These are among the multitude of images I took on assignment for United Press International in early September, 1980, at Muhammad Ali’s training camp in Deer Lake, PA. Ali was preparing for his final attempt to regain the World Heavyweight Championship from Larry Holmes, set for the following month at Caesar’s Palace. At the time Ali’s record was 56-3 with 37 knockouts. His three losses had been to Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and Leon Spinks, and he later came back to defeat all three. Ali was about to fight for the first time in two years, whereas Holmes had successfully defended his crown three times that year.
Ali, despite being terribly out of shape, still proclaimed confidence. “Holmes is a great champion…and when I beat him, I truly will be king of kings, the greatest of all time.”
But, as boxing journalist James Slater put it a couple years ago, the fight in Las Vegas was “one of the most hard-to-watch and tragic boxing matches in history.”
From the start of the fight it was clear Ali was in trouble. “His timing was completely off” Slater wrote, “and his punches were lacking any snap whatsoever. Ali failed to win a single minute of a single round. Holmes even held back as the bout wore on, refusing to put full power into his hurtful punches. By the 8th and 9th rounds Ali was practically motionless and could barely hold up his hands. It was truly awful to see.
“Finally, over the protest of Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown, veteran trainer Angelo Dundee pulled his fighter out. Holmes was the winner by 11th round TKO, the one and only stoppage loss of Ali's long career.
“No one benefited from the contest. Not Holmes, who later cried at having beaten up the man who gave him his start, not the fans, who were witness to one of the most harrowing and pitiful boxing matches in history, and certainly not Ali, whose health was made even worse thanks to the taking of what was his 60th pro fight.
“It should never have happened, but it did.”
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