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DOOM IN THE DESERT
Pat Putnam
October 13, 1980
The ravages of age and his training regimen left Muhammad Ali helpless before the swift fists of Larry Holmes
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October 13, 1980

Doom In The Desert

The ravages of age and his training regimen left Muhammad Ali helpless before the swift fists of Larry Holmes

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Round 1 had ended, and Muhammad Ali, slumped on the stool in his corner, knew then what the world would soon discover. The recently regained body beautiful was no more than a clever counterfeit. Ali was a Ferrari without an engine, a Rolex with the works missing. There was nothing inside. As Ali sat half listening to Trainer Angelo Dundee, sadly he understood that the career that had burst so brilliantly into being 20 years earlier at the Olympics in Rome would end this night in humiliation and defeat in a Las Vegas parking lot.

The fight—if Ali's painful performance against WBC champion Larry Holmes last Thursday in a temporary stadium erected by Caesars Palace can be called a fight—would continue for another nine rounds. But Ali, betrayed by a body that no longer obeyed the commands of his ego, knew after but three minutes of fighting that there would be no fourth heavyweight title; there would be no miracle. As others had before him, he had come back one time too many.

Ali would say later, "All I could think of after the first round was, 'Oh, God, I still have 14 rounds to go.' I had nothing. Nothing. I knew it was hopeless. I knew I couldn't win and I knew I'd never quit. I looked across at Holmes and knew he would win but that he was going to have to kill me to get me out of the ring."

Ali, who would be sitting on that same stool 35 minutes later as Dundee signaled surrender before the start of the 11th round, did not come into the ring old and fat; he came in old and—for him—thin. Too thin. A blubbery 256 pounds just a few months ago, at the weigh-in the day before the fight he had balanced the scale at 217� pounds. And with his graying hair dyed black, to outward appearances he had wiped away 10 years. But while no one knew for certain then, this was to be his final victory. He had won the battle of the bulge but it had cost him—if indeed he had ever had any chance—the war. He had gained sleekness at the cost of strength and endurance. It was as though he had trained for a beauty contest and not for a fight.

As Keith Kleven, Holmes' physical therapist, explained: "Getting his weight down, looking fit and trim, became an obsession with him. He thought if his weight came down everything else would fall into place. He lost at least 37 pounds in a very short period. He went too far. When you lose so much so fast, after such a dramatic change in diet and physical activity, there is a drastic change in the function of the body's enzymes. Instead of losing fat, you begin to deplete muscle substance. Strength and stamina are lost. It wouldn't have mattered either way, but against Larry the old man was merely a shell of his former self."

Four weeks before the fight, as Holmes trained in his hometown of Easton, Pa., for a brief time it had looked as if it wouldn't matter if Ali weighed 217, 256 or 300 pounds. That was on the day the champion threw a right against sparring partner LeRoy Diggs and felt pain searing through his hand. It was the same hand he had broken in a bout with Roy Williams in 1976.

Holmes was rushed to the hospital, where X rays showed there was no fracture this time. Still, there was this terrible pain. The punch had caused a severe bone bruise and soft-tissue trauma in the carpal bones of the wrist and the metacarpal bone junction just above the thumb. After consulting with Holmes' manager-trainer Richie Giachetti, Kleven treated the fighter's hand three times a day for two weeks. He also devised a foam cast that the champion wore under the tape on the hand during his workouts.

"And he wore the cast at night," said Jake Holmes, the champion's older brother. "Then we'd take it off in the morning before any reporters showed up. The hand hurt Larry but it kept improving, and we didn't want people making a lot more out of it than it really was."

When Holmes arrived in Las Vegas for his final three weeks of training, there was no visible evidence that he was in anything but excellent physical condition. He worked harder for Ali than for any previous opponent. He ran more, sparred more. In Easton, part of his road-work was on a hill that soared nine-tenths of a mile almost straight up. In Las Vegas his route was out where the desert grades upward toward the mountains. Most mornings he ran five miles at a seven-minute pace. Every morning he ran with grim determination.

During sparring, Holmes worked over his hired hands with savage intensity, and when he was done he had boxed 210 rounds. "He was averaging 75 punches a round," said Giachetti. "I counted rounds as high as 95. Now you know why he pays his sparring partners $1,000 a week and offers them a $10,000 bonus if they can knock him down. When Ali spars he's playing; when Larry spars he's all business."

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