With his suit coat off and his tie loosened, Muhammad Ali perched on the edge of a couch in a villa in Nassau and for 40 minutes put on his most engaging entertainment of the week. "You want to see a magic show?" he had asked, opening up a black and red attaché case. In the time it would take to go 10 rounds, the former heavyweight champion of the world turned half dollars into quarters and pennies into dimes, explaining the tricks as he went along. He made a small handkerchief and a candle disappear. He mysteriously transferred a foam rubber ball from his left hand to a guest's right. And he folded a silk hankie into quarters on the table and made it flutter up, phantomlike, as he chanted: "Rise, ghost. Rise, ghost. Rise...."
This was last Saturday afternoon, and Ali's magic show stood as an ironic denouement to most of the preceding now-you-see-it, now-you-don't week. There was only one ghost in the Bahamas, and it was Muhammad Ali, and the only magic he had left was that which he performed in his villa on—further irony—Paradise Island.
The evening before, in a ring set up in a decaying sandlot baseball stadium, the 39-year-old former three-time champ embarrassed himself the same way his old adversary, Joe Frazier, had done in Chicago eight days earlier. In his first fight since heavyweight champion Larry Holmes beat him up in Las Vegas 14 months ago, Ali lost a unanimous 10-round decision to 28-year-old Trevor Berbick, a Jamaican who now lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and is ranked fourth by the WBA. Until Friday, Berbick was best remembered for losing a decision to Holmes last April 11, and best forgotten for knocking out John Tate after chasing him across the ring and striking him on the back of the head.
The Ali-Berbick fight had little to recommend it: One of the greatest fighters of all time nearly bereft of the means not only to do damage but also to defend himself, facing an artless, often awkward opponent. Yet this lamentable affair was, in a way, an appropriate capstone to what veteran trainer Eddie Futch, who has spent 50 of his 70 years in the boxing business, called the most disorganized boxing promotion he had ever seen. "This is the worst I've ever been in," he said. "I thought at my age I wouldn't run into anything that wasn't a second-time-around thing. But this is definitely a first. They were consistent—they did everything wrong all the way through."
For weeks there were rumors that the promoter—Sports Internationale (Bahamas) Ltd.—and its show were on the verge of collapse. Not only did the card include Ali, who received $1.1 million, and Berbick, in for $350,000, but also Thomas Hearns, at a reported $500,000, and heavyweight contender Greg Page, for $50,000. Even the old war horse, Earnie Shavers, was to get $140,000 for fighting someone named Jeff Sims. Some of the money to pay for the show was to come from pay television, but where all of it was coming from—and who raised it—was never clear.
The president of Sports Internationale, James C. Cornelius, was described in press handouts as "a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur." Tall and angular, he was a highly visible if remote and unresponsive presence all week. The promotion was the object of controversy before the fight, and so was Cornelius. The previous Sunday, New York promoter Don King was in Freeport, the Bahamas, where, he said, five men burst into his room and beat him up. King had been there to talk with Berbick, who was training in Freeport. King claimed that he had an option on Berbick's next fight, and that Berbick had violated their agreement when he signed to meet Ali. King said he had flown to Freeport to work out an accommodation with Berbick. A few days after the attack, for which he says he was hospitalized, King charged in New York that Cornelius was one of those who had assaulted him. "Bull," Cornelius said.
Meanwhile, Berbick announced he would not step into the ring until he had been paid his entire purse; he had been given $100,000 and wanted the remaining $250,000. On Thursday, trying to save his promotion, Cornelius and three sidekicks went to Berbick's room with a letter of credit. Whatever the paper was worth, it wasn't enough, and Berbick shouted them out of the room.
While the promotion lurched from one crisis to another, the central character in the drama—the very reason for its being—held his final workout on Tuesday and rolled with the punches. Ali had arrived in the Bahamas on Sept. 21 weighing 249 pounds. He had long since convinced himself that he wasn't washed up; that the beating Holmes had inflicted on him was the result of his being weakened by thyroid pills; that so slow and inexperienced a fellow as Berbick—he'd had 22 fights since he had turned pro in 1976, of which he had won 19, 17 of them by knockout—would surely be easy pickings; and that, five months after beating Berbick, he would thrash Mike Weaver, the WBA heavyweight champ, and retire with that title.
"Four times champion!" went the refrain, borrowed from Ali's fight against Holmes. "Four times! The stage is set. All the critics are here. They're gonna be all messed up. I've just gotta kick behind. Oh, man, oh does this feel good. I can't wait to see their faces when I win...the big day's comin'! The miracle. The world of critics, I'll make 'em bow. Crawl. They have motivated me. I need motivating!"
Ali had said, "I shall return" after the Holmes fight, but finding a place to return to wasn't so simple. Concerned about Ali's health and his eroded skills, several commissions wanted none of the responsibility inherent in allowing him to fight.