PBS Documentary Chronicles the Ali-Holmes Fight, Describing the Experience as Watching a Friend’s Painful Encounter with a Crushing Truck


On Oct. 2, 1980, in Las Vegas, Ali and Holmes met in the ring with Holmes’ World Boxing Council heavyweight championship on the line.

But to fully appreciate the feast of brutality that ensued, Burns’ documentary takes us back to Ali’s rise and 1964 upset heavyweight championship win over Sonny Liston. It was a week before Ali would change his name from that given to the Louisville, Kentucky, youngster: Cassius Clay Jr.

“Muhammad Ali was the very best at what he did,” Burns said in a news release previewing his latest look at the American experience, having already turned his lens on war, baseball, jazz and more. “He was arguably America’s greatest athlete, and his unflinching insistence that he be unabashedly himself at all times made him a beacon for generations of people around the world seeking to express their own humanity.”

Ali had converted to Islam in the years leading up to dethroning Liston, and he cited his religion in his opposition to being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. He was then stripped of his title in 1967 and suspended from boxing until 1970, when he began his comeback trail that led to a 1971 loss to the then-champ from Philadelphia, Joe Frazier.

Ali would win his rematch with Frazier in 1974, followed that same year by a hard-fought victory over new heavyweight champion George Foreman in Africa’s Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) — the “Rumble in the Jungle.”


Ali beat Frazier again in 1975 in the Philippines, the “Thrilla in Manila,” but the toll was tremendous: “Muhammad, he’s out of it, he said that that fight was the closest thing to death. He’s near death,” said Burns’ commentator Michael Bentt, himself a former boxer.

Keith David, the “Muhammad Ali” narrator, intones: “Frazier was too battered to attend the presidential reception at the palace that night. Ali would urinate blood for weeks. ‘We went to Manila as champions,’ Ali said later, ‘and we came back as old men.’”

Ali would continue to defend his title before losing to Leon Spinks in February 1978, returning to the ring seven months later to best Spinks and become the heavyweight champ for an unprecedented third time.

In June 1979, Ali relinquished his World Boxing Association title. It was one year after Holmes had become the WBC heavyweight champion in a 15-round split decision over Ken Norton.

In 1980, promoter Don King phoned in an offer to Ali’s manager, Herbert Muhammad: “‘If you’re going to come back,’ King told him, ‘you can only fight Larry Holmes,’” Burns’ narrator recalls.

Holmes, 30, was 35-0 as a professional boxer, and considered Ali a friend. He’d been thrilled to see Ali ringside for his bouts, but he was clear when a reporter asked Holmes about his plans for the upcoming match: “Beat Muhammad Ali, of course,” Holmes says in footage from that time. “But I will feel sad about beating Muhammad Ali because Muhammad is a legend in his own time. Now his time has passed, this is my time now.”



In a recent interview for Burns’ documentary, Holmes says, “He should have never fought me, but he’d get that $10 million, that $10 million will make you want to fight Holmes and everybody else. And that’s what he did and that’s how I got in to fight Ali.”

Ali in 1980 footage taunts Holmes in trademark bombastic fashion: “I taught him how to train. He come to me ragged and hungry. I gave him a job as a sparring partner, took him out of Easton, Pennsylvania, a little peanut-head nuttin’, no money bum, taught him how to dance, showed him how to — you see him imitating me — showed him how to dance around the ring, he tried to imitate me but he gets tired and clumsy. He can’t dance. Listen, you need to try to teach him how to talk, he can’t talk.”


Why was Ali doing this, one reporter asked, does he need the money? “Who don’t need money?” came Ali’s reply.

“Muhammad Ali never should have fought Larry Holmes, Larry Holmes never should have fought Muhammad Ali,” journalist Jerry Izenberg recalls in the documentary. “That’s the business, and that’s also Ali’s constant look for one more chance to get on stage.”

Ali, 38, shed 30 pounds in training for Holmes. But his treatment for what was diagnosed as a thyroid imbalance left him sluggish.

The fight went ahead before a paid crowd of nearly 25,000 in a temporary arena outside Caesars Palace.

“Holmes would really like to make mincemeat of him early, if he can,” legendary announcer Howard Cosell tells those watching from home.

“What I felt that I had to do was take control right off the bat, make him respect me in a different setting than he did while I was in the gym,” Holmes recalls in the documentary. “So therefore, my strategy was to get to him, push him around, manhandle him.”



By the third round, it’s clear Ali is no match.

“And then it was really sad,” recalls journalist Dave Kindred. “Then it was like watching a train wreck, watching a friend get run over by a truck.”

By round nine, Holmes’ relentless left jab brings blood below Ali’s left eye.

“I could do pretty much what I wanted to do, but as the rounds end, I said to Ali, ‘Don’t keep taking these punches, don’t take no more shots,’” he recalls in the recent interview with Burns and crew. “He cussed me out, called me names and everything else, he called me every name in the book that I never heard him say, you know. And I said, ‘OK, take this,’ bang bang bang.”

The “Ali” narrator: “Ali slumped on his stool after the 10th, a round in which he attempted just four feeble punches. From his seat, Herbert Muhammad signaled to (trainer) Angelo Dundee to stop the fight. Holmes had dominated every round, landing 340 punches to Ali’s 42.”

Holmes immediately afterward tells a press conference: “When you fight a friend, to me a brother, when you do what you have to do, you can’t get happiness. I told him, I said, ‘I love you, you know, I really respect you.’”



In the recent interview, Holmes removes his glasses and wipes his eyes: “I still cry a little bit because the man had so much to offer.”

Of Ali after the fight, the narration continues: “‘He appears to be in excellent health,’ reported one of his examiners. Not everyone agreed. ‘In two or three years we’ll see what the Holmes fight did to his kidneys and brain,’ said his former fight doctor, Ferdie Pacheco. ‘He was a damaged fighter before the fight, and now he’s going to be damaged even more.’”

Ali would battle Parkinson’s disease, diagnosed in 1984, before his death in June 2016.

Holmes held the world heavyweight boxing title until 1985 and fought his last bout in 2002, landing him a 69-6 career record with 44 knockouts.


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