Ali’s Forgotten Final Fight

(Photo by: Kyla Borg)

When Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, tributes naturally came in from all corners of the globe. He was a “champion,” a “civil rights icon,” a “humanitarian,” a “legend,” an “American icon,” and of course, “The Greatest.” One term in short supply, however, was “loser.” Sure, his losses, like the epic, Earth-shaking defeat to Joe Frazier in the “Fight of the Century” and those at the fists of Ken Norton and Leon Spinks, were mentioned as key boxing moments in Ali’s brilliant, distinguished career. One fight, however, was glossed over in all of the accolades, an ugly pointless brutal exhibition in which Ali was not just the loser, but a loser.

It wasn’t the 1980 debacle against his friend and former sparring partner Larry Holmes, a hallowed champion in his own right, either. That fight, dubbed “The Last Hurrah” by Sports Illustratedwas merciless. Holmes undressed The Champ in Las Vegas, pummeling him for 10 rounds and leading to the only TKO in Ali’s career when Angelo Dundee called the fight five rounds early. Unbeknownst to the public, Ali’s pre-fight examination at the Mayo Clinic showed signs of Parkinson’s, but he was still granted a boxing license by the Nevada Athletic Commission. Ali was a tomato can that night. Afterwards, Larry Holmes wept, but not tears of joy.

The Holmes fight should have never taken place, but at the very least, it could be said to have been the final undignified blow it seems all boxers have to take. The loss to Larry Holmes carried the sad poetry, the existential vanquishing of a renowned boxer, the whole Greek Tragedy Requiem for a Heavyweight thing that brings a fighter’s career to its inevitable lonesome end.

Sadly, Muhammad Ali didn’t see it that way.

Fourteen months later he would get back into the ring, a few weeks shy of his 40th birthday, to take on unheralded 27-year-old Trevor Berbick in a non-title affair. It was, in a word, pathetic. So pathetic, it calls to mind Bizarro Bundini Brown:

Bloat like a butterball, stink did Ali. Stumble, old man, stumble.

***

Irish Times writer Dave Hannigan looks back on the G.O.A.T.’s lowest moment in Drama in the Bahamas: Muhammad Ali’s Last Fight, a worthy addition to the canon, and canonization, if only to show that Ali too was for one night a loser in every sense of the word. It’s a troubling story, one that will have readers pulling their hair out, screaming at Ali not to follow through on this reckless idiocracy. Knowing damn well that as a wise bartender once noted everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.

For Hannigan, author of nine books including The Big Fight, a cheekily-told truer-than-fiction tale of Ali’s 1972 fight in Dublin (which circled back to me in 2008 thanks to a long-lost autographed hurling stick), the Berbick fight intrigued because of the old axiom, the best stories are in the losing locker room.

“As a soccer writer, I’ve always been attracted to minor leaguers, or players at the end of their careers, where things aren’t shiny and bright.” says Hannigan. “This was a terrible way for Ali to go out. The characters were unsavory, there was half-assed promotion, and the location was off-off-off-off-Broadway in a community baseball field. It was such a sad event, Ali shuffling off into the dark in a far-off locale. It wasn’t even shown in Ireland and Ireland loved Ali.”

There are any number of excuses as to why the fight in the Bahamas took place, but one of the main ones Ali offered is that due to thyroid medicine, he was dehydrated and too light at 217.5 lbs. when he fought Holmes. Medically sound reasoning perhaps. It still didn’t account for his diminished skills and reflexes, which had deteriorated to the point where promoters couldn’t get the bout sanctioned in the United States, even network television wouldn’t touch it.  

“The Berbick fight was a facsimile of what once was, like a formerly great rock group playing the hits 20 years later with only one original member,” says Hannigan. “At this point they’re a cover band. It was somebody doing an Ali impression.”

Even the bad guys and the boxing corruption in Drama in the Bahamas feels second-rate. In the Dublin fight, the promoter was Butty Sugrue, a former circus strongman-turned-publican whose alleged claim to fame was pulling double-decker buses by a rope in his teeth. In Nassau, the promoter was James Cornelius, a rinky-dink criminal who only got into Ali’s inner-circle because he delivered surplus U.S. Mail vehicles to the Nation of Islam. Don King—who, naturally was hanging around like a vulture—Cornelius ain’t.

“The whole thing was like the decaffeinated version of the Thrilla in Manilla,” says Hannigan with a laugh. In a nutshell, the Ali-Frazier fight featured Frank Sinatra taking ringside pictures for Life, while the Berbick bout had John Travolta kneeling and sobbing at Ali’s feet.

Drama in the Bahamas details all the machinations, the great lengths everyone had to go to, just to get the sub-standard nonsense off the ground. Days before the December 11, 1981 fight was scheduled to take place, the money wasn’t even remotely right. As New York Times scribe George Vescey put it, “This time Ali could be saved from a beating by the fiscal shorts.” Less than 2,000 tickets had been “sold,” and Berbick didn’t receive the money he was owed, said to be $250,000, until four hours before the first bell. It’s believed to have been delivered in a briefcase by Victor Sayyah, a shadowy “international financier” who partnered with Cornelius and coincidentally, had recently applied for a casino license in Freeport.

The best moments in Drama in the Bahamas are the unending flow of gallows humor. The black comedy is best exemplified by the fact that nobody ordered new gloves for the fighters—they were flown in from Miami at the eleventh hour—and nobody thought to bring a bell. Two lackeys literally went to a nearby pasture and stole one off a cow.

The fight itself was, well you know what it was. With :43 left in the seventh, the unranked Trevor Berbick stopped raining punches on Ali as he slumped against the ropes, looked at ref Zach Clayton, and screamed “He’s hurt!” Did they stop the fight? They did not. Ali would lose a 10-round unanimous decision. At one point, judge Jay Edson, who had flown to Nassau on his own dime, had tears in his eyes trying to score the bout, saying repeatedly, “I can’t give Ali the round. I just can’t.”

 

 

Within 24-hours, Saturday Night Live would air a savage sketch featuring Joe Piscopo interviewing Eddie Murphy as both a young Ali promising to retire young and pretty, and as the loser of the Berbick fight slurring his speech to the point of gibberish while reciting “Old MacDonald.” It wraps with Piscopo saying, ‘There you have it. Ali, confused. Career, over. Brain cells, few.”

Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.  

For Trevor Berbick, it would end as bad as it can, beaten to death in his native Jamaica by his own nephew. His was truly a tragic life. Berbick learned his craft fighting marines at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, where as a civilian he worked as a clerk, machine operator, and nightclub host. He moved to Canada to ply his trade, ultimately winning the WBC heavyweight title in 1986 over Pinklon Thomas only to lose it in his next fight. He couldn’t get out of the second round against Mike Tyson, who at 20 became the youngest heavyweight champion in history. Berbick, who once said a loss came about because poison gas was pumped into his hotel room and later claimed God visited him in his apartment, appeared to lose his mental faculties as his life spiraled. There were multiple arrests, a rape conviction, prison time, deportation, a hand-to-mouth existence, and his murder on the steps of the Church of God in Norwich. The first line of every obituary mentioned he was the last man to beat Muhammad Ali.

Of course, for The Greatest, the Berbick fight wasn’t the end. It was extremely unworthy of his character, yes—hell, unlike most fading pugilists he didn’t even need the money—but the Nassau massacre is a footnote, partly because he disappeared for a long stretch following his final fight. In 1996, he triumphantly returned to light the torch at the Atlanta Olympics, transforming into “America’s grandpa,” as Hannigan calls him, in the process. Ali became an ambassador for the globe’s better angels, a beloved figure who fought the good fight of life, showing that Parkinson’s is far from a death sentence.

Still, even in death, it’s important to take the full measure of a man.

“Going into it, my impression was that Muhammad Ali has been pushed and prodded into the fight, someone else was pulling the strings, but by the time I finished I knew he was in charge of his own destiny,” says Hannigan. “Maybe his decision-making abilities weren’t fully there, but Ali had so many chances to walk away. He desperately wanted to milk it, one more night under the spotlight, to breathe the oxygen of the limelight. We can argue whether he truly believed this was his comeback, a step toward winning back the heavyweight title or whether that was for the cameras, but Ali was the architect of the Berbick fight far more than the puppet. It’s depressing, a darker tale, but it’s worth remembering that even the most compelling athlete in sports history did such a sad stupid thing.”

Tags from the story
Written By

Patrick Sauer is a freelance writer for VICE Sports, Smithsonian, GQ, Signature-Reads, Deadspin, ESPN, and many lesser outlets. Originally from Billings, Montana, his first love is Mustangs baseball.