By Lyle Fitzsimmons
It’s just an in-between anniversary this time, but it doesn’t much matter.
Whenever Oct. 2 rolls around on the calendar, as it did yesterday, I get pissed.
Not because I think boxing is a sissy sport or that the guys who pursue it as a profession need to be coddled. It isn’t and they don’t. And anyone who’s covered it or been around it for any amount of time – whether less or more than me – knows that’s the case as well.
If a guy wants to strip down to trunks, shoes and gloves and test his best against that of another, I’m all for it. And as long as he passes the requisite medical tests of the commission of record, I couldn’t care less if he’s black or white, young or old, champion or never-was.
That said… something about Oct. 2, 1980, goes above and beyond the call of disgust.
On that night in Las Vegas – with television cameras extending front-row seating far beyond the Nevada desert – nothing less than a crime was committed against the greatest heavyweight of all time, Muhammad Ali.
And rather than paying for it with the suspensions and lifetime bans circumstantially tossed around for other infractions, its perpetrators have both escaped punishment and been given a free pass to act magnanimous while continuing to ride shotgun to the man who fed their families in his heyday.
Thirty-two years ago Tuesday, the three-time ex-champion met a devastating career Waterloo at Caesars Palace – taking an unnecessary 10-round bludgeoning from a prime Larry Holmes in an ill-advised try for reign No. 4 as the division's best fighter.
He went on to lose a 10-round sleepwalk with a largely non-violent Trevor Berbick 14 months later, but it's the feeling of most that the beating suffered at the fists of an unbeaten Holmes is hugely responsible for worsening the post-Manila struggles “The Greatest” has faced ever since.
I won a lucky 10 dollars that night from my never-wise-wagering sister, Roberta. But as a wide-eyed 11-year-old, I could hardly consider myself privy to the real goings-on.
Sure, I knew all about the third grueling Frazier match. And I was aware of the unnecessary shots he'd taken in eight interim stops from Puerto Rico to Landover to Munich to New Orleans.
But I can't claim to have known how truly bad things had gotten.
My bet on Holmes was simply the product of him being the first champion of my full-throttled fandom, not the result of any clue Ali had already slid as far as he had.
But an ESPN documentary released for the network’s birthday a few years ago shed more light on his condition even as the fight approached – with several members of his entourage recalling that he'd already begun exhibiting signs of decline long before reaching the ring.
I watched it again over the weekend when I realized October was again upon us.
And as angry as I was upon watching its premiere back then, I'm even more upset now.
Because another 60-minute revisit reminded how it simply wasn't fair.
Given the fact Ali hadn't seen a ring in two years, was not at normal lucidity even in training camp and had gotten a dubious bill of health from a pre-licensing exam at the Mayo Clinic, there's zero excuse for Holmes having landed anything more on him than a handshake.
His management shouldn't have signed it. The commission shouldn't have sanctioned it.
And when push came to shove, trusted advisers like Angelo Dundee – who spent three decades before his death professing unwavering care for the man – should have stopped it before it started.
No reasons they offered before, during or since hold sufficient water.
Dundee's claim he didn't have Ali's ear rings hollow given their decades-long relationship, and the taped admission of Gene Kilroy that the fighter confided something "wasn't right" days in advance puts the business manager alongside the veteran trainer as an accomplice to the crime.
As hard-headed as Ali might have been… it makes no difference.
As much purse money as was being offered or betting money Nevada stood to gain… so what?
As difficult as it would have been to stop it all before it started… doesn't matter.
The job descriptions of Dundee, Kilroy, Wali Muhammad and others included a responsibility to prepare their man for battle, not just revel in his glow.
And, in a scenario where nearly everyone believed success was no option, their mandate was to keep him safe from an awful one-sided beating that could leave permanent scars.
History now shows how deeply those scars were left.
And it shows undisputedly that each and every team member failed miserably.
With every interview transcribed or autobiography page they've written – featuring remembrances of earning a living with a 220-pound traveling circus – another layer of hypocrisy is added to a story that should have had a better ending.
Ali should be the one on the talk-show memoirs tour, tossing out flurries at ringside pay-per-view introductions and acting as the best possible ambassador for a game badly needing one.
Instead he's dwindled away to sympathetic figurehead, drawing cringes from fans and becoming a lasting symbol of brutality for the always-insistent abolitionist crowd. While his ex-caretakers present vacant rationale for failure and promote their latest books.
He’ll be gone in a few more years, leaving a void it’ll take 10 men to fill.
And when still-healthy subordinates return for a share of the nostalgia pie, their slices should be accompanied by a note saying, “Eat well, it didn't have to be this way.”
While I concede punishment taken against the Fraziers, Nortons and Foremans would have left anyone worse for wear, it was clear the Ali who walked away after defeating Leon Spinks in 1978 was healthier than the one who turned away from Holmes but stubbornly refused to fall.
Too brave and too sturdy for his own good.
And too good a man to have this as his prolonged final chapter, no matter the inconvenience.
Shame on those who let it happen... and here's to 32 years, plus a few hundred more, of their own internal torture.
* * * * * * * * * *
This week’s title-fight schedule:
WBC light flyweight title – Toluca, Mexico
Kompayak Porpramook (champion) vs. Adrian Hernandez (No. 3 contender)
Porpramook (46-3, 31 KO): Second title defense; Unbeaten since 2006 (24-0, 16 KO)
Hernandez (24-2-1, 15 KO): Fourth title fight (2-1); Lost WBC title to Porpramook (KO 10) in 2011
Fitzbitz says: “Mexican went on the road to lose the belt to a Thai challenger 10 months ago, but he’ll recover and set up the trilogy by getting it back on home turf.” Hernandez in 10
WBO light middleweight title – Kiev, Ukraine
Zaurbek Baysangurov (champion) vs. Lukas Konecny (unranked)
Baysangurov (27-1, 20 KO): Second title defense; Unbeaten since 2008 (8-0, 6 KO)
Konecny (48-3, 23 KO): Second title fight (0-1); Unbeaten since 2008 (12-0, 5 KO)
Fitzbitz says: “Neither fighter can truly make a claim to be the division’s best, but the slugging incumbent looks more likely to hold onto his status in a grinding title defense.” Baysangurov by decision
Last week's picks: 0-0
Overall picks record: 340-115 (74.7 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.