Ali v. Holmes: the Fight that Should Not have Been
In October of 1980 Muhammad Ali came out of retirement to fight Larry Holmes in an attempt to win an unprecedented fourth World Heavyweight Boxing Championship.
The months of training leading up to the fight were documented by the Maysles brothers. Because of the fight’s outcome, however, it was shelved. Twenty nine years later ESPN has revived that film, added new commentary by the people who were there, and released it on their 30 for 30 program. You can see in the documentary that Ali has slowed and his speech is slurred, while Holmes is at the top of his game (See a clip of the ESPN film here). The fight lasted ten rounds though it was clear after the first couple that Ali was going down. At one point in anguish, commentator Howard Cosell says, “this has got to end.” What we know now is that this fight was even more unfair than they knew; Ali had Parkinson’s Disease.
Muhammad Ali was one of the fastest and most agile fighters of his time but Parkinson’s was getting the better of him. When you compare him just six years earlier in this 1974 training video you can see just how so. In the ESPN documentary, Dr Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s doctor since 1962, said he noticed the changes in Ali and he warned him to stop fighting. Advice unheeded, Dr. Pacheco left in 1977, saying he couldn’t bear to watch anymore. Ali continued to train and, despite all odds, won his third Heavyweight Championship in 1978 and finally announced his retirement.
Two years later, with an eight million dollar incentive he agreed to fight Larry Holmes. Three months before the fight Ali was ordered by the Nevada State Athletic Commission to go to the Mayo clinic for a Neurological Exam. The exam was not made public at the time but contained the following results: When he tried to touch his finger to his nose it was a little off, he had trouble coordinating his speech and couldn’t hop on one foot well. Nevada State approved the fight with Holmes based on this exam. Despite these deficits, Ali’s fight against Holmes lasted ten rounds. Ali was never knocked out. The fight was simply stopped and Holmes was declared winner.
Five years later, clinical examinations, response to medication, and a PET scan at Columbia University Medical Center confirmed that Ali indeed had Parkinson’s disease. PET scans of patients with Parkinson’s typically will also show characteristic changes when their has been a head injury. CAT and MRI scans are typically normal in Parkinson’s Disease, but often show evidence of prior head injuries. Ali’s scans were not reported to show signs of prior brain injury.
The question has arisen; did boxing play a role in the development of his disease? Doctors can’t be sure. Dr. Stanley Fahn, one of Ali’s neurologists in a 1984 New York Times article said there was a possibility that blows to the head during his career were the cause of the syndrome, he added that there was no way to tell. Dr. Robert Goodman at The Movement Disorders Center says, “His kind of Parkinson’s appears to have followed a traditional course” and “it is very possible that he would have developed the disease anyway.”
Regardless of the cause, the disease is the same. Significant advances have been made in the treatment of Parkinson’s since Ali’s diagnosis 25 years ago. In particular new surgical techniques have been developed (Click here to learn more about Surgery done for Parkinson’s Disease).
It may be true that the fight should never have taken place because he got such a bad beating, because it was essentially career ending, and a sad fizzle to a magnificent reign. The truth is, however, a man with the symptoms Ali had should not have been able to stand up against Holmes. His Mayo Clinic exam shows that his neurological system was deteriorating. Despite all this, Ali was remarkable. He went ten rounds against a World Champion in his prime and wasn’t even knocked out. Watch that fight and see what a champ Muhammad Ali really was.
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