Whether you’re 75 years old or 18, or you grew up in the United States or on a kernel of an island in the South Pacific, you knew who Muhammad Ali was. His name was synonymous with the modifier, “the greatest,” which was appropriate on a number of levels because Ali not only excelled inside a squared stage – dodging, ducking and dancing until his opponents succumbed to a barrage of blows – but he was also second-to-none as an outspoken opponent of social issues and was unafraid to challenge the status quo even if it meant being stripped of his boxing accolades.
As the tributes continue to pour in following Muhammad Ali’s passing on June 3 at 74 years old, most will remember him for his legendary tussles with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman – as well as his refusal to serve in the Armed Forces during the Vietnam War after being drafted – which resulted in a stagnant, three-year period where the world was robbed of Ali in his prime.
Muhammad Ali famously squared off against Superman in the appropriately-titled 1978 DC Comic Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali after an intergalactic challenge was levied by a group of aliens who demanded that they fight the best the Earth had to offer. After a brutal back-and-forth between pugilist and superhero, Ali came out victorious before the duo would eventually band together in the final act.
While the pages of a comic book are ripe grounds for heroism, Ali’s flare for the dramatics when it came to helping out his fellow man weren’t merely the figment of writer Dennis O’Neil’s imagination. There was a day when Ali stepped out onto a ledge and life and death was very much a possibility.
In the months prior to putting his mettle to the test high above the streets of Los Angeles, Ali was looking to become the first four-time heavyweight champion of the world.
Promoters of the October, 1980 fight between a then 38-year-old Ali, and a 31-year-old Larry Holmes – who was 35-0 at the time and the WBC Heavyweight Champion – billed it as the “Last Hurrah” as Ali had flunked a pre-fight neurological exam in July by the Mayo Clinic, but the Nevada State Athletic Commission still granted him a license as if to say, “Ride off into the sunset with a knockout” despite the former champ having trouble doing simple tasks like touching his finger to his nose and hopping on one foot according to Dr. Frank Howard.
The bout was originally set to take place in Rio de Janeiro at the 165,000-seat Maracana Stadium – perhaps Ali’s homage to fighting in notable places other than Las Vegas like Kinshasa and Manilla – but promoters eventually settled on Caesar’s Palace who built a temporary 24,790-seat outdoor arena.
On September 25, 1980, Sports Illustrated ran a cover featuring Ali in his crisp, white trunks with black, embroidered bee emblem along with the lengthy headline taken straight from the mouth of the former champ who said, “He’s no Liston. He’s no Frazier. He’s only Larry Holmes. I can see it now. Pop! Pop! Bam! Homes is down. Eight… nine… ten! For the world-record-setting, never-to-be-broken fourth time, Muhammad Ali is the heavyweight champion of the world.”
Unlike his clash with Superman which saw Ali able to duck punches thanks to a predetermined decision by both writer and artist, Ali was beaten soundly by Larry Holmes for all 10 rounds of the planned 15-round affair until Ali’s corner threw in the towel.
The TKO marked the first and only time Ali was stopped inside the distance in his 61-fight pro career.
After the fight, legendary broadcaster, Howard Cosell, interviewed Larry Holmes who had tears in his eyes which reflected a somberness not usually associated with staying undefeated and retaining his title.
“I really respect Ali a whole lot,” Holmes said. “Ali was a great man. You learn from him, to do things like him.”
“All the people involved in this fight should’ve been arrested. This fight was an abomination, a crime,” said Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s former ring doctor.
Actor Sylvester Stallone, who sat ringside, commented, “[it was] like watching an autopsy on a man who’s still alive.”
On October 13, Sports Illustrated ran another cover of a bludgeoned Ali in the corner with the headline, “The Last Hurrah,” which felt distinctly more grim than the pre-fight mantra given the outcome of the clash and the implications that he was in the early stages of his battle with Parinkson’s disease.
The general consensus was that Muhammad Ali was done with the boxing aspect of his life. Most were probably relieved that they wouldn’t ever have to witness one of the last true heroes of the sporting world being systematically decimated. Even Ali seemed resigned to the fact.
It was a typical day in Los Angeles on January 17, 1981. As fate would have it, this would be the day that Mötley Crüe was formed. But to everyone, they were just Nikki, Tommy, Vince and Mick at the time.
The normalcy of the day was interrupted when hundreds gathered on Wilshire Boulevard – peering high up to the ninth floor – where a man had climbed out onto the balcony and was threatening to jump.
Police were quick to respond and began engaging him in a dialogue in an attempt to get him to step to safety.
Down below, many members of the growing crowd began chanting for the man to “jump.”
In the movies and comic books, Superman usually has a keen sense of being close to a dangerous situation so that he can swoop in and save the day. As fate would have it, Muhammad Ali was nearby at his house in Hancock Park.
Howard Bingham. All’s public relations manager, was one of the many who had spotted the man high atop the streets. He asked police if Ali could help, but they told him “no.” Undeterred, he phoned Ali anyways.
“I went back to my car and called Ali anyway,” Bingham said. “I told Ali there was a guy up here on a building about a mile from his house and maybe he could get through. About four minutes later, Ali comes driving up the wrong side of the street in his Rolls-Royce with his lights blinking.”
“I’m no good,” the 21-year-old man shouted. “I’m going to jump!”
Although he was too young to have served, the would-be-jumper ranted and raved about the Vietnam War and the Viet Cong being out to get him.
After failed negotiations with the man, the police finally acquiesced and allowed Ali to walk up the nine floors.
“I’m coming out,” Ali shouted. “Don’t shoot me!”
“I won’t shoot you,” the man said. “I don’t even have a gun.”
After a bit of back-and-forth, the man remarked, “It’s really you.”
Ali told the man, “You’re my brother. I love you and I wouldn’t lie to you. You got to listen. I want you to come home with me, meet some friends of mine.”
Half an hour later, Ali put his arm around the shoulders of the man and led him back to safety.
“I hate to see anybody take his life,” a tired Ali said afterward from his Hancock Park home. “Saving a life is more important to me than winning a world championship.”
“He was just depressed,” Ali said. “He couldn’t find work. His father and mother don’t like him. He don’t get along with his family. He wants to be somebody.”
According to the AP report, the two emerged from the building, ignoring cheering onlookers and drove away in Ali’s Rolls-Royce limousine to a police station. Ali accompanied the man to a Veterans Administration Hospital, where police said the man would undergo a 72-hour mental examination.
“No doubt about,” said a police spokesman. “Ali saved that man’s life.”
Despite his failing health, Ali would fight a final time, losing a 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick on December 11, 1981, in Nassau, Bahamas.
- Featured/Main Image: The Daily Mirror