Shoot the Moon: The Title Reign of Larry Holmes Part VIII (Muhammad Ali)

American heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali comes out of retirement only to lose a fight to current champion Larry Holmes in Las Vegas, 2nd October 1980. (Photo by Chris Smith/Popperfoto via Getty Images/Getty Images)
Larry Holmes defeats Muhammad Ali at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on October 2, 1980. (Getty Images)

This is the eighth installment in Carlos Acevedo’s Shoot The Moon series covering the career of Larry Holmes.

***

October 2, 1980

He is having trouble sleeping. The long, long nights bleed away. From time to time this former chatterbox slurs his words. Occasionally, one of his fingers twitches uncontrollably. He is thirty-eight years old and he is going, going, gone to seed. (It has nothing—nothing!—to do with all those hard knocks over more than two decades.) This is why he dyes his graying hair, grows a mustache, and gives himself the zany nickname “Dark Gable.” (A year or so earlier, he was “The Black Henry Kissinger” for a spell.) He was in a TV movie, too, like Robert Wagner or Eve Plumb, not a Hollywood wonder, of course, but there were spotlights there and something of a ruckus while he filmed. That diplomat gig? Zigzagging all over the world for the peanut farmer who wears a cardigan? It got him nothing but trouble in Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia, Senegal. Dumb. All that crossing time zones on 747s just makes him miss Big Red, his nifty bus. Who can ever forget those days? He went barreling through history inside the ring and out—jive talk and everything. Oh, the whole planet was his playpen! He never meant to say goodbye. Is he or is he not still the most famous man alive? The Greatest, three-times heavyweight champion, the one and onliest king of the world. If he can just get some shuteye now and then.

***

“They say I’m going to get hurt. When did I ever get hurt? They say I got brain damage. Liver damage. They all lied. I spent three days at the Mayo Clinic. They stuck wire in me: I looked like Frankenstein’s monster. I passed every test. Look how pretty I talk. How could I have brain damage?” —Muhammad Ali

“Other than occasional tingling of the hands in the morning when he awakens which clears promptly with movement of the hands, he denied any other neurologic symptoms. On neurological examination, he seems to have a mild ataxic dysarthria. The remainder of his examination is normal except that he does not quite hop with the agility that one might anticipate and on finger-to-nose testing there is a slight degree of missing the target. Both of these tests could be significantly influenced by fatigue. A CT scan of the head was performed and showed only a congenital variation in the form of a small cavum septum pellucidum.” —Dr. Frank Howard, Department of Neurology, Mayo Clinic

“My goals are so great most people can’t understand. If I win the title I’ll be better than Tarzan, Batman, Wonder Woman, and The Incredible Hulk.” —Muhammad Ali

“I can only quote an old Chinese proverb. ‘Man who lead with chin sometimes find teeth on the floor.’” —Larry Holmes

“It’s just like when Marciano fought Joe Louis when Joe came out of retirement. Marciano beat him and then went into his dressing room and cried. He got nothing out of that fight. He beat his idol, he beat a legend. Sure, it’s the same for Larry now. Deep down, Ali is his idol. I remember when Larry used to be Ali’s sparring partner and Ali gave him a black eye. Larry wouldn’t let anybody put anything on the eye, he was so proud of it.” —Richie Giachetti

“The first miracle in this fight is my condition. If I was thirty-eight like the ordinary man, Holmes would be OK. But I’m not the ordinary man. I never was ordinary.” —Muhammad Ali

“They tell me there are so many bag holders, bucket-carriers, and people with self-proclaimed titles that they have to draw straws for beds. He’s like a bad dream, like a junkie hooked on drugs or a movie star hooked on the cameras. He can’t let it go. He has to have people around him. I think that’s why he’s fighting this fight, as much as the money—maybe more. But that’s his problem.” —Larry Holmes

“He never really fancied money. What he had he spent or gave away freely, perhaps the last morsel; to his family, to countless parasites he pitied and protected, to charity. None of his beneficiaries found pleasure in his numerous retirements. But now that he is back, they are cheered.” —Barney Nagler, The Ring

“They can’t judge me with their limited thinking. They can’t judge me with their limited vision, their limited knowledge. They’re just working people. They work for a salary. They will never see a million dollars. They will never see $120,000 cash. They never met Brezhnev of Russia, they never met Deng Xiaoping of China, they’ll never be called by the President to work for America in African countries, they are not me. They can’t judge me with their limited knowledge. I’m too high!” —Muhammad Ali

“There is nothing in this fight for Larry Holmes, but money and grief. Everyone talks about how much Ali is risking by returning to the ring, but it is Holmes who stands to lose the most. If he loses, it makes a farce of his 35-0 career. If he wins, he beat an overweight clown who did not know enough to leave the arena.” —Gary Smith, New York Daily News

“He can take off the weight but he can’t take off years. Another thing, he’s been hit too many times. Those hurts will come back to a fighter when he gets hit again. A man gets hit, say, in the right side a hundred times. All the hurt comes back.” —Larry Holmes

“Because, like the guy said when he climbed Mountain Everest, or maybe it was the guy who first walked on the moon or maybe it was Mars, because it’s there. That’s why I want to do it. Because it’s there.” —Muhammad Ali

“The song is over, but the melody lingers on.” —Don King

“Surely Ali, thirty-eight, saw a painful image of himself when he looked into the face of Joe Louis the other afternoon at Caesars Sports Pavilion. Lord only knows why they rolled Louis’s wheelchair up to the podium during Ali’s press conference. After a heart attack and three strokes, Louis looked like a dead man propped in a chair. His body was slumped to the right. His left eye was closed and the left side of his face seemed twisted grotesquely to the right. His hands rested in his lap, withered and useless.” —Thom Greer, Philadelphia Daily News

“He was my idol, I looked up to him. He let me stay around, so I just stayed around. The last day I ever worked with him he was still saying, ‘Come on, earn your keep. I’m the champ.’ Now I’m the champ. And I got to kick his ass. I got to look down on him. He’s fighting me in my prime and he’s downhill. I understand he’s working hard. He’s gonna try. But do you think his body can do the same things it did? It can’t. He was a young man beating up old guys, and now I’m a young man beating up another old guy. He can’t win, and I’m being as honest as I possibly can.” —Larry Holmes

“I made you. I clothed you. I fed you. I’m gonna get out of my rocking chair and whip your butt.” —Muhammad Ali

“That’s the same old broken record I’ve been hearing as long as I can remember. That kind of talk don’t win no fights. It might convince Ali and it might convince some people, but the guy he’s got to convince is Larry Holmes. If Ali stays in front of me, he’s gonna get knocked out early, period. If he’s still there after eight rounds, he’s lucky. I feel better than I ever felt. I’ve had four fights in the last year, and what was he doing? Blowing up past 250 pounds.” —Larry Holmes

“I’d say 95 percent of his opponents he psyched out. But he can’t get to us. We’re pros.” —Richie Giachetti

“Larry came up from the streets and you can’t psych guys from off the streets. You can only psych bookworms.” —Bill Prezant

“I hear that Ali was in his room at 5 a.m. watching films of my fight while I was sleeping. Why? Because he’s worried and he can’t sleep. We talked last night. We made a deal. We are going to meet in the center of the ring and we are going to fight until one of us drops. I’m not mad at him. In fact, I find him amusing. He makes me laugh. I’m a nice guy outside of the ring. But no one should mistake my kindness for weakness. In the ring I am a different person. All I’ve heard since I’ve been fighting is ‘Ali, Ali, Ali.’ I’m sick of being compared to him. If Ali killed me in the ring I wouldn’t care. All I want to do is go out there and get the monkey off my back. I want to get him out of there as fast as I can. If I can knock him out with my first punch, then that is what I am going to do.” —Larry Holmes 

***

Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, Nevada

“There he is: the returning hero; maybe not this time the conquering hero. Muhammad Ali, the man who hasn’t had a good fight for the last five years, not since Manila.” —Howard Cosell

“I stepped toward the neutral corner, where the Commission had laid out a resin box for the fighters to rub their shoes in, the better to grip the canvas. Well, Ali decided to block my way, his idea of one-upping me psychologically. Without a word, I shoved him aside and went to the box. No mind games for me, Ali. I am here to fight. To get the Ali monkey off my back.” —Larry Holmes

“It was as if the crowd knew the sad fate awaiting Ali, as if the crowd could see that the skin around his middle still jiggled after the diet that sent his weight crashing down to 217 and a half pounds. He smirked and winked. He tried to get the crowd to chant ‘Ali! Ali! Ali!’ He tried all the old tricks but they did him no more good than his fists would in the ring.” —Richard Hoffer, Los Angeles Times

“Round one had ended, and Muhammad Ali, slumped on the stool in his corner, knew then what the world would soon discover. The recently regained body beautiful was no more than a clever counterfeit. Ali was a Ferrari without an engine, a Rolex with the works missing. There was nothing inside. As Ali sat half-listening to trainer Angelo Dundee, sadly he understood that the career that had burst so brilliantly into being twenty years earlier at the Olympics in Rome would end this night in humiliation and defeat in a Las Vegas parking lot.” —Pat Putnam, Sports Illustrated

“All I could think of after the first round was, ‘Oh, God, I still have fourteen rounds to go.’ I had nothing. Nothing. I knew it was hopeless. I knew I couldn’t win and I knew I’d never quit. I looked across at Holmes and knew he would win but that he was going to have to kill me to get me out of the ring.” —Muhammad Ali

“The fight? There was no fight. It was a futile jab that never jabbed. A cocked right that never uncocked. A mysterious battle plan that never went into battle.” —Bert Randolph Sugar, The Ring

“All he had was his bravado. It was as though he thought he could talk himself into this fight. From almost my first punch, Ali began cursing me, insulting me, even as, or especially as, my punches were landing with loud thuds against him. ‘You dumb motherfucker. Asshole. Fuckhead. You ain’t shit as a fighter . . . never were.’” —Larry Holmes

“I thought they should have stopped it in the sixth round. After that, there was no point in going on, and that’s when the mental thing started to get to Larry. He didn’t want to hurt Ali, and began backing off because Ali wouldn’t go down. After that , he came back to the corner and said, ‘What am I supposed to do with this guy?’ And I told him, Larry, this guy is trying to take everything away you have. The best thing you can do is knock him out, for him and for yourself.” —Richie Giachetti

“The crowd began to boo. Ali had been heckled many times before–taunted for his abrasive personality, for his politics, his religion, his clowning—but never before in more than a quarter of a century of competitive boxing had he been scorned for sheer lack of ability. Ali had no answer—not for the crowd and not for Holmes. He just leaned against the turnbuckle and barked at Holmes, his mouth the only thing working. “Hit! Hit! Hit!” he said.” —Jonathan Eig

“Ali was not going to quit; he was there to take a beating, a beating I was not eager to deliver. That dilemma for me was how to bring an end to this fight without doing permanent damage to the man. Somehow I had to convince Green, the referee, that he needed to step in and call this fight off.” —Larry Holmes

“This must be stopped. It is a sad way to end. Well, they will not stop it. The crowd is screaming, chanting, ‘Ali, Ali, Ali.’ Legends [pause] die hard.” —Howard Cosell

“The night of the fight, he had no strength. I finally told him, ‘If you don’t start throwing punches in this round, I’m going to stop this fight.’ When he came back to the corner after the tenth round, I stopped it. Drew Brown was crying when he grabbed my arm not to call the referee. But I stopped it. The only time in Muhammad’s 56-5 record that he didn’t finish what he started.” —Angelo Dundee

“It was as graceless as a firing squad execution. Muhammad Ali does not smoke, so they could not offer him a final cigarette. He needed a blindfold when it was finally over, to cover his lumpy, blackened eyes.” —Stan Hochman, Philadelphia Daily News

“This fight was an abomination. It was a crime. All of the people involved in this fight should have been arrested.” —Ferdie Pacheco, 30 for 30: Muhammad and Larry

“Ali hasn’t won a round in the gym since I’ve known him. He’s the worst gym fighter in the world. But he always showed me flashes: ten seconds, fifteen seconds. Out there I begged him: show me something. Just show me a little. It wasn’t there. He didn’t have anything to show.” —Angelo Dundee

“Most of the people around me were celebrating another victory—my eighth in a row as champion, the thirty-sixth without a defeat as a professional. Naturally I was happy, happy that I won, because you can never take that for granted before any fight; happier that the mess the fight became was over; happiest that Ali was behind me and that I could get on with my career. It was a real bittersweet thing, beating Ali, who had not won a single round on the scorecards of the judges.” —Larry Holmes

“When the fight was stopped, with Ali sitting on the blue stool in his corner after the tenth round, Larry Holmes wept in the ring in happiness for himself, but also in sadness for the opponent who hired him in 1971 as a sparring partner.” —Dave Anderson, New York Times

“I fought a friend, a brother. You can’t get happiness out of that. I did what I had to do. I still love the guy but we all come and we all go. I’ll be gone someday, too.” —Larry Holmes

***

This was the saddest scene in Caesars Palace yet. Two weeks earlier, a daredevil fixed the gloomy mood by jumping his motorcycle over the water fountains and crashing into smithereens, just like Evel Knievel did in 1967. After Gladys Knight & the Pips sang The Star-Spangled Banner, the ringwalk seemed funereal. Muhammad Ali, now just another contender, in white terrycloth, no less, the darkness closing in despite how pretty he can talk. All he had left was the antics—nothing more. But how Ali used to soar, goddamn, what a blur, and you—down below, second billing ‘til the end–blotted by his shadow. Then: tenth round, TKO, 36-and-Oh, and Still! Earthbound, at last, “The Greatest,” the man who set you up with pristine gear in Deer Lake, PA, after years of raggedy odds and ends in rickety gyms, the man who let you have the first real gift you ever got in boxing: a shiner you considered the purest souvenir. That was in 1971, fifty miles from Easton, before your dreams were much too fast to brake. Dear God, what you had to do to him.

 

About Carlos Acevedo 38 Articles
Carlos Acevedo is an award-winning boxing writer and was the founder of The Cruelest Sport and is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Inside HBO Boxing, Undisputed Champion Network, Boxing News, Remezcla, Boxing Digest, and Esquina Boxeo.  His stories “A Darkness Made to Order” and “A Ghost Orbiting Forever” both won first place awards from the BWAA. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO). Carlos is the author of Sporting Blood, published by Hamilcar Publications. Connect with Carlos on Twitter @cruelestsport.