Saturday, December 11, 2010

December 11, 1981: The End

NASSAU, Bahamas - "The Greatest is Gone," blared the headline on the cover of Time magazine. The image was of Muhammad Ali in defeat, slumped in his corner while his trainer looked him over. The most shocking part about the cover was how true it was. By 1978, Ali was nowhere near the fighter he had once been, very obviously at the end of a career that had completely captivated the boxing world. But now it was over. Everybody could see that now.

Everybody, that is, except Ali. See, that photo was published in February of 1978 after his loss to Leon Spinks, but Ali fought three more times, defeating Spinks in a rematch before losing his final two bouts.

The end for Ali finally came on December 11, 1980, not in the glory of a title fight in a huge stadium or a glorious casino, but rather in the middle of a rundown sandlot baseball field in the Bahamas, fighting against an inconsistent and subpar challenger in a poorly organized event where nothing was going right.

Most people involved in boxing believed that Ali should not have been fighting Trevor Berbick, or anybody at all in 1981. Ali was 39 years old, his body was ravaged by the beatings he took in 62 heavyweight fights. He was neither strong enough to inflict damage nor quick enough to avoid it. In short, he stood no chance.

But he also faced a $1.1 million payday, and even if a lot of people were unsure where the promoters would get the money, Ali agreed to it, and he stepped into the ring against Berbick in Berbick's home country.

Ali lasted the full 10 rounds against Berbick, but that was about the only positive thing that could be said about his bout. Berbick hit him continuously and mercilessly. Perhaps it was a sign of Berbick's ability as a fighter that he couldn't knock Ali out, but Ali stayed up before losing a 10-round decision.

After the fight, even Ali knew it was time to step away. He could no longer protect himself in the ring, could no longer either float like a butterfly or sting like a bee. And so he retired, finishing with a career record of 56-5 and leaving behind a legacy that made him perhaps the most famous athlete the world had ever seen.

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