Friday night fights and a last taste of Muhammad Ali

Larry Holmes used a devastating overhand right to end Ali's chances of a 4th comeback

TORONTO, Ont. April 24, 2016/ Troy Media/ – An old urban experience, long gone, was Friday night fights. In New York the well to do would go to Madison Square Garden. This was long before my time, but I had been inspired by both the urban experience and boxing since I was a kid.

The urban experience is captured in many a black and white photograph of New York Streets, filled with swell people, well dressed for a night in the big city.

The boxing thing is mainly for men, I suppose. It was called ‘the manly art of self-defence’ and was taught at the best public schools in England and their imitators here. To illustrate the point, there’s a wonderful scene from the hit TV series Mad Men in which the middle-aged visiting executive from England squares off with the young, high-need achiever from New York.

The Englishman pops into a John L. Sullivan stance with a long, long lead and back of fists facing his opponent. It was archaic, even in the 1960s, but I instantly recognised his English school-boy training. I rightly bet on him.

The New York kid was wild with enthusiasm and anger, but in the next frame his head popped back a few times from the text-book lefts from the Englishman with the archiac high guard.


New Scene. 1980. Las Vegas. Holmes-Ali. I had to go.

I’d seen Muhammad Ali in closed circuit bouts back to the early 1970s. He was a champion, a movement and a symbol. It still pains me to call the event the Holmes-Ali bout, but boxing protocol requires that one list the name of the champion first. In terms of money, it was Ali-Holmes with Ali receiving $8 million and Holmes only $2.3.

Ali’s former sparring partner, Larry Holmes was the champion, and Ali was making another comeback – potentially his fourth. As Ali said at the time, if Holmes wins, he gets another swimming pool, but if Ali wins, it’s historic.

1980 was the old Las Vegas. As I meandered through the airport, some nice person handed me a Caesar. Wow . . . as Jackie Gleason used to say.

Downtown was the old, original casinos. The Flamingo still had Ben Siegal’s secret tunnel out of a bungalow and on the strip (what most people think of Vegas). Hotel staff offered drinks and cigarettes to small-time gamblers. I still hold a record for the quickest loss of $25 at black jack.

The bout was in a make-shift stadium at Caeser’s Palace with 25,000 portable seats in a parking lot. I contributed to the largest live gate at the time – $6 million dollars. Outside were T-Shirts, sold out of car trunks (no kidding), and just inside were Gregory Peck and Cary Grant. I didn’t realize they were about seven feet tall and raised their own sheep to create the most elegant pearl-grey suits and navy-blue blazers imaginable. Nor did I realize they had their own tame silk worms to spin their ties.

Up in the bleachers, the low-rent district, there was still some star-power. There was Dallas Frederick Burrows. Who? Orsen Bean was one of the many names he took while starving to death as a comedian. The night he chose Bean (in Boston), he was a hit and kept the name. The regular on Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, To Tell the Truth – and you better google the rest.

Back to the bout. I noticed Ali’s usual bravado of shaking his head “No” when Holmes hit him. I wanted to believe and did believe him because I didn’t see the tell-tale spray of perspiration that usually flies to the back of the victim with every punch. When Ali later claimed to have been hampered by medication and dehydration, I believed that too. But, I believed everything the champ said.

I’d never seen a heavyweight use an overhand right. It must have happened, perhaps in ancient Rome or in a fight over beer among the builders of the pyramids. But that night, Holmes tapped Ali a few times on the face with his left to set up a devastating over hand right. It’s devastating because it has all the momentum of an object falling at 22 feet per second per second from 18 inches above the face, combined with the power of the full pectoral muscles, shoulder rotation, back muscles and perhaps 40 per cent of body weight (F=MA). Yikes.

The reason you don’t see this kind of punch often is that the puncher is completely vulnerable for a long, long time while the right winds up behind the body, moves up and finally down onto the face of the opponent. This movement takes an eternity in boxing. But even Ali couldn’t take any defensive action in the eternity he was given. In his prime he could have moved out of the way, or wouldn’t have been in the way to begin with. Or he could have thrown a hook to Holmes completely open right side, or a jab to his open face, or even block the looping right that had sent several telegrams in advance that it was coming. It was sad to watch the champ with no options.

Ali went away with his money, but left a few marbles on the canvas. All rounds went to Homes and Ali’s corner stopped the loss in the 10th.

Milling around after, I almost bumped into Howard Cosell who was still analysing the bout for anyone who would listen – and all within 30 feet could listen. I bought tickets for the Frank Sinatra concert for the next night, but Mr. Sinatra cancelled.

What a combination though – Friday night fights and a last taste of The Greatest.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He loves cities and his next book will be titled Safe Cities. Allan is also included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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