A loss, his only fifth, ended Ali’s colourful fistic career

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Ali with President George W. Bush while presenting him with Presidential Medal of Freedom.
PHOTO FROM EDDIE ALINEA’S FILE

It was billed as “Drama in Bahama,” ended miserably with Muhammad “The Greatest” Ali, fighting his last fight, lost to a virtually unknown Jamaican Trevor Berbick.

At age39, an overweight Ali, the only man to be crowned world heavyweight champion three times, lost a unanimous 10-round decision to the Jamaican on December 11, 1981 at the Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre in Nassau in the Bahamas.

His once feared speed and coordination obviously no longer there, he Louisville Lip was well behind in the scorecards of the three judges after the smoke of battle was extinguished.

Except in few brilliant moments in the fight, he looked like what he really was – an ageing, overweight ex-champ who can no longer keep the clumsy Berbick’s blows out of his face.


In the fifth round though, which Ali won, he managed to show a semblance of his old sharpness and caught Berbick with left jabs and imitations of right crosses. In between those limited salvos, however, he allowed his rival to bully him in the ropes and when referee Zack Clayton refused to let him hold and wrestle, Berbick’s hooks and wild swings found their marks in his head.

Barrage of the kind albeit unimpressive, gave Berbick a sort of clear superiority until the seventh. The eighth showed Ali hasn’t lost his will and courage. He went up on his toes and bravely threw jabs, lick moves while dancing as the crowd inside the dust-filled and oven-hot baseball field transformed into a boxing gym chanted his name in the hope of seeing a small miracle.

It did not come.

He took that round but it did not reflect the decision the judges had arrived at early in the encounter. The two judges were generous enough to give the Canadian-based Berbick what looked like a slight 99-94 verdict. The other had a rather exaggerated 99-94 count.

Thus ended Ali’s prizefighting career that was dubbed the Drama In Bahama although the only drama that happened in the promotion was when Ali’s pretty 11-yeer-old daughter by his previous marriage approached him inside his cramped dressing room to hug him and kiss his battered face.

His mother Odessa, too, squeezed through media interviewers and Ali’s phalanx of entourage to embrace the most famous son in the world. “Good try, honey” she greeted him. She turned to the other people in the room saying,” I didn’t cry. I’m glad he didn’t get hurt. I’m no worried about his losing. I’m just glad he didn’t get hurt.”

Everyone in that room was having thoughts though about how it would have been had Ali left the game behind early, say, after the destructive “Thrilla In Manila” where he barely stopped arch-enemy Joe Frazier. ”

And his TKO loss to Holmes on October 2, 1980, when Ali pronounced, “I shall return.” This, despite a great deal of concern for his health and eroding skills. As a result, he was unable to get a boxing license from any state athletic commission until South Carolina granted him one in August 1981.

William Nack of Sports Illustrated reported: Two physicians, including his former doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, had stated that Ali was suffering brain damage from having absorbed too many blows. His speech had slowed and was occasionally slurred.

Worried himself, and wanting to put the question to rest before fighting Berbick, Ali submitted to a series of tests two months ago at New York University under the supervision of Dr. Harry Demopoulos, a professor of pathology who said the tests, along with others administered at UCLA and the Mayo Clinic, included a CAT scan, neurological exams, electroencephalograms and blood checks.

Demopoulos said that 30 doctors were involved in the studies and that they all came to the same conclusion: “There’s absolutely no evidence that Muhammad has sustained any injury to any vital organ—brain, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs—nervous system, or muscle or bone systems. His blood tests indicate he has the vessels of a young man.”

And the slurring? “We think it’s a psychosocial response,” Demopoulos said. “If the slurring were due to permanent damage, it would be there all the time.” It occurs under certain circumstances, Demopoulos said, such as when Ali is under stress or when he is fatigued. The Bahamian minister of sports, youth and community affairs, Kendel Nottage, approved the fight. “I was shown a number of medical reports, and they were satisfactory to me,” Nottage said.

Ali would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984. It has the same characteristics as Parkinson’s disease, although not as severe. It is caused by gradual deterioration of certain nerve centers inside that brain that control movements.

Dr. Dennis Cope, Ali’s physician, said in 1987 that Ali’s condition was “caused by injuries to the brain from fighting.”

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