Remembering Ali: When Greatness Transcends Tragedy

I haven’t seen the new Ken Burns documentary on Muhammad Ali yet, but I’m looking forward to it. Thinking about Ali brought back the memory of the only time I saw him fight — what would turn out to be the penultimate fight of his legendary career — and thoughts of what constitutes greatness.

The fight was in 1980 against Larry Holmes, Ali’s long-time sparring partner. It was dubbed “The Last Hurrah,” given that Ali was clearly in the twilight of his career. Interest in the fight was sky-high. The venue was Las Vegas, where Caesar’s built a 25,000-seat arena in the parking lot. The gate was a record $6 million and the fight was viewed by about 2 billion people worldwide.

(Just to set the timeframe in a little more detail, in 1980 President Jimmy Carter had bailed out Chrysler with $1.5 billion in government loans; Saudi Arabia publicly beheaded 60 Islamic insurgents for storming Mecca; the Rubik’s Cube was introduced; the U.S. boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Russian invasion of Afghanistan; Rosie Ruiz tried to cheat her way to victory in the Boston Marathon; and John Lennon was shot outside the Dakota in New York.)

In 1980, I was an armchair boxing fan. The Ali fight was a hot ticket and I used my job as a reporter to coax a couple of press passes from the promoters. I wasn’t a sports writer; I was more of a free-range reporter who covered crime, government, the odd feature story, music — basically whatever caught my interest. Admittedly, I did occasionally abuse my press privileges. Professional standards were more flexible back then and I didn’t give a second thought to mixing business with pleasure. So I grabbed a buddy and a camera and headed toward Vegas.

The fight was a mess. From the first round you could tell Ali was not himself. Holmes clearly dominated, but did not seem to be enjoying himself. Several rounds in, it was clear Ali should not have been in the ring. Only later did we learn about the extent of his early-onset Parkinson’s and the thyroid medicine he was on. The fight ended when Angelo Dundee stopped it after 10 rounds.

More than the fight, I remember the press conference afterwards. It was a desultory affair. Ali was quiet, hiding behind dark glasses. Holmes was near tears. He took no pleasure in his victory and, in fact, told Ali he still considered him the greatest fighter of all time. I think everybody in the room was a little saddened by what they had just witnessed; maybe we also felt a little chagrined for being complicit in the affair. Everybody left to drink and gamble. But even that wasn’t fun; with all the high-rollers in town you couldn’t find a blackjack table on the Strip without a minimum bet of $1,000. It was a bad night in Vegas.

More than 40 years later, of course, Ali’s legacy in American culture has been formally anointed by Ken Burns. Ali’s career was hardly undone by the Holmes fight, or even the more ludicrous bout with Trevor Berbick the following year, Ali’s final fight. They became rounding errors to a career that transcended boxing and touched on race, religion, conscience, human aspiration, pop culture and media. As Ali transcended boxing, he also lifted it. He made it seem noble, and at times like art. And he did it with a nod and a wink. “I am the greatest of all time,” he told us. We went along with it, partly because it was true, but mostly because he was just so much fun to watch.

The Holmes fight wasn’t fun.

“Always leave on a high note,” Jerry Seinfeld advises George Costanza in a classic scene from the TV show. “That’s what they do in Vegas.”

In hindsight, Ali should have taken Seinfeld’s advice. The last five years of his career were weird, but consequential. He once fought a professional wrestler named Gorilla Monsoon who put Ali into an airplane spin and dropped him on the mat; a year later he fought a Japanese martial artist and sustained injuries that nearly led to a leg amputation. Both events were dismissed as novelties at the time, but now they seem like beta versions of the Mixed Martial Arts phenomenon. Then in 1978, in a rematch with Leon Spinks, Ali won the heavyweight championship for the third time in his career. He retired the next year.

What brought him back in 1980? If I had been a more responsible reporter back then I might have tried to answer that question. Money, for sure. But I think it was something deeper. Ali was trying to determine the limits of greatness. He found them; we are all mortal coils, after all. But every great story has an element of tragedy to it, and that night in Vegas was the gateway to the great, elegiac tragedy of Ali’s later years, his degeneration due to Parkinson’s and years of punishing blows to the head. Through it all, his greatness endured, because it was a greatness that embraced not just technical skills, but a country, a culture and a faith.

In 1988, a young Mike Tyson called Holmes out of retirement for a title bout — one in which Tyson said he would exact revenge on Holmes for beating up his hero in 1980. Tyson, of course, obliterated Holmes (the only knockout of Holmes’s career). Tyson won partly because of his unique “peek-a-boo” style, but probably more because of the passion with which he fought, defending the honor of his idol. On greatness, we’ll let Mike Tyson have the last word.

“When I watch somebody like Ali, I’m watching somebody that’s really the real deal,” Tyson said. “Then I know I’m not great. When you see greatness, then you know that’s not me. That’s just my ego . . . I want to believe I’m that guy. My ego tells me that, but the reality is that I love my beautiful wife, I love this life I have and I might not want to give it up just to prove I’m a tough guy. But Ali would. I know what greatness is. I know what real greatness is.”

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