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On This Date in Sports October 2, 1980: Ali's Last Hurrah

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Muhammad Ali comes out of retirement to claim the title of Heavyweight Champion of the World once again. Ali had not fought in two years, since winning for the third time against Leon Spinks. Larry Holmes had become the new champion in Ali’s retirement. Holmes had been a sparring partner of Muhammad Ali. The fight would mark the end of an era, as Larry Holmes won in ten rounds at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas when Ali could not continue.

For 20 years, no boxer was more notable than Muhammad Ali. Starting out as Cassius Clay, he won a Gold Medal at the Rome Summer Olympics at the age of 18. Four years later, Clay won the heavyweight championship and changed his name to Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam. Ali held the title until 1967 when he was suspended for refusing to answer the draft. After taking his fight to the Supreme Court, Ali returned to the ring and began a heated rivalry with Joe Frazier. Ali beat George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title in 1974. In 1978, he traded the title with Leon Spinks, losing in February and regaining the title in September.

Larry Holmes was born on November 3, 1949, in Cuthbert, Georgia. Raised in Easton, Pennsylvania, Holmes started boxing when he was 19. After losing in the Olympic trials, he turned professional in 1973. The early years were a struggle for Larry Holmes, leading him to seek work as a sparring partner. Holmes sparred with Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, and Ernie Shavers. He trained extensively with Ali and began to improve his own career. Larry Holmes beat Shaver by unanimous decision in 1978, earning a chance at the WBC title against Ken Norton. Holmes would defeat Norton on a split decision on June 9, 1978, to improve to 28-0 and win the WBC Heavyweight Championship.

Muhammad Ali was still viewed as the overall champion, having won the Thrilla in Manilla. Ali defended his title four times in 1976, but concern began to grow in his camp. The fight against Frazier had taken its toll, as Ali claimed he was close to dying. Longtime friend Dr. Ferdie Pacheco begged the champion to retire, as there was a growing concern of his reflexes. The fight doctor would quit his association with Ali, as he desired the champion to retire. Muhammad Ali successfully defended his title twice in 1977 but suffered a defeat by split decision on February 15, 1978, against Leon Spinks. Seven months later, he won the rematch by unanimous decision and was the WBA and lineal champion again.

After winning the heavyweight championship for the third time, Muhammad Ali seemed content to retire. After announcing his retirement in 1979, Ali again had the itch to return to the ring. Initially, he was going to fight John Tate for the WBA title, but after Tate lost to Mike Weaver, the focus shifted to a match with Larry Holmes. The fight was to take place on July 11, 1980, in Rio de Janeiro. However, stadium issues led to the fight being postponed as Larry Holmes improved to 35-0 with a knockout of Scott LeDoux.

Muhammad Ali’s chance against Larry Holmes was moved to Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, with an $8 million payout. Despite troubling signs, Ali was cleared to fight by the Mayo Clinic. His former fight Dr. Ferdie Pacheco tried to warn Angelo Dundee that Muhammad Ali was no longer able to fight and risked permanent damage by stepping in the ring against Larry Holmes.

The fight, which was billed “The Last Hurrah,” was a disappointment despite drawing a record gate of $6 million, as the speed and agility that made Muhammad Ali the greatest was gone. Instead, he spent much of the fight as a punching bag to the younger, stronger, and faster Larry Holmes. After ten rounds, it was clear that Holmes was going to win, and Ali was just getting hurt. Though there were no knockdowns, Muhammad Ali’s days as a champion were over. With Ali sitting on his stool, after the tenth round, the decision was made to stop the fight by Angelo Dundee as Holmes was declared the winner. In 61 professional fights, it was the only time that Muhammad Ali was unable to finish the fight.

Muhammad Ali would fight once more, losing to Trevor Berbick by unanimous decision in 1981. A few years later, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Some medical experts believe the blows he took in the fight against Larry Holmes contributed to the onset of the neurological disease. Larry Holmes would win 48 fights before suffering his first defeat at the hands of Michael Spinks in 1985.