October 2nd, 1980. Just before the Phillies won their first World Series and Ronald Reagan won the 1980 Election. Larry Holmes was the heavyweight champion of the boxing world, by consensus. Muhammad Ali was still one of the biggest stars on the planet. They met in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was one of the worst low moments boxing ever produced.
Larry Holmes is the icon in my native Easton, PA. If not for a basically fixed fight shortly after, Holmes would have eclipsed Rocky Marciano’s unbeaten streak while he spent the better part of a decade as the best fighter in the world. The knock on Larry is of course that the division wasn’t what it used to be when he was champion- part of that though was simply that he was so much better than everyone in the world in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
I never got to see Muhammad Ali fight, as I was born in 1983. For me, there’s just the iconic moment in Atlanta where he lit the Olympic torch. Ali is simply one of the most important men in 20th century sports, next to the names Owens, Robinson, Ruth, Aaron, Jordan, and Johnson. The Ali that fought in 1980 was a shadow of the man he had been. Ali simply wasn’t Ali anymore.
The fight shouldn’t have happened. Money is a damned thing though. Egos are too. While some fans took issue with the way Holmes had beaten Ali, it frankly wasn’t on him. Don King’s money and Muhammad Ali’s inability to hang it up caused this fight. Ali needed some more money and Don King offered him not only the chance to make it, but also the chance to be the king one more time. Never mind that he had no chance, no one would simply accept that they weren’t able to do it anymore unless it is proven to them, brutally. That’s what happened that night.
For Holmes part, I’m not really sure what he was supposed to do to appease some of these fans, short of take a dive for Ali. If he had not fought the fight seriously, Ali might have caught him with one more flurry. If he had no beaten him so badly, the judges may have screwed Holmes, as they did a couple of years later in his fights with Michael Spinks. Lord knows if they had the chance to give Ali one more title run and get a rematch, Don King would have made sure it happened. Holmes didn’t somehow get Ali cleared for his health, or not throw in the towel for him, or even make Ali stay up. Given the situation, Holmes had few other options. While Mike Tyson’s story about later “avenging” Ali’s honor in his beating of Holmes after Holmes’ prime has caught on amongst boxing fans, it seems that childhood Mike Tyson had a somewhat childlike view of what happened to his idol.
For many, this fight left a sour taste in their mouth. It should have. It exposed really everything wrong with boxing as a sport, and the extent to which we are willing to let our heroes take a beating that is life changing, for our entertainment. In the same way this week’s NFL events showed us why the sport could be headed for decline, this fight showed us the issues with boxing.