The 'master of trickeration' continues to defy time

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The Independent Online

On this day in 1981 came the bad news that Muhammad Ali was making a comeback. It had been almost a year since Larry Homes had reduced the greatest heavyweight of all time to helplessness, and yet some things never change.

Angelo Dundee realised that as soon as he found out Drew "Bundini" Brown wanted him to call. "I knew the scene too well, you know?" Dundee recalled. "Drew Brown didn't call from Deer Lake [the hideaway Ali had built on a mountain in Pennsylvania] unless it was to tell me something I didn't want to hear."

Ali was back in training. He was surrounded by Bundini and the rest of the obedient servants who didn't care that he was pushing 40 years old or that the 17 stone he was packing made him look like a blimp. They were telling him that he was still invincible, still the champ, still the greatest, and to hell with the boxing commissions that wouldn't license him to fight again.

For a while, it was a joke. Even Ali seemed to be winking at his public as he bit his lower lip in mock anger and railed about winning the heavyweight title for the fourth time just to spite the Martians, the Ku-Klux-Klan, and all the other unnatural forces in his path. But the laughter turned to tears with the announcement of a contest against the Canadian champion Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas on 11 December 1981. Held in a scruffy ball park, it brought Ali's career to a sad conclusion. As Hugh McIlvanney put it, the king went out on a dustcart.

Unsurprisingly, the last hurrah of a career without equal in sport involved Don King, who had helped Ali make the fight against Holmes while insisting that he didn't want him to come out of retirement. "Ali couldn't believe that," King said. "He told me he was fighting for equality and justice, for the future of our children. When I heard that, I said, 'You're right, Ali'.

"And I promised him I would help, which is what my businessman's instinct had been telling me to do all along, heh-heh-heh."

Further exploitation of Ali's ego would prove painful for "the master of trickeration" when he was knocked around by messengers from The Mob after attempting to exert total control of proceedings in the Bahamas although he has vehemently denied this ever happened.

Since then, King hasn't even flinched from investigations by the FBI and the IRS, lawsuits and the condemnation of fighters who were cajoled into availing themselves of his services. He has dignity, you know, and let us not hesitate to add that he also has his pride.

There isn't a soul on earth who should ever have believed his claim of being "a small businessman trying to make it in America". He continues to talk in multiples of seven figures, has kicked down boardroom doors, and still considers himself the world's heaviest heavyweight.

King is now 70, and as you may have heard or read, was in London this week drumming up business for the contest in Las Vegas on 17 November between Hasim Rahman and Lennox Lewis, who will be attempting to regain the title he lost in South Africa. If Rahman repeats a victory – and many in boxing think this possible – that made Lewis the only heavyweight champion other than Floyd Patterson to be twice knocked out when in possession of the title, King will again be master of all he surveys in the heavyweight division.

Since King is not a well man the extent of his energy is amazing. His secret has always been words, some of them sounding as though he grew up reading a dictionary that had no pronunciation marks. Silly as they sound, though, they continue to spare King from taking a fall, charm politicians and seduce hard-bitten television executives. Long-time King watchers in the United States sense that he is getting bored. Bored with listening to himself.

"It's still there, the drive, the belief that he is the greatest ever boxing promoter, which is probably beyond dispute," one of them says, "but now, once a deal is done, he tends to tail off, which I guess is only natural in a man of his age."

In London this week, King went on for almost two hours without blowing a line. Everyone new to the experience sat enthralled. The eyes of others glazed over. You can say time is running out on King if you like, but of course that's what people were saying long, long ago.