he had still not been given all his money, until TV company SelecTV stepped in to cover the remaining $250,000.
Berbick wasn’t the only one who was suffering from the promoter’s lack of money, with Hearns returning to his room on Thursday to find it locked.
He had to pay for the room himself, after the promoters failed to stump up the cash, but he'd at least paid in full early by SelecTV, having agreed a deal with them to fight on their network again.
Ali, Berbick and Hearns were the only fighters on the card with their own dressing rooms, with everyone else having to share.
When they arrived at the venue there was a delay as the keys to get in couldn’t be found and there were no boxing gloves available.
The issues weren’t just behind the scenes either, with the venue struggling to sell seats, despite the name value Ali had carried throughout his career.
Tickets had to be dropped from $50 to $5 and the New York Times suggested that not all of the near 11,000 capacity arena had paid for their seats.
Ahead of the fight Ali claimed he would ‘dance all night’ but the man who once floated like a butterfly no longer had the wings to carry himself.
When the fight did finally start it was signified not by the ringing of a traditional bell but by a cowbell and hammer.
His 27-year-old opponent landed the better early shots and began working on the legend’s body in the third round.
Ali did stagger Berbick at the end of the fifth round, following his best six minutes of the fight, and continued his work in the sixth, but mostly his shots didn’t carry the same bee stings they once had.
Berbick returned to the ascendency in the eighth round and won the final three, landing at will and keeping Ali in the corner and on the ropes for much of the remaining nine minutes.
When the results were read out Berbick was the clear winning, taking the fight 97-94, 99-94, 99-94.
McIlvanney wrote, “Berbick is the kind of lumbering, slow-armed swinger [Ali] would have first embarrassed and then demolished in his dazzling prime…
“To see [Ali] lose to such a moderate fighter in such a grubby context was like watching a king riding into permanent exile on the back of a garbage truck.
“The one blessing was that he was steadily exhausted rather than violently hurt by the experience.”
Before the fight Ali’s own family had said they wanted the near 40-year-old to stop fighting, and afterwards Dundee backed up the sentiment and suggested the loss was a good result.
“I was so afraid they'd give him the verdict. I was so afraid the judges would give it to Ali,” the legendary trainer said, worried that a win would see his man carry on.
Irish Times writer Dave Hannigan wrote about one judge having a tear in his eyes at the end of the fight, seeing a once great boxer end his career as a shadow of his former self.
Featured Image Credit: YouTube/PA
Topics: Boxing, Heavyweight Boxing, Muhammad Ali