Ali’s biggest fight was outside the ring: Racism

Jamaican Canadian boxer Trevor Berbick defeated Ali near the end of his career on points.
Jamaican Canadian boxer Trevor Berbick defeated Ali near the end of his career on points.

As tributes continue to pour in from around the world on the passing of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, many are reflecting on the lasting impression he left on the Caribbean, especially when he fought his last fight and lost in The Bahamas in 1981.

Ali, 74, who died June 3 after battling Parkinson’s disease for 32 years, still managed to rack up a stunning lifetime record of 56 wins in the ring and just five losses. He also became a vocal advocate for Black rights and against racism.

His loss in The Bahamas came after he was defeated by American boxer Larry Homes in October 1980 and refused to accept the result despite being knocked out in the 11th round. He pushed for a fight with Trevor Berbick, a Jamaican Canadian, in order to prove himself but was defeated.

Ali then retired for good after the fight, earning a lasting reputation as one of the 20th Century’s most influential sportsmen and icons.

Never one to shy away from self-promotion and even though he was a few pounds heavier before fighting Berbick, wearing his head-guard Ali proclaimed: “Everybody knows me. Not just in the West but in China, in Russia, in Morocco, in Libya. They know me all over the world.

Muhammad Ali visited Jamaica in 1979 as a guest of then-PM Michael Manley. Oscar Wailoo remembers Ali:
Muhammad Ali visited Jamaica in 1979 as a guest of then-PM Michael Manley. Oscar Wailoo remembers Ali:

“I set up a goal for myself, to demonstrate to other people what can be done. I do it for them. People tell me not to fight but they are at the foot of the wall of knowledge and I am at the top. My horizon is greater than theirs.

“Why do people go to the Moon? Why did Martin Luther King say he had a dream? People need challenges.”

Berbick wasn’t able to knock Ali down and the final bell went. The judges’ scores came in, both Clyde Gray and Jay Edson scored it 99-94 whereas Alanza Butler made it 97-94. It was a unanimous victory for Berbick.

The fight was announced on Sept. 19, 1981, and due to Ali’s health, several commissions didn’t want to take  responsibility with his fight as Ali could not get licensed to fight in the U.S. due to neurological concerns.

Two physicians, including his former doctor Ferdie Pacheco, had stated that Ali was suffering brain damage from having absorbed too many blows. His speech had slowed and was occasionally slurred.

Even Ali himself was worried and submitted to a series of tests at New York University. The doctors involved came to the conclusion that “There’s absolutely no evidence that Muhammad has sustained any injury to any vital organ … if the slurring were due to permanent damage, it would be there all the time.”

In December 1979, Ali visited Jamaica as a member of a delegation of the Nation of Islam headed by Minister James Muhammad, younger brother of the Elijah Muhammad. Lewis Farrakhan was also in the delegation.

This was after he converted to Islam in the early 60s, changing his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay to Muhammad Ali.

The group took a one-month tour of Jamaica as guests of then-prime minister Michael Manley. Muhammad Ali received the keys of the city in Kingston at Jamaican National Stadium.

After defeating American professional boxer Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston to win the heavyweight title in 1964, Ali shocked the boxing world by announcing he was a member of the Black Muslims – the Nation of Islam.

“Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t want it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free man. It means Beloved of God … and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me,” he said.

Raised a Baptist youth, Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam outraged and disturbed many white Americans but it was his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army that angered them most.

He also visited Cuba in 1996 as part of a humanitarian mission to provide medical supplies to the Caribbean island.  While there, he sparred with Cuba’s three-time Olympic Gold medallist Teofilo Stevenson and met with then-president Fidel Castro.

Ali was born on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky and began boxing at 12 after his new bicycle was stolen and he vowed to policeman Joe Martin that he would “whup” the person who took it.

He was only 89 lb. at the time, but Martin began training him at his boxing gym, the beginning of a six-year amateur career that ended with the light heavyweight Olympic gold medal in 1960.

Ali had already encountered racism. On boxing trips, he and his amateur teammates had to stay in the car while Martin bought them hamburgers. When he returned to Louisville with his gold medal, the Chamber of Commerce presented him a citation but said it didn’t have time to co-sponsor a dinner.

In his autobiography The Greatest, Ali wrote that he tossed the medal into the Ohio River after a fight with a white motorcycle gang, which started when he and a friend were refused service at a Louisville restaurant.

His funeral is scheduled for tomorrow (June 10) in his hometown of Louisville with former opponent Lennox Lewis and actor Will Smith among his pallbearers.