AS they worked through a litany of wrinkles that needed to be ironed out before Muhammad Ali took on Trevor Berbick at the Queen Elizabeth Arena in Nassau on December 11, 1981, the promoters ignored a couple of key items.
For starters, nobody had thought to order new gloves for the bouts. All the trainers had used gloves in their possession, battered relics bearing the wear and tear of thousands of rounds of sparring, but the promoters were expected to furnish the actual fighting mitts — which they hadn’t.
Under pressure, some handlers agreed to let their charges fight with old gloves, but Angelo Dundee and Emmanuel Steward refused to do so.
At the 11th hour, a phone call was made to Dundee’s brother Chris in Miami. A plane was chartered. New gloves were on the way for the headliners.
In the meantime, the undercard fights were set to start, with trainers warned not to cut the laces off at the end of contests so the better gloves might be recycled for the next fighters up.
With that problem kind of solved, everything finally appeared ready to go until somebody noticed one more glaring omission — nobody could find a bell because, eh, nobody had thought to bring one.
“It was almost fight time and Clair (Higgins) and I went down our checklist,” wrote Shelly Saltman, one of those working on the live television broadcast.
“There was no bell. What were we going to do?
“Matt Helreich, who worked our publicity and who I hired to be our ring announcer, looked at a cow that was grazing on a pasture near the stadium and cuttingly remarked, ‘Maybe you could take the bell off that cow.’”
Saltman and a technician named Jim Potter left the stadium and went into a farmer’s field to try to secure a bell for Muhammad Ali’s last fight.
In true pantomime fashion, Potter was assigned the role of distracting the animal, while Saltman busied himself liberating the bell from around its neck.
All they needed now was something to hit the bell with, and a hammer was eventually procured from the toolbag of one of the technicians.
In a manner that would enter sporting lore, a career that had captivated the world for two decades was going to end in a contest where the start and finish of each round would be tolled by a bell stolen from a cow.
Forty years have passed since the final act of a career hallmarked by glory like no other. In a community baseball field that served as an airstrip during World War II, as far off-Broadway as it was possible to be, Ali’s 61st professional bout was, in many ways, the saddest — a statement backed up by events early in the second half of the contest.
Ali opened the seventh on the offensive, throwing a few jabs that grazed Berbick.
Fending off that feeble assault, Berbick unleashed a couple of sturdy lefts — one to the chin, another to the body — and Ali, as he had all night, resorted to holding to tamp the onslaught.
However, 20 seconds later, he had his hands up as Berbick battered him against the ropes. Again, the end seemed near, except Berbick didn’t have the stamina to keep up the attack and Ali eventually escaped.
Moments later, that scenario repeated itself. Ali leaned against the ropes as if for support to keep him upright, with Berbick landing intermittent shots, but unable to produce a sustained attack to force the referee’s hand.
Worryingly though, bar the odd retaliatory and increasingly perfunctory left jab, Ali was offering little in the way of a counterattack.
With just over a minute to go in the seventh round, Berbick went on the offensive again, landing punches at will, each one appearing to stun and hurt Ali.
If none were quite weighty enough to put him down, at one juncture Ali looked like he was going to fall out of the ring as he leaned back over the ropes to try to avoid the punches being rained on him.
With 43 seconds left, Berbick stopped his attack. He looked over at referee Zach Clayton and shouted: “He’s hurt”.
His eyes as much as his words betrayed how much he was hoping the referee might step in and call a halt to what was by now a one-sided pummeling.
This was what Ali had been reduced to, his opponent pleading for the ref to show mercy.
Were it anybody else on the receiving end, Clayton might have too. However, it was going to take a courageous ref to stop Ali’s last fight in these circumstances. So, he stayed in there, upright and willing, and his damaged body continued to take a beating.
All he could do to lessen the damage was resort to clinches and holding, temporary abatements. The round finished with Berbick on the attack, Ali struggling to offer any riposte, and so many of those necklacing the ring wishing they were someplace else.
“In the Holmes fight, I kept expecting that moment when he would be the Ali we had seen a dozen times, the Ali who would unleash a flurry of punches that roused the crowd and himself. It never happened,” said journalist Dave Kindred.
“The difference was, against Berbick, I never expected Ali was capable of anything, let alone a moment when he could turn back time. I believe he knew in his mind he was done. But his great heart wasn’t ready to quit.”
Jay Edson, one of the fight judges, was struggling with the grim spectacle. After every round, he turned to Bernie Lincicome, a journalist who he didn’t even know but happened to be sitting beside him, and said: “I can’t do it. I can’t give Ali the round. I just can’t.”
Edson was trying to professionally evaluate a boxing match with tears streaming down his face at the plight of one of the participants.
Ali looked dazed as the bell tolled for the eighth, strolling from his corner with his arms by his side.
Then, amazingly, he got up on the balls of his feet and started dancing. Like the Ali of old, not this old Ali.
The brief interlude wowed the crowd but was brought to a shuddering halt by a heavy left from Berbick. He recovered and restarted the shuffling, resembling a man turning the key in the ignition in the hope that the engine might splutter into life.
“Dance,” roared his cornerman Bundini Brown. “Dance.” The footwork enlivened the crowd enough to spawn yet one more: “Ali! Ali! Ali!”
The moribund character from before suddenly, however briefly, resuscitated, even the left jab appearing snappier and more forceful.
For all the theatrics, Berbick remained focused on the task at hand, burrowing Ali into corners and against the ropes, and keeping up a steady, relentless diet of punishment.
A right to the head staggered Ali yet, somehow, the legs, perhaps fuelled by the noise of the Bahamian crowd, had enough in them to help him reverse away from danger.
For all his dancing cameos and the heightened din from the bleachers, Ali lured Berbick in close and then held him in clinches until Clayton made him stop.
Midway through the round, Ali was rocked on to the ropes again by a strong left. If Berbick had heavier artillery in his arsenal, it was the kind of direct hit that might even have put Ali down.
As it was, he followed that up with another dozen punches, at least half of which reached the target, as a desperate Ali tried to hug his way out of trouble.
At the start of the ninth, Ali rose wearily once more. Brown leaned over the ropes, slapped him on the shoulders and said: “You can do it champ. Come on now, you can do it.”
However, there was no more dancing to fire up the crowd. Instead, the fight reverted to the old narrative, Berbick doing all the work, Ali trying to fend him off with his left jab.
When Berbick hit him twice in quick succession, Ali offered up a defiant shuffle to tell his opponent how little the blows hurt. Nobody was fooled.
“That ain’t dancin’, that’s runnin’,” shouted a ringside spectator.
Harsh but fair.
Ali did his utmost to keep away from Berbick, who enjoyed most success when he backed his man onto the ropes. With 40 seconds left until the bell, that’s exactly where Ali was when Berbick picked him off at will. Another sustained round of suffering.
When the bell finally went, Ali lingered in the centre of the ring. He stared at Berbick, who walked back to his own corner with his hands raised above his head, perhaps confident that victory, no matter what the judges’ hearts might want them to do, was firmly in his grasp. The look Ali gave was more of fond bemusement than anything approaching malice.
Then, belatedly, he turned and straggled back to his corner to prepare for the 10th, the last round of his boxing life.
As Dundee squeezed a water sponge so the cool drops spilled down on Ali’s head, television commentator Don Dunphy captured the feelings of all sane people watching this spectacle: “Win, lose or draw, I hope he doesn’t fight again.”
To which his co-commentator Davey Pearl added: “I pray he doesn’t.”
“Three minutes,” shouted Dundee. “That’s all.”
“We got this,” urged Brown.
Then the cow bell tolled, an unfamiliar clang, but one that signalled the start of the last round of the most fascinating fistic career. Clayton beckoned both men to the centre, where they touched gloves.
“Go, go, go,” shouted Dundee, and Ali danced away.
However, wherever he went, Berbick soon followed, chasing him down and letting fly, swinging a little too wildly but the sheer quantity of punches meant some still hit home with purpose.
Thirty seconds into the round, Ali, perhaps figuring a knock-out was his only hope, planted his feet and tried to go toe to toe. He landed a quick combination, the sheer effort of which seemed to fatigue him.
When he found himself back on the ropes soon after, his attempt at another combination was so laboured that it appeared to be delivered in slow motion.
Halfway through the round, the crowd found its voice again and started up perhaps the most sustained and noisiest “Ali! Ali! Ali!” of the evening.
Maybe the sound of that lifted him because, from somewhere down deep, he found reserves of strength to attempt some more flurries.
The more animated he became the livelier Berbick’s response, bullying him around the ring. At one point, he was beating Ali up in his own corner, the former champion almost bending over double to avoid punches.
When he did counter, his efforts were painfully slow and ineffective. He attempted a haymaker with his right, the effort of which nearly caused him to fall over.
Through it all, Berbick just kept coming and coming. Only the fact he didn’t possess the skill to land more accurately was perhaps the main reason that Ali remained upright.
Ali spent the last 10 seconds, of the round, of the fight, of his boxing life, on the ropes, taking hits and offering little in the way of riposte. At the bell, Clayton coerced both men into an awkward hug over by Ali’s corner.
As Dundee went to cut off his gloves, Ali’s face was a mixture of sadness and perhaps shock. There was no hint of the mischief or the effervescent smile. Was it regret at coming back, sadness at suffering yet another loss, or the realisation that he’d never fight again?
The ring was soon swarmed with bodies and, amid the ensuing chaos, off to the side, Brown produced a comb and handed it to Ali, who very calmly ran it through his hair. Regardless of the result, he was going to be ready for his close-up.
As they waited for the decision, Brown and others in Ali’s extended entourage were hugging each like they were celebrating an imminent victory and telling onlookers their man had definitely won.
Were they doing it for the cameras? Were they that myopic? Was the delusion maybe for Ali’s benefit? Whatever the motivation, they can’t have believed what they were saying.
With no sign of the crowd dispersing or of a decision being announced, Davey Pearl made his way to the ring and put a microphone in Berbick’s face.
“Earlier in the fight, you were talking to him,” said Pearl. “What were you saying?”
“I just told him, ‘Do the best you can. I don’t want to hurt you.’” — an answer that cut to the heart of the whole charade.
After a fashion, some but not all the interlopers eventually vacated the ring so the verdict could, finally, be delivered.
“Ladies and gentleman we have a unanimous decision,” said Helreich. “Judge Alonzo Butler votes it 97-94, Judge Clyde Grey votes 99-94, Judge Jay Edson, 99-94 — a unanimous decision for Trevor Berbick.”
“I did it,” shouted Berbick with almost child-like glee, beaming as his corner hoisted him in the air. “That’s all I wanted to do was win.”
Across the ring, Ali wiped his face, for once expressionless, with a towel, then slowly began to walk to meet his conqueror. Berbick enveloped him in a hug and roared in his ear.
“I shall go on to win the world championship Wait ’til you see me next time, I will shine. You were my superior, but I’m going to do it for you man. You’ve inspired me since I was a kid. I love you man! You are a true brother, thank you man... You made me, bless you… I will pray for you.”
Ali didn’t speak. He just smiled ruefully and turned to leave. At this point, journalist Jim Hill corralled him with a microphone.
“Do you agree now Muhammad that you should retire and never come back in this ring?” asked Hill.
“I’m sure that this is enough to convince me. I didn’t get hurt. I saw the shots but couldn’t take them. Father Time just caught me. In my young days, I wouldn’t have had much trouble, but I think time caught me. This is it. I’m sure I’ll wake up next week saying I’m coming back but, as of now, I’m retiring. I don’t think I’ll change my mind.”
“Thank you so very much Muhammad,” said Hill. “And thank you from all of us from around the world.”
“Thank you,” said Ali, who cut a sorry figure as he climbed through the ropes and started on the long journey back to the locker room, to the end of his career and the start of the rest of his life.