Timing is everything in boxing. Taking a fight at the wrong time can have devastating, long-lasting consequences on a career. Equally, it can have tragic life-changing implications – you have to know when to let go.
Larry Holmes had the unenviable task of following Muhammad Ali as the world heavyweight champion. A former sparring partner of Ali, Holmes was a more than worthy successor in his own right, but public acceptance was seemingly far harder than defending his title. Viewed by some as a poor man’s Ali, Holmes struggled to gain the respect he felt he deserved from the masses. A fight between the two was unnecessary, but inevitable.
Beyond the ropes, an aspiring young broadcaster named Ian Darke would be setting out on his first foray into the world of boxing to cover the event.
“The interesting thing about that fight is that it was the first fight that I covered,” Ian Darke told Boxing Social. “Des Lynam used to do the boxing commentary for BBC radio, but he left to start his brilliant TV career. I was the only one left in the BBC sports department who had a handle on boxing. So, I got sent to Las Vegas to cover the Holmes-Ali fight. I wasn’t commentating because we didn’t have the rights for the fight, but I was sending back a lot of reports. I had never been to America before let alone the mad-house that is a fight week in Las Vegas.”
Ali had belatedly retired after defeating Leon Spinks in their rematch in 1978. The great champion had been on a steady, but obvious decline for many years prior. He was a fading force, hanging on desperately to what he once was. Despite the retirement, the signs were always there that Ali would be tempted back. A fight with John Tate, the then unbeaten WBA claimant to the throne, failed to materialise when Tate shockingly lost to Mike Weaver, but Ali would inevitably be wheeled out. Ali had his agenda for his return, others had theirs. Meal tickets are hard to let go.
Holmes, unbeaten in 35 fights and the WBC champion, agreed to fight his old employer, a fight the sport or neither fighter needed.
Darke started his boxing career on this sad, uncomfortable night. Ali had no business being in that ring, everyone knew he was well past his prime and the signs were already visible that the accumulation of a long career was starting to take effect on his health as well. But Ali had created an illusion of youth in the weeks leading up to the fight. The weight he had piled on in retirement had gone, the greying hair covered up, and the doubters started to believe another miracle was about to happen.
“The funny thing about that fight was that every boxing reporter, all the boxing people before they touched down in Las Vegas, all thought the same, what is Ali doing,” recalled Darke. “He’s 38 now, he’s slowing up, he had been beaten by Leon Spinks, a seven-fight novice, and then won the return before retiring. He had been travelling the world doing diplomacy and meeting the likes of President Brezhnev and people like that. Most of us thought he was washed-up and it was a pretty bad idea to be trying to come back and fight a very good champion like Larry Holmes.
“But when we got there in the days leading up to the fight, Ali looked great, going through his old pre-fight routines and he looked as though he could pull off one more mission impossible.”
With Holmes still in the shadow of Ali, did he need to beat the former champion for acceptance? That was certainly the feeling around that time.
“There was something very cynical about the matchmaking here,” said Darke. “Holmes, despite the fact that he had come a long way, there was that feeling that nobody would take him seriously as the world heavyweight champion until he had beaten Ali. So, Don King came up with $8 million to lure Ali out of retirement. Ali then deluded himself that he could do it one last time. I don’t think Holmes really wanted the fight, he knew exactly what would happen, he would be beating up his old friend. A lot of the old quotes you read now from Holmes and his trainer Richie Giachetti say that they knew it would be a horror story, but he was a fighter, they were paying good money and this is what King wanted. So, against his better judgement, he was in there and he had a job to do, which he did of course, but it was excruciating to watch.”
Ali certainly looked the part; he weighed 217lbs his lightest since that famous night in Zaire when he defeated George Foreman to become a two-time world heavyweight champion. But what he saw in the mirror didn’t tell the whole story:
“Ali did look good in appearances, but he had been given these tablets for a thyroid condition, which he probably didn’t have,” said Darke. “There were doubts about the medical advice he was been given at the time. The effects of these tablets left him dehydrated, and he could only run about half a mile when he was out running and they left him feeling pretty awful. On the eve of the fight, there were some people in Ali’s camp who wanted him to pull out of the fight.”
Of course, Ali didn’t pull out of the fight and we witnessed one of the saddest, most awful occasions in boxing history.
“I do remember one thing when I was watching the fight live. One fan who was sat near me was actually crying and he was shouting out, ‘please don’t do this to me, Ali,’” said Darke. “There was a lot of anger in the crowd and after the fight that this had been allowed to happen. There is a time when the fighter needs protecting from himself. It was only when I got back home and I started to think about it, and the true horror of it. How did it last 10 rounds, even at the end of it when Angelo Dundee wanted to stop it, ‘Bundini’ Brown was saying just one more round. One more round, Ali had been beaten to a pulp.”
We know now what a terrible price Ali would pay, his health badly deteriorating in the later years of his life.
“When you see him in later life, it wasn’t just that fight, it was all the fights,” said Darke. “Some veteran fight reporters told me that he accrued a lot of damage in the gym. Most fighters spend the first couple of weeks getting back their fitness before they start sparring, so they acquire a certain amount of fitness before they start proper sparring. But apparently Ali more or less straight away would go in and start his sparring and he would get hit by a lot of shots he would normally not get hit by.”
Holmes, despite the win, can’t have taken much, if any, satisfaction from it.
“Holmes was as contrite as I have ever seen a winner in a fight. He knew what had happened in there,” recalled Darke. “I wouldn’t say he was being blamed for it, people realised he had just done a job, and he did it pretty systematically. I remember Ali was sitting there in dark glasses and he got a big laugh when Holmes said ‘you will always be the greatest in my eyes’, and Ali sort of mumbled back with his very swollen face, ‘why did you whup me like that then’. Whenever the cameras were around, Ali sort of just switched on and I remember when he was leaving the press conference he said, ‘I want Holmes, I want a rematch.’ But it all sounded a bit pathetic, we all knew that was the end of the story, although he obviously fought Trevor Berbick afterwards. But to all intent and purposes that was the end of a quite astonishing story, the end of an era.
“It was the sad end of a fantastic gravy train that started in the 1960s and went onto the 1980s. We had 20 years of this quite extraordinary story. The world loved him, it’s almost a no contest when all those polls were about saying, ‘who was the greatest sportsman of the 20th Century?’ Ali won them all and nobody even argued.”
Holmes must have hoped victory meant he would finally emerge from Ali’s shadow. But, in reality, it probably did the opposite; he was resented, even hated for doing it. However, that respect is now there. The ‘Easton Assassin’ was a worthy match for any heavyweight from any era. Following Ali and preceding Mike Tyson would have been problematic for anyone and, other than maybe Ken Norton and Gerry Cooney, he didn’t really have a near equal as an opponent.
“Compared to Ali and all his charisma, Holmes was a comparatively dull figure. It’s like following Alex Ferguson at Manchester United or trying to follow Frank Sinatra or The Beatles on stage,” said Darke. “Whoever it would have been, people would have still said this is a bit dull in comparison. But Holmes was extremely underrated and very, very good, and I think, in time, boxing aficionados have understood that and history judges him a little kinder than the boxing public did at the time.”
Does time ease the anger or hide what we saw all those years ago in that Las Vegas ring? Not for me. I think with what we know now, the fight looks far worse with the passage of time. It was a travesty; it wasn’t a sporting event, it was a sickening spectacle that simply didn’t need to happen. Yes, Ali was his own man, but it was a fight where the powers that be had an obligation to stop it happening. There was no excuse for it, no justification, a truly horrific charade passed off as a prize fight. Ali paid a very heavy price for going on too long, a quality of life cut short by his refusal to stop.
Ferdie Pacheco, the long-time personal physician of Ali, said of the Holmes-Ali fight:
“All the people involved in this fight should have been arrested. This fight was an abomination, a crime.”
Few would argue.