Sunday, June 12, 2016

Last Tango in Vegas

Reading this piece by Hunter S. Thompson, written three months after the notorious first fight between Ali and Leon Spinks, brought back a flood of bad memories.  Ali had already succumbed to a number of highly questionable fights, including one with Chuck Wepner, who Ali couldn't put away and became the basis for the movie Rocky.  He had also fought some dubious exhibition fights like the one with Antonio Inoki, a Japanese mixed-martial-arts fighter, who spent virtually the entire fight on the ground kicking at Ali's legs until the Champ could barely stand by round 15.  However, nothing could prepare us for that awful night in Vegas when Ali looked every bit the haggard old man in losing his belt to a toothless light heavyweight with only seven fights under his belt, none of which against any fighter of note.

Ali looked so lethargic in the early rounds that you began to wonder if he was throwing the fight.  After all, he won a unanimous decision against Earnie Shavers just a few months before, who was a much better fighter than Spinks. This fight dragged on 15 insufferable rounds with Ali giving up round after round so that nothing short of a knockout would win it for him by the 15th.  The only problem was he had no gas at this point and very nearly got knocked out himself by a wild overhand from Spinks in the last round.

No sooner was the fight over than Ali was demanding a rematch.  When Spinks turned down a match with Ken Norton to fight Ali again in September, just about everyone assumed the fight was fixed.  The WBC stripped Spinks of his title and set up a fight between Ken Norton and Larry Holmes.  That left the WBA title for them to fight for in the Fall, the so-called "Battle of New Orleans."  Ali won the grudge match with a unanimous decision, claiming his "triple crown," the first man to do so in  heavyweight boxing.  Seems Ali was trying to secure a special place in history more than anything else, and Spinks could be counted on to oblige.  Ali vacated the title the following year.

It was probably the most ignominious chapter in his boxing career and one most of us have tried to forget.  Thompson, like everyone else, couldn't believe the Champ could lose to someone like Spinks, but as the doctor noted the writing was on the wall.  Just as Sonny Liston didn't know when to hang up his gloves, so too proved to be the case for Ali.  If you are getting $5 million to step into the ring regardless of who you fight, what does it matter.  Thompson estimated that Ali had bagged $56 million since he took out Liston, which at that time made him the highest paid athlete in the world.  Thompson further estimated that the highest paid basketball player then, Bill Walton, would have to play 112 years to match that kind of money.  Today, a fighter can get four times that amount for one fight, and basketball players don't do so bad themselves.

Still, you expect more from the Champ.  He was a living legend.  What was he doing wasting his time on guys like Wepner and Inoki and Spinks?  Ali also fought exhibition matches against Lyle Alzado and Gorilla Monsoon, which became fodder for later Rocky movies.   Some have claimed that prolonging his career in this way contributed to his Parkinson's disease.  Certainly, he must have suffered some severe concussions.  The Inoki fight left his legs so battered and bruised that he probably had circulation problems after that.  As it was, it delayed his highly anticipated fight with Ken Norton.

None of these fights added to his legacy.  If anything, they took away from it, but Ali was determined to get as much money as he could from the sport before he hung up his gloves, which is why he stepped in the ring yet again against Larry Holmes in 1980 hoping to claim a fourth title, but Holmes pummeled Ali until the referee was finally forced to call the fight in the 10th round.

If that wasn't enough, Ali tried to stage the so-called "Drama in Bahama" against Trevor  Berbick that similarly ended in a loss.  Not much drama since there was no title at stake.  Ali was pushing 40 at this point.  For Berbick, who was 12 years younger, it lent him notoriety that eventually earned him a title fight in 1986, which he won, only to lose it the same year in a second round KO to Mike Tyson.

If anything, Ali set a new precedent in that you were never too old to step into the ring.  George Foreman returned to the ring after a 10 year absence and eventually won the WBC title from Michael Moorer at the ripe old age of 45.  Ali was now suffering from Parkinson's so there was no way he could step back into the ring, but he went on promotional tours with Foreman and Frazier, recalling the good old days the best he could.

Thompson leaves you hanging with the article he penned back in May, 1978, for Rolling Stone magazine, and I haven't been able to find a full follow-up article.  Maybe RS will make it available like they did this one from its archives.  All you get is a snippet of what transpired after all hell broke lose in Room 904.

Sadly, the Leon Spinks fight brought Ali crashing down to earth and we would never look at him quite the same way as a boxer.  We all knew there would come that time when Ali would have to cash it in, but why couldn't he have gone out after the Shavers fight?  We would have been spared the horror that happened that ill-fated February night in Vegas.

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