BOZICH | Memories of Muhammad Ali's courage from his final mista - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Memories of Muhammad Ali's courage from his final mistaken bout

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Muhammad Ali battled Trevor Berbick for 10 rounds before losing his final bout in 1981. (AP Photo.) Muhammad Ali battled Trevor Berbick for 10 rounds before losing his final bout in 1981. (AP Photo.)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It should have been an unthinkably sad moment. It was not.

Muhammad Ali made certain of that. He didn’t do sad. Ali did vigorous and creative.

The scene unfolded Dec. 11, 1981, at an abandoned airstrip in Nassau in The Bahamas. It was Muhammad Ali’s 61st and final professional bout. It was my first.

The Greatest of all-time got dressed for work in a spot that would make a Little League team blush.  I remember a dark, stuffy, cinder-block room with the ambiance of a utility shed.

Tickets had been marked down, some from $50 to $5. There were whispers many had been given away. Celebrities? John Travolta. George Brett. David Hartman. Bobby Womack sang the National Anthem. That was the list of famous people. Frank Sinatra and Diana Ross weren't in the loop any more.

Find and watch the fight replay that stretches for 65 minutes on YouTube.com. You’ll see a string of empty seats a dozen rows from the ring in a temporary stadium of only 11,000 seats.

The promoter, not Don King or Bob Arum, scrambled to find water, gloves and enough cash to ensure that the show went on. There were so many questions that the fight card began an hour late.

Boxing protocol calls for the headliner to enter the ring last. Ali slid between the ropes first, nearly four minutes ahead of Trevor Berbick, a Canadian journeyman who confessed that he grew up idolizing The Greatest.

At ringside, somebody shook a cowbell to summon Ali and Berbick to the center of the ring at the start of every round. They shook the cowbell again, several times, to signal the fight was over.

As a sports columnist five months into the job at the Louisville Times, it was the only Ali fight I covered.

Oh, I was there with Ali before, just not in person. I followed every jab – with his left hand or tongue – as closely as possible, starting with that February night in 1964 when my father let me stay up with him and listen to the radio call of Ali’s jarring upset of the allegedly invincible Sonny Liston. Actually, that’s not true. Ali was not Ali when he fought Liston. He was Cassius Clay – and the old-time sports writers were already howling that he talked too much.

Eventually America figured it out. It was a mistake to miss an Ali punch – or Ali syllable.

I watched television when he cut up Henry Cooper, Jerry Quarry, George Chuvalo, Jim McKay and, of course, Howard Cosell, usually on the Wide World of Sports.

I purchased tickets to watch the closed-circuit telecasts to watch him fight Joe Frazier in the first and third bouts in their epic trilogy. The first one cost $15 and was printed on a blue felt ticket for the Hammond (Ind.) Civic Center. The place was packed, just the way thousands of arenas were packed across the world.

Now, in Nassau, Ali was nearly 40, stiff, slow and lumbering, but still trying to say hello to more boxing fans when he should have already said goodbye.

The prevailing thought on press row was: Is this actually happening?

Muhammad Ali got pushed around and occasionally battered by a slightly out-of shape heavyweight who had lost a match to a guy named Bernardo Mercado in a temporary, half-filled facility at an abandoned air strip.

A fighter who lived his life on the cover of Sports Illustrated had to grab and clinch to avoid being knocked out by a face in the crowd. He tried the left jab. He tried the step back. He tried the rope-a-dope that worked against George Foreman. He tried everything that trainer Angelo Dundee told him to try from his corner.

Go back to the YouTube replay. Ali took at least 20 blows to the head in the final minute of the 10th round. He did not surrender. The bout went the distance, all 30 minutes stretched over 10 rounds.

Yes, that was the way it ended.

That was Ali’s farewell to boxing moment. If Ali was embarrassed or annoyed, he never showed it. He spoke quietly while answering questions after he lost a unanimous decision, asking writers to form a complete circle around him in the locker room so women could not see him as he changed clothes.

In a short interview inside the ring, Ali said, “It was close. It was close … I have to submit to the judges … I didn’t get hurt. Father Time just got me.”

I share that story because that was the one time I saw Ali fight and one of two occasions when I was able to ask questions.

The fight was certainly a blunder, an unnecessary injury risk that came 14 months after Ali had endured the worst beating of his career in Las Vegas 14 months earlier. Larry Holmes had administered that one.

It wasn’t long before Parkinson’s overtook Ali’s body, inspiring critics to howl that the blows he took while losing three of his last four bouts exacerbated his decline.

Ali never complained, at least not publicly. He chose to become the face of Parkinson’s, raising millions with the goal that others would not suffer.

For more than two decades, until his death on Friday night in Phoenix, Ali showed Parkinson’s could be confronted with unrelenting dignity and strength.

The fight in the Bahamas was far from Ali’s greatest moment. But it was certainly one of his most courageous and human.

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