“Why are so many people afraid of me fighting Berbick? What’s wrong with me trying it? You ever see so many people worried about one black guy in your life? … Do I sound like I got brain damage to you?”
— Muhammad Ali,
As usual, the planet’s most recognizable individual was blustering and blathering to interviewer George Vecsey two weeks before the so-called “Drama in the Bahamas” heavyweight fight against Trevor Berbick in Nassau. But perhaps without realizing it, Muhammad Ali was writing his own boxing epitaph.
For a long time, he was the greatest fighter in the world and arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time. He won the championship in 1964 when the supposedly invincible Sonny Liston refused to get off his stool for the seventh round, than flattened him in the first round of a rematch.
After refusing induction into the Army in 1967 as a conscientious objector (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong”), he was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his title and barred from the ring for three years. Upon returning after the Supreme Court overturned his conviction, Ali won two of three epic bouts with championship successor Joe Frazier. Later he outsmarted and outpunched the younger George Foreman. When he beat gap-toothed Leon Spinks in 1978, Ali won the title for a record third time.
Surely there was no barrier too steep for him to surmount — except there was.
By October 1980, when he took a savage beating from Larry Holmes, Ali obviously was far over the hill — several hills, in fact. Nevertheless, he signed to fight Berbick, a tough Jamaican who later won the title himself on Dec.11, 1981.
Though Ali already had shown signs of brain damage from the thousands of punches he absorbed, pride and perhaps financial need propelled him forward as millions of his fans around the globe prayed he would emerge unscathed. No longer did he “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” — not even close. But he still talked a good game.
“Why do people go to the moon?” he asked Vecsey rhetorically. “Why did Martin Luther King say he had a dream? People need challenges. … Floyd Patterson won the title two times, but I’m going to do it four times.”
But what about the brain damage, the slurred words?
“I’m tired — this is hard work for somebody my age . Naturally, I talk slower when I’m tired. But I still make sense, don’t I? I’m not one of those punch-drunk fighters.”
And so Ali ventured into the ring against Berbick, a formidable 27-year-old who looked and talked mean. Before the fight, he approached Ali and said arrogantly, “Do the best you can because I don’t want to hurt you.”
Ali’s response was not preserved, but we may assume he sneered.
When the bell rang, Ali surprisingly forced the action. At one point, however, he stumbled backward, and a woman in the crowd screamed. She would do so throughout the bout, almost as if she were sounding a dirge.
During the next few rounds, it became apparent Ali was no match for Berbick, who might have been lucky to last two rounds with him when “The Greatest” was truly great. Then, as so often had happened in recent years, Ali rallied strongly in the fifth. With the crowd chanting “Ali bomaye,” as it had in his monumental upset of Foreman more than six years earlier. Now Ali was pelting Berbick with lefts and rights, and the chanting grew.
Between the fifth and sixth rounds, cornerman Bundini Brown urged Ali to “jab, jab, jab,” and famed trainer Angelo Dundee shouted, “We’re halfway home!” But Ali never made it the rest of the way.
Slowly, surely, Berbick regained control. As Ali stepped back momentarily after being pounded in the seventh round, he motioned for his opponent to come in again — a gesture both gallant and foolish.
Now there were just three rounds left in Ali’s storied career, and he began to dance around the ring as in his youth. Nonetheless, he was getting beaten up as the crowd sighed its apprehension. Ali continued to dance and flick jabs, but Berbick was scoring the telling blows.
Then it was thankfully over, all over, and the ring announcer intoned, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a unanimous decision. … Unanimous decision for Trevor Berbick.”
Casting aside his prefight bravado, Berbick saluted Ali as only another boxer could. Hugging his vanquished foe, the Jamaican yelled, “I shall go on to win the world championship! … I’m going to do it for you, man. You inspire me since I been a kid! I love you, man. You’re a true brother! Thank you, man — you made me, bless you!”
Again, we don’t know how Ali responded, though it probably was with equal class. The young fighter who spouted poems in the early ‘60s was going out as an aging warrior forced to accept defeat gracefully. His final career record was 56-5 with 37 knockouts.
Three years later, Ali confirmed publicly he was suffering from Parkinson’s syndrome — a condition characterized by slurred speech, facial immobility, poor balance and difficulty in walking. For the next two decades, he remained as active as possible, bearing his illness with a quiet dignity that earned him as much worldwide respect as his fists once did. When he appeared unannounced to light the Olympic cauldron at the start of the 1996 Atlanta Games, millions wept.
At 63, earlier controversies forgotten, he remains one of the world’s beloved figures. Most old fighters merely fade away, but the legend of Muhammad Ali continues to grow and flourish.