By Bill Ross
“The title is too hard to get. I’m not goin’ to give it up without thinking. I’m going to sit down for six or eight months and think about it. Then I’ll decide whether to fight again. I would never want to go out a loser…” Muhammad Ali after defeating Leon Spinks September 15, 1978
When Muhammad Ali defeated Leon Spinks to claim the world heavyweight championship for an unprecedented third time, it appeared that Ali’s boxing career would end on a high note. As Ali was announced the winner by unanimous decision, the self proclaimed greatest looked into the television camera and with a wave of his hand gave viewers a good-bye kiss. It was a storybook ending to the career of one of the true sports icons of the 20th century.
After much speculation Ali finally announced his retirement on June 26, 1979. Ali was prompted to make his retirement official after boxing promoter Bob Arum reportedly paid him $300,000 incentive money so that he could stage a heavyweight championship fight between John Tate and Gerrie Coetzee for Ali’s World Boxing Association title.
On October 20th, Tate captured the WBA version of the heavyweight championship by 15 round decision in a boring fight. Back home in Los Angeles, Ali watched the fight on television and was unimpressed. Considering the prospect of capturing the title a fourth time, and realizing the opportunity to make millions of dollars for one night’s work, Ali made the decision that he would come back to challenge Tate and reclaim his title. Ali’s announced retirement had lasted four months.
Ali first returned to the gym in November and began training at Main Street Gym near his home in Los Angeles where he sparred with journeyman Eddie ‘The Animal” Lopez. Negotiations began sometime thereafter for Ali to fight Tate the following year.
On March 5th, 1980 Bob Arum announced Ali was to be paid $4,500,000 to face Tate sometime in June. That day, Ali returned to his home base, Miami’s Fifth Street Gym and began to prepare for the Tate fight. On Ali’s fourth day of training he was sparring with heavy-handed puncher Jeff Sims. After removing his mouthpiece to taunt Sims, Ali received a punch to the upper lip opening a one inch gash that would require six stitches on the outside and four on the inside to close. Ali quickly grew a moustache to hide the cut and soon adopted a new nickname, Dark Gable.
On March 31st, the proposed Ali-Tate fell through when Tate lost his title in dramatic fashion by getting knocked out in the 15th round by Mike Weaver. Tate had dominated the bout up to the last round before being knocked cold by a left hook. With Tate out of the picture Ali’s focus now turned towards a fight with Weaver to whom he gave the predictable nickname ‘The Beaver”. Ali soon began to hype a potential fight with the ex-marine. Negotiations got underway and Ali was given a $250,000 advance on an $8,000,000 purse to fight Weaver at Rio de Janeiro’s’ Stadium Maracana in July.
On April 4th and with a new opponent and a tentative July date, Ali again resumed training, this time at his Deer Lake Training Camp. Weighing 251 lbs Ali began the arduous process of getting himself into fighting shape. In addition to fighting Weaver, Ali now began considering challenging WBC heavyweight champion Larry Holmes to unify the title. Holmes, who held the World Boxing Council, had already defended his title against Weaver, scoring an 11th round KO on June 22, 1979. At the time, Holmes’ record was an impressive 33-0 while Weaver’s was 22-9. To the boxing establishment, Holmes was viewed as the true heavyweight champion. For Ali’s fourth heavyweight championship to carry any authenticity Holmes would need to be the opponent and on April 17 Ali held a press conference and announced he would be fighting Holmes instead of Weaver.
On the weekend of May 11 a contract was negotiated for Ali to challenge Holmes for the WBC heavyweight championship. Ali was to receive $8,000,000 while Holmes the much lesser figure of $2,300,000. Details of the fight were officially announced at a July 17th press conference. ‘The Last Hurrah’ was to take place October 2nd in Las Vegas and would be promoted by Don King.
There is an age old axiom in the sport of boxing that says ‘he who controls the heavyweight champion controls boxing’. It is an axiom that no doubt was on the mind of Marion State Correctional Institution prisoner Don King on March 8, 1971. King at the time was in the process of serving a twenty year manslaughter sentence. On this date King listened to the radio for updates on ‘The Fight of the Century’ which pitted the undefeated Ali against undefeated heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. The two fighters were splitting a then unheard of $5,000,000 purse. When King was released from prison in September of that year he immediately set out to make his mark in professional boxing. King had served just less than four of his twenty year sentence.
Upon his release from prison, King with the help of Ali and local promoter Don Elbaum, promoted his first boxing card. Ali was no stranger to King as both men shared a mutual friendship with recording artist Lloyd Price. With the promise of all proceeds going towards charity, Ali showed up and fought an exhibition match as the feature bout. Afterwards, King began promoting small fight cards in Ohio while looking to make his mark at the heavyweight championship level.
On January 22, 1973, King was with heavyweight champion Joe Frazier in Kingston Jamaica who was there to defend his title against George Foreman. On the way to the stadium King rode in a limousine with Frazier. That night in the ring Foreman proceeded to hammer Frazier to the mat six times while capturing the title with a convincing 2nd round TKO. As legend would have it, Don started the fight in Frazier’s corner and gradually began moving towards Foreman’s corner as Foreman dominated Frazier. At the conclusion of the fight a jubilant King celebrated with Foreman before heading off to the victory party in a limousine with the newly crowned champion. It was a story often told and retold by King. Clearly, loyalty was not a predominant core value of King’s
King would receive a break of sorts when he was invited to assist in the promotion of Foreman’s second title defense against Ken Norton in Caracas Venezuela. It was all the experience and exposure King needed and later that year he promoted his most famous fight ‘The Rumble In The Jungle’ which saw Ali reclaim his heavyweight crown with an 8th round KO over Foreman. The fight which had taken place in Kinshasa Zaire had attracted worldwide attention and saw the two fighters split a then record $10,000,000 purse.
With Ali as boxing’s top draw, King attempted to gain Ali’s confidence and inherit the position of controlling Ali as both manager and exclusive promoter. King began a power struggle for Ali and went to such lengths as to befriend and begin paying member’s of Ali’s entourage to say good things about him all the while trying to pry the champion away from his current manager Herbert Muhammad. The attempted takeover flopped however and King was never able to commit Ali to any long term contract. Herbert for his part managed to use and maximize King, by extracting top dollar from him to promote Ali’s fights. The end result was that King managed to be involved in the promotion of five of Ali’s next six title defenses including the epic ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ pitting Ali and Frazier doing battle for the third and last time.
In mid 1976, Herbert Muhammad began feeling threatened by King’s attempts to control Ali. At this time, Herbert made a conscious effort to avoid King and began using other promoters such as Bob Arum who promoted Ali’s September 28th defense against Ken Norton. So determined was Herbert to avoid King that he had Ali defend his title against Ken Norton for $2,000,000 less than what King had been willing to pay Ali for his promotion. It was a decision that sent a strong message to King but ultimately hurt Ali financially.
In total Ali would fight six more times until retirement after his unofficial break from King although he would promote one more Ali fight against Alfredo Evangelista in 1977. However, by this time, King had long ago failed to push aside Herbert Muhammad and gain a stranglehold on Ali. This failure to do so cost King his opportunity to control the heavyweight champion and thus the sport of boxing.
In 1971 Larry Holmes was a 22 year old amateur boxer from Easton Pennsylvania working in a car wash. When Holmes heard that Ali was constructing a training facility in nearby Deer Lake situated in Pennsylvania’s Blue Mountains, the young fighter made his way up in the hopes of meeting Ali. Using the connection between his manager Ernie Butler and Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee, Holmes met Ali and offered his services as a sparring partner. Ali climbed into the ring that day and tested the young fighter in a sparring session that left Holmes with a black eye. Ali took a liking to the young fighter and took Holmes under his wing, gave him some new boxing equipment and hired him as one of his three primary sparring partners. Holmes would hold this position until deciding to branch off on his own in 1975, two years after turning pro.
Working for Ali was an ideal situation for Holmes, affording him the opportunity to train in first class facilities, travel the world and most importantly learn how to fight at the hands of the world’s top heavyweight. Holmes was a blue collar fighter, a diligent worker in the gym, always in shape and determined to learn and refine his craft.
Holmes rapidly gained a reputation as a quality fighter capable of emulating Ali’s style and in 1974 worked as a sparring partner for Joe Frazier as he prepared for his second fight with Ali. Holmes had also previously worked as a sparring partner for Earnie Shavers emulating the style of Shavers’ forthcoming opponent Jimmy Ellis.
It was while working for Ali that the 4-0 Holmes met and signed a contract with Don King. Holmes was not the first heavyweight that King had been interested in having under contract. Hard hitting heavyweights Jeff Merritt and Earnie Shavers had both been managed by King then quickly discarded after suffering knockout defeats. King managed to lure Holmes away from Ernie Butler and get the fighter under contract as his manager. King then appointed Richie Giachetti to train Holmes. Gradually the young heavyweight gained professional experience and media exposure fighting on the under cards of high profile King promoted fights like Ali-Ron Lyle, Ali-Frazier III, and Ali-Jimmy Young.
On November 5, 1977, Ken Norton won a 15 round decision over Jimmy Young in a King promoted heavyweight challenger elimination bout. The win established Norton as the top contender to Ali’s championship and thus the mandatory challenger.
On February 15, 1978 Ali lost his title by an upset split decision to Leon Spinks. The WBC who had close ties with King quickly moved in and demanded Spinks make Norton his first challenger. Spinks instead chose to give Ali a return match and the WBC in turn stripped him of their half of the title and awarded it to Norton. The move allowed King who had contract options on promoting Norton’s next fight to take a step closer to controlling the heavyweight championship.
By this time, King was ready for Holmes to make his move and in a nationally televised fight, Holmes won a clear cut 12 round unanimous decision against Earnie Shavers who the previous year had lost a narrow decision to then champion Ali.
The impressive defeat of Shavers put Holmes in line to challenge Norton for the crown and on June 9, 1978 in a thrilling fight, Holmes won the WBC title by split decision. Having Holmes as champion was the fruition of the dreams of both Holmes and just as importantly King who was now in the financially lucrative position of both managing and promoting the heavyweight champion.
Upon winning the WBC title, Holmes took to being an active champion making seven straight successful defenses with all wins coming by stoppage. Most of Holmes' opponents like Alfredo Evangelista, Ossie Ocasio, Scott Ledoux, Leroy Jones and Lorenzo Zanon were clearly overmatched. Against tougher competition like Mike Weaver, Holmes struggled while a rematch with Earnie Shavers saw Holmes hitting the deck before rallying to victory.
At this point in his career, Holmes was viewed by the general public as an Ali imitator who had failed to capture the attention of the buying public. Questions still arose regarding Holmes’ punching power, heart, stamina, and chin. While newly crowned welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard was commanding multi million dollar paydays and closed circuit fights, Holmes the heavyweight champion of the world was still fighting on network television a domain rarely seen for an Ali fight.
When Holmes signed to fight Ali, Don King was aware that his fighter needed a high profile win to boost his marketability and Ali was as high profile as you could get. A convincing KO win over Ali would establish Holmes not only as the linear champion but also make him one of the top draws in boxing allowing Holmes to escape Ali's shadow once and for all. A KO win for Holmes would also tie the record held by Tommy Burns for consecutive KO victories for a defending heavyweight champion. An Ali victory on the other hand would spell nothing short of disaster for King who had dedicated his last eight years since being released from prison working towards controlling the heavyweight championship. There was no way King wanted Ali or Herbert Muhammad for that matter back in control of the title.
Bill Ross can be reached at [email protected]