By Alan Hubbard
Dusk was settling over the Nevada desert and the vast car park behind Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where a stadium had been built to house the world heavyweight championship between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes exactly 40 years ago this Friday (October 2,1980).
It was the saddest night I have ever witnessed in boxing, as the man who once was not only The Greatest, but the slickest, smartest and most popular boxer in boxing history dismally disintegrated before our eyes into an unrecognisable shell of his former self.
Mine were not the only moist eyes at ringside as we watched mournfully while Ali painfully took his lumps. Here, at 38, was a shot fighter, his timing, reflexes and balance – all had evaporated since he last appeared in the ring, regaining his WBA title from Leon Spinks two years earlier. A legend was getting licked, humiliation being inflicted, somewhat reluctantly by the man he once employed as his chief sparring partner and who had become a friend.
The one-time dancing feet stumbled and those memorably flashing fists fumbled, making him easy prey for the machine gun left jabs and sharply delivered right crosses from Holmes who clearly did not relish the task of beating up someone he always admired as his ring idol. Indeed, as the one-sided drubbing continued Holmes clearly began pulling his punches, glancing frequently towards referee Richard Greene with a grimace, beckoning for him to step in to stop the fight. But for some reason the vastly experienced Greene was disinclined to do so, even in the ninth round when Ali had rope-a-doped himself and had nothing left with which to fire back. He was reduced to target practice for Holmes’ now token, powderpuff blows.
At the end of that ninth round Holmes mouthed “Why don’t you stop it?” to Greene who was collecting the judges’ scorecards. Ali sat slumped, dull-eyed and expressionless on his stool, and trainer Angelo Dundee took one look at his battered features and whispered to him: “Enough, champ.”
He turned to look at Greene who still had not come over to examine the stricken Ali, waving to him to do so, yelling “I am the chief second and I stop the fight!”.
From the ringside steps came the rasping voice of Drew ‘Bundini’ Brown, who had the title of assistant trainer. “No. no. no” he screamed jerking at Dundee’s bloodied shirt sleeve. “One more round, one more round.”
There had been friction between them in the past and Dundee, shouted back at him “F…you. No!” Then he turned back to Greene – who committed suicide three years later after the death of a Korean fighter in a bout he refereed. “The ball game’s over. I stop the fight.” Bundini looked imploringly at Herbert Muhammad sitting in the front row but Ali’s manager averted his gaze and stared at the floor.
Meanwhile Dundee gently dabbed his man’s facial wounds and led him gently from the ring, wrapping his gown around him. A sobbing Bundini followed them to the dressing room.
Why the self-styled guru, who had been an on- off employee since the young Cassius Clay dethroned Sonny Liston in 1964, wanted the shattered Ali to continue remains a mystery. It did seem at the time like the selfish plea of someone losing his meal ticket, fearing the feast of 16 years was over.
It was never fully explained by Bundini himself, nor in the newly published book “Bundini, Don’t Believe The Hype” (with a red line through the word ‘don’t’) by Dr Todd B Snyder who is not a journalist but an associate professor of rhetoric and writing at the Siena College in New York.
In fact he rather glosses over the importance of the incident in his exploration of the relationship between Ali and Bundini in an otherwise excellent read. All Bundini ever really said about it was that it was he who wanted to stop the fight rather than Dundee. Which sounds rather bizarre.
Actually there was much that was bizarre about Bundini himself, the ex-sailor who once worked as a cornerman with Sugar Ray Robinson and attached himself to Ali before the first Liston fight.
He nominated himself assistant trainer without, one suspects, the endorsement of Dundee but I certainly never saw him assist in his training other than holding the heavy bag in the gym for Ali to punch.
Yet he was much more than a gopher (go for this, go for that). He was the camp jester and AIi’s motivator in chief, not that Ali needed much motivation. However he did dream up what has become boxing’s most celebrated phrase “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”, both chanting face to face in a vocal duet “Rumble, young man rumble… aaaahhh!”
Bundini, as Snyder explains, became indelibly linked to Ali’s phenomenal success and there is no doubt, that as George Foreman once said, he was “the source of Ali‘s spirit”; even though Ali fired him from the camp on several occasions because of various misdeeds, like selling the champion’s T-shirts without permission and pocketing the proceeds.
The book is superbly composed as you would expect from a professor of writing but it tends to veer towards something of a hagiography, largely because it is told in part through the eyes of Bundini’s only son, Drew Brown III, who clearly idolised his father and possibly put topspin on some of the tales.
Yes, the irascible Florida-born Bundini, who died after a fall in 1987 aged 59, was an important part of the Ali story but it is somewhat overplayed. Such was Ali’s own personality and talent, he surely would’ve become what he was without any artificial assistance, entertaining as it was.
Of the scores of books written around Ali, this one deserves to be among those on the top shelf for its lucidity of prose and insight into a master of hype who had similar charisma to Ali but perhaps became too dependent on him for his lifestyle.
Bundini always claimed that his odd nickname came from the Indian meaning ‘lover’ which he claimed he earned in days as a seaman rather than a cornerman. Well, no–one loved Ali more than him.
That heartbreaking bout with Holmes was one fight too far. Ali, probably already in the early grip of Parkinson’s, should never have been in the ring especially against an outstanding champion like Holmes.
One more round, Bundini? Had it happened, It might have seen the premature death of Ali and, such was his stature, that of boxing too.