News of Muhammad Ali’s death inevitably brought to mind the evening of 11 December 1981 when, just a month into my new job on the Tribune newspaper, I was in Nassau to witness Ali’s last fight, against Jamaican journeyman Trevor Berbick, 12 years his junior.
I’d never been a big boxing fan, but Ali transcended the sport to such an extent that I’d been aware of him since the two Sonny Liston fights in the Sixties (as Cassius Clay), and in the Seventies once he made his comeback from the Vietnam draft evasion conviction, he was huge as he took on the likes of Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton, winning, and occasionally losing, with such style.
In the days before the fight, Ali had been his usual charming self meeting the locals, including one of our sports reporters. I never got the chance to meet him, unfortunately. But I did see John Travolta out and about on Paradise Island, just over the bridge from Nassau. Shorter than I expected, and not wearing a white suit.
So here I was among a full house of 11,000 or so standing outdoors under the stars at Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre, in a huge park basically, to see The Greatest finally bowing out on a chilly Friday evening – in Nassau that meant wearing a light zip-up jacket, and a tartan scarf if I remember right.
It wasn’t officially the end but I think we all knew it. At 39 going on 40, Ali was a shadow of the dynamic, charismatic figure he had been: his Parkinson’s diagnosis was only three years away.
For all its glamorous image, Nassau is a small city of 250,000 people which admittedly has been a location for several James Bond films and the Beatles, who filmed Help there.
The Bahamians are lovely people, but laid-back doesn’t begin to describe their attitude to life. Organisation is not a strong point. To read now the reports of what was going on behind the scenes, it was amazing that we saw any boxing at all, but the fights got under way, albeit more than two hours late. The undercard included Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns and Earnie Shavers.
Boxing always seems to thrive on “controversy” as the build-up is hyped to the max, but the organisers ensured nothing needed to be manufactured on this occasion, from Berbick threatening to pull out unless he got his full purse of $350,000 before the fight to promoter Don King being assaulted (allegedly) over the rights to the fight.
The shambolic promotion reached comic proportions on the night as only two sets of boxing gloves were available for six fights, meaning gloves had to be unstitched after each bout rather than being cut off, a cowbell was found to signal each round as there was no ring bell, and only Ali, Berbick and Hearns had separate dressing rooms. The rest had to slum it side by side.
“Now I know what the gladiators felt like in Rome,” said Scott LeDoux. “Ever see the movie Spartacus? The gladiators all waited together in one pit. This is unbelievable.”
Veteran trainer Eddie Futch remarked: “This is the worst I’ve ever been in. They were consistent – they did everything wrong all the way through.”
Of course, standing about 100 yards from the ring, I, and I’m sure most of the other fans, were oblivious to all this. The night seemed to go without a hitch, tickets were easy to come by, there was no queuing, no hassle at all. Even the aforementioned two-hour delay has been lost in the mists of time; maybe I got there two hours late.
But I did see Ali fight. To my untutored eyes, it was close as the contest went the full ten, unspectacular rounds and the three-times heavyweight champion had his moments against an awkward opponent of dubious technique, but the spark had long gone.
The judges gave a unanimous verdict to Berbick, 97-94 from a Bahamian and 99-94 from the other two. That sounds close to me, but it’s not.
The feeling at the end was of sadness, all around me, that Ali couldn’t summon one last victory from somewhere.
But the champ admitted he was finished: “I think I’m too old. I was slow. I was weak. Nothing but Father Time. The things I wanted to do, I couldn’t do. I was doing my best. I did good for a 39-year-old. I think I’m finished. I know it’s the end. I’m not crazy.
“After [Larry] Holmes, I had excuses. I was too light. Didn’t breathe right. No excuses this time. I’m happy. I’m still pretty. I could have a black eye. Broken teeth. Split lips. I think I came out all right for an old man.” Berbick said: “Early on, I was hitting him on the chin to try to take him out of his misery. I didn’t want to hurt him. I just wanted to throw enough punches to win. I made the fight. If not for me, there wouldn’t have been a fight. It would have been a waltz.”
Ali retired for good after the fight, finishing his career with an overall record of 56-5.
Berbick won the WBC heavyweight title in 1986 but was beaten in his first defence by the 20-year-old Mike Tyson. Berbick’s demise, amazingly, was swifter than that of Ali. He continued boxing for another 14 years but was plagued by issues in his personal life, including various arrests and a conviction for sexual assault.
In October 2006, Berbick was found dead, with massive wounds to the head, in a church courtyard in Jamaica. His 20-year-old nephew and a friend were found guilty of murder and manslaughter respectively.
To be honest, I didn’t feel that night in December 1981 that I’d been in the presence of greatness, witnessing one of the great icons of the 20th century in action. The humble setting and the relatively sad figure that Ali had become saw to that.
Now of course I feel differently, and I don’t remember Ali as a sad figure but as a supremely gifted, handsome athlete, a wisecracker extraordinaire, with a smile on his face.
Even if it was later dubbed the “trauma in Bahama” it was an unforgettable night.