This is from an unfinished book, “Last Call,” that comprises recollections about the end of the careers of sports icons written in real time. This excerpt recalls Muhammad Ali‘s final fight in the Bahamas, where the author sat at ringside.
Dec. 12, 1981
NASSAU, Bahamas — In a scabby, cinder block cell, barely bigger than a coffin, Muhammad Ali slumped in weary resignation, his chin buried in his chest, his belly rolled into layers, rising and falling with each labored breath.
His words were whispers, as soft as the last petal on a worn rose.
“Father Time,” Ali said. “He caught me.”
Ali’s wife Veronica stood at her husband’s elbow. John Travolta, the actor, tears on his cheeks, knelt worshipfully at Ali’s knee and clutched one of Ali’s idle hands. Ali’s family, through three generations, solemnly aligned themselves like mourners and peered blankly at their father, at their son, at their benefactor.
Ali’s road menagerie, that collection of sycophants and phonies, valets and pimps, cheerleaders and parasites, tugged and pushed each other for one last whiff of the aroma of celebrity.
The gravy train stopped here. Last station, everybody off.
“I feel used up,” Ali mumbled into his torso.
Outside, many of the witnesses who had chanted his name and who had believed one last lie relieved themselves against the wall.
Some primitive instinct had brought Ali here, like an old bear choosing his own place to die. Here where the ancestors of slaves and pirates refuse to do much of anything in a hurry or on time, Ali fit in perfectly. He was too slow and too late, even for the plebeian Trevor Berbick.
“I’m glad it was me who ended his career,” Berbick said. “Somebody else might not have been as compassionate. ”
All that’s left is to close the lid and cover the body. There will be no return from Ali’s final masquerade. Even Ali finally believes what sanity and the calendar should have convinced him long ago.
Ali once drank with kings, joked with despots, put nations on the map with his mere presence. His face was his passport and his fists were his holy weapons. His magic infuriated one generation and previewed another. Ali overwhelmed his sport, his race and birthright.
Now here in a junky little country that is strung together by cruise ships, tax shelters and duty-free booze, he danced his last dance with thieves and amateurs, all for one last humiliation.
Ali is beyond pity. This last bizarre adventure puts him somewhere on the other side of scorn. He is a man who kept botching his own suicide. At the end even his friends were ready to kick the chair for him.
In a bush league ballpark, the ring built over second base, Ali waddled out to meet the fists of Berbick, an amiable Jamaican by way of Nova Scotia, whose only promise was not to kill his former idol, unless by accident.
Jay Edson, a referee himself and one of the ringside judges, groaned as he marked each round of the unanimous decision for Berbick.
“I wanted to give one to Ali, just one round, but I couldn’t,” Edson said.
Ali could not even count the money for this one. He was supposed to get $3.5 million, but the guy who keeps the books, a shadowy bully named James Cornelius, stiffed Berbick to the point he was ready not to fight. Berbick was promised $300,000.
“All I got so far,” Berbick said, “is some pocket money. No letter of credit or nothing.”
Cornelius identified himself as a “businessman” but never has said aloud what business he is in. Cornelius said that Don King, promoter of many of Ali’s glories, sent four thugs to beat him up if he did not cut King in at the end.
These are the last associates of Ali, friend of world leaders, icon of an age.
“The money ain’t important,” Ali said. “I did this for me. I did it for the people who are too old or too whupped or too tired.”
And like all of them, Ali was all of that.
“This was my last fight,” Ali said. “There will be no more.”
There was only the dull fatigue of truth in his voice, not the coy hustle of other good-byes. His last hurrah was his last whimper, but even that was loud enough for Ali to hear.
“I just hope I feel the same two months from now,” he said.
In just a little more than a month, Ali will be 40. He has been fighting, amateur and pro, for 28 years. The Thrilla in Manila, the Rumble in the Jungle, Rope-a-Dope, Float Like a Butterfly. What all of those blows have done is yet to know.
“After (Larry) Holmes, I had excuses,” Ali said. “There are no excuses this time. I was in shape (a rubbery 236 pounds). I had 10 rounds to do what I wanted to do. I just couldn’t do it. Before the fight, I wasn’t sure it was all over. Now I am. It is a relief to know it is over.”
Not disappointment. Relief.
Now, the morning after the fight, Ali stroked his famous face, barely bruised by Berbick’s fists and puffy from age, not from battle.
“It could have been worse,” Ali said. “I could have broken teeth or split lips. The ref could have been pulling him off me. I could have been hanging on the ropes. I could have been laying out on the ring floor. I came out of it beautiful.”
From his pre-fight fantasy of whipping Berbick and reclaiming the heavyweight title from Mike Weaver, Ali had become grateful for survival.
“I wasn’t beaten,” he insisted. “I just couldn’t do the things I wanted to do. I am finished.”
Finished from boxing in any form?
“I’m not going to be sitting around rings talking about fights,” he said. “I won’t be hanging out in gyms an old, flat-nosed bum. Duh, duh, duh.”
Ali says he will hang around with the religious gurus of the modern world. He will lecture on topics like “the meaning of life.” He will use his fame to make the world a more tolerant place in which to live.
“The one good thing about me losing my last fight is that people will know I tried. When you’re too good like I was, you make people feel bad. I leave the world the lesson of humility.”
Ali humble? There can be no greater proof that The Greatest is done.
“It was a great ride wasn’t it, boys?” Ali asked the meager clutter of press there in the breezeway of an island motel, the few of us still around for his last words. “I took you all over the world. Nobody else could do that.”
Or is likely to again.
Source: Chicago Tribune