"Ali, no doubt, was a little pissed off about that" - Why the boxing great really insisted on Drama in Bahama

Dave Hannigan gives an insight into the boxing legend's last fight

BY Raf Diallo 20:40 Tuesday 22 November 2016, 20:40 22 Nov 2016

Muhammad Ali, right, takes a punch from Canadian Trevor Berbick during the first round of their 10-round bout in Nassau, Bahamas, Friday night, Dec. 11, 1981. Ali, who lost on a unanimous decision, fought his last fight. The referee is not identified. (AP Photo)

On December 11th 1981, the late, great Muhammad Ali fought in the ring professionally for the very last time.

He was 39, a full 12 years older than his opponent Trevor Berbick.

In the vein of Thrilla in Manila and Rumble in the Jungle, the fight is immortalised with a catchy name, Drama in Bahama because it took place in Nassau in the Bahamas.

The episode is the subject of Drama in the Bahamas: Muhammad Ali's Last Fight by Irish Times writer Dave Hannigan, who pieces together events through interviews.

Ali was coming off a comprehensive defeat to Larry Holmes in 1980 in Las Vegas and with doubts about his medical fitness to get into the ring again - his personal physician and a life-long friend Dr Ferdie Pacheco had already walked away in 1977 and publicly insisted that Ali should have retired - he was struggling to get another boxing licence.

Canada?s Trevor Berbick, left, is given his pre-fight physical by Dr. M. Perry Gomez at Berbick?s Nassau Hotel, Friday, Dec. 11, 1981. Berbick is scheduled to meet Muhammad Ali on Friday for what has been billed as ?The Drama in the Bahamas. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

In an interview with Michael Parkinson before that fight, his speech was noticeably more slurred than the vibrant tones from earlier in his career. 

"You can deduce from the pace of his voice and the articulation is very different from Ali in his pomp," Hannigan told Off The Ball.

But why did Ali insist on fighting on despite having already achieved everything he could have?

"My thesis going into this was that Ali was being exploited and he was being dragged out as a cash cow one more time by various dodgy characters who were whispering in his ear. But after spending a year researching it and talking to people involved and traced the arc of the whole thing, I definitely concluded that Ali was there because he just basically couldn't let the spotlight go. He did not want to admit that it was over and that he could no longer command the limelight the way that he once did," Hannigan said, adding that training and physical conditioning was not at the level it had been before.

"But what perks him up towards the end is when the journalists start arriving. When the media corps arrive in greater numbers towards the end of his training in Nassau, suddenly he's animated."

Hannigan added that "money was never the driving force". 

In 1981, a new generation had taken charge from an all-time great era of fighters that had included Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman among others.

This Dec. 10, 1981 file photo shows Trevor Berbick, right, smiling as Muhammad Ali looks at the scale during the weigh-in for their December 11 heavyweight fight in Nassau, Bahamas. Canadian champ Berbick weighed in at 214 lbs., and Ali was 236 lbs. Ali was just a few months away from his 40th birthday when, desperate to make up for his lackluster loss the year before the Larry Holmes, went to the Bahamas for what would be his last fight. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin, File)

"He was very jealous and maybe you could use the word 'bitter' about the fact that a new generation had come along. We are now entering the Hearns, Hagler, Leonard, Duran era of boxing," he said, adding that the heavyweights were no longer dominating the spotlight in terms of coverage and lucrative fights.

"Ali, no doubt, was a little pissed off about that, that he was no longer the show. A younger generation had taken over. And it wasn't just that he wasn't a show... he wasn't even allowed to put on a show in any American state until right at the end until South Carolina came in and went through the motions in giving a licence but for other reasons the fight was moved to the Bahamas."

In terms of physical conditioning during his unanimous points defeat to Berbick in the Bahamas, one moment illustrated what had changed.

In the first clinch of the contest, Ali noted how hard his opponent's body was and how soft his own had become.

"Right there, you have captured the difference between the young fit, hard-bodied fighter and this jiggly middle-aged man who really has no business in the boxing ring at this point in his life," said Hannigan, also discussing how Ali's family hoped he would have stopped fighting, while trainer Angelo Dundee told a reporter at Nassau airport after the fight that "'I was so afraid they'd give him the verdict. I was so afraid the judges would give it to Ali' because he wanted him to stop and he knew that a defeat by Berbick was the only hope that it would stop."

Hannigan also paints a picture of reporters and one judge with tears in their eyes ringside as they watch someone they'd followed for years, fighting like a shadow of his former self against Berbick in what was a "boring" fight.

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