‘I didn’t give it away, Joe earned it’
1) March 8, 1971: 15-round unanimous-decision pts loss v Joe Frazier (WBA/WBC world heavyweight titles; Madison Square Garden, New York)
Dubbed the ‘Fight of the Century’, two undefeated fighters clashed for the heavyweight title for the first time as both men lay claim to the crown of undisputed champion.
Ali had infamously been stripped of his title after refusing the draft with Frazier prevailing during his rival’s absence from the ring. While the apolitical Frazier had been somewhat altruistic towards Ali, their rivalry intensified closer to the fight as Ali insultingly dismissed Frazier as an ‘Uncle Tom’. Both fighters were paid a then- record $2.5m purse for arguably the biggest fight in history, with Frank Sinatra working as a ringside photographer for a bout that transcended the sport.
Frazier punished Ali on the ropes and clocked up points before sending him to the canvas with a massive left hook in the final round. In his 32nd pro fight, ‘The Greatest’ was exposed as a mortal by his greatest ever rival before Ali would reaffirm his status with two wins in an epic trilogy.
“I didn’t give it away, Joe earned it.”
“The words hurt me more than the punches.”
2) March 31, 1973: 12-round split-decision loss v Ken Norton (NABF heavyweight title; Sports Arena, San Diego)
After 10 victories on the bounce, Ali was a heavy favourite to sail through a keep-busy bout against the unheralded Ken Norton, a former Marine. An ankle injury hampered Ali’s preparations and he greatly underestimated his opponent.
A broken jaw was Ali’s reward, believed to be caused by a Norton right hand in the second round. Ali heroically managed to last the distance but Norton took control in the last round of a close fight to claim a shock win. .
“I was concentrating so hard on trying to beat Norton I was not aware of the pain. He was better than I thought.”
“The first time I fought Ali, I felt it was an honour just to be in the same ring as him”.
3) February 15, 1978: 15-round split-decision loss v Leon Spinks (WBA/WBC heavyweight titles Las Vegas
An Olympic gold medallist at the 1976 Montreal Games, Spinks (another ex-Marine) took on Ali for the world title in his eighth pro fight – a then record – becoming the only challenger to take the title off Ali in the ring. Spinks trained judiciously, while Ali reportedly sparred less than two dozen rounds according to his biographer Thomas Hauser. The fight proved a hard sell due to Spinks’ inexperience and Ali’s pre-fight attitude matched their indifference.
Spinks battled through a muscle injury to record a victory as he outlasted a lazy Ali, who left it far too late to launch a final-round comeback effort. In a dull rematch, Spinks unfortunately mimicked his hero’s ill-advised preparations.
“Of all the fights I lost in boxing, losing to Spinks hurt the most. That’s because it was my own fault.”
“I’m the latest, but Ali’s still The Greatest.”
4) October 2, 1980: Retired after 10 rds v Larry Holmes (WBC world heavyweight title; Caesars Palace, Las Vegas)
Already showing obvious signs of Parkinson’s – clearly visible in the ESPN ‘30 for 30’ documentary ‘Muhammad and Larry’ - Ali was somehow licensed to fight in a tragic effort to become a four-time champion, earning a reported career-best $8million purse to fight his former sparring partner and friend Holmes.
Years later it was revealed the Nevada Athletic Commission disgracefully approved Ali’s licence despite the fact he struggled in pre-fight medical examinations. He also ill- advisedly took unnecessary thyroid medication prior to the bout.
Holmes – 35 victories into what would become a 48-fight winning streak – pummelled his friend in as merciful a fashion as possible, clearly opting not to go for a knockout, but Ali still endured a horrible beating before trainer Angelo Dundee finally called a halt.
“After the first round, I knew I was in trouble. I was tired, nothing left at all.”
“I beat up my hero and I didn’t enjoy it.”
5) December 11, 1981: 10-round unanimous-decision points loss v Trevor Berbick (non-title fight; Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre, Nassau, Bahamas)
By the time of this fight, even the US boxing commissions wouldn’t licence Ali, whose medical condition was worse than ‘shot’. The Bahamas tax haven of Nassau complied, however, for a shambles of a bout and promotion where undercard fighters shared gloves and a cowbell was hastily produced to signal the beginning and end of rounds.
A few weeks shy of his 40th birthday, Ali took on 27-year-old Berbick, who carried a record of 19-2-1 after one unsuccessful world title challenge. Ali, in poor condition, managed to survive the first half of the fight without taking too much punishment before struggling through the final three rounds.
“Father Time caught up with me… No excuses this time.”
“He has been my inspiration since I was a schoolboy. “
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