It was 37 years ago when Muhammad Ali, arguably the biggest sports star of all-time, stepped into the boxing ring for the final time as a competitor against Trevor Berbick.
It was sad watching “The Greatest” fighting to survive against an opponent who he would have clowned years earlier. Ali was one year removed from taking a horrible beating at the hands of Larry Holmes in a championship match, and was already showing signs of the vocal stuttering and hand trembling that would be a part of the rest of his life.
Those two fights should never have been allowed to take place. The Holmes fight in particular is looked at as a tragedy in the sport of boxing. Both fights happened because promoters thought Ali’s name would still draw and Ali had no other way to make that kind of money. But there was a feeling of sadness watching them that I will never forget.
There is a big difference when a baseball player or basketball player — or even a football player — goes out and competes long past his prime. They may strike out more, or be slow in the field, causing a degree of sadness for anyone who has followed their career. But ball sports are very different from fighting sports.
In theory, there is a reason combat sports are regulated. Almost nobody wants to be retired when huge money is thrown their way for one more fight. And there is a reason why it’s really not a good thing to fight into your forties. Like every rule, there are exceptions, but for every Bernard Hopkins who found success into his last forties, there will be hundreds of people at a much younger age who no longer have the reflexes or stamina to compete in such an unforgiving profession.
Granted, there is no evidence of the hidden signs of neurological damage, nor is there any evidence that Liddell was filled with thyroid medication, as Ali was in the Holmes fight to make his body look presentable and fool he public into thinking he was in better shape than he had been in years. Ali went into a fight on medication that only made his fighting condition that much worse.
He still survived into the 10th round with Holmes, although “survived” is a sad choice of words. He actually went the 10-round distance with Berbick, too, even if it was clear very quickly that he had nothing left and was going to be a punching bag.
But with Liddell, in watching the pay-per-view broadcast from The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., it was predictable how the fight was going hours before it started. It was already clear when Liddell got out of the car that brought him to the arena, and he walked out like an old man whose hips seemed shot.
For all the talk from the announcers about how you keep your power, that really isn’t the case for someone who’s almost 49 years old, especially considering that injuries take away from explosive strength. Knockout power comes from speed, which also goes away long before that time.
Oscar De La Hoya, acting as a promoter, kept trying to sell the idea that the legendary Liddell, the first true MMA superstar made by television, was back, and that age was only a number. Still, De La Hoya is three years younger than Liddell, and he knew enough to stop fighting 10 years ago when he physically could no longer perform at the level necessary. Ali was 10 years younger than Liddell when he fought Holmes.
Your power comes from your legs and hips. Liddell had neither. It was scary watching him hit pads in clips before the fight. One had to be gullible — or pretend really hard — that something wasn’t badly wrong. The idea that he was sandbagging, the word being thrown out to explain how slow and weak he looked. None of that really made much sense.
But just seeing him walk with his family, the result of the fight was obvious hours before it started. This fight didn’t take a round to turn sad. In the first minute you could see Liddell’s unsteady feet and slow movement; really, before the first punch was even thrown, it was pretty clear a career execution was in the process of taking place.
With the benefit of hindsight, the fight was a mistake. Liddell couldn’t move. Even when he did connect, he had none of his vaunted power because his body had long since betrayed him. He had talked a great fight in the buildup and looked the part physically, and fans had memories of a fighter who was a knockout artist in the cage and the ultimate badass in television commercials. But his movement was so weak that he had to know all his talking was nothing more than a bluff to try and promote ticket sales and pay-per-view buys.
Somehow, Liddell managed to get his body looking more than presentable given his age. Just looking at him standing there; he looked as good, maybe better than he did in his heyday. But like with Ali at the end, this was an illusion.
How a man who couldn’t move was allowed to fight is a hard question to come to grips with.
Andy Foster, who heads the California State Athletic Commission that licensed him, noted that Liddell went through and passed all the recommended testing for fighters over the age of 40 as set forth by the Association of Ringside Physicians (ARP), including MRA and MRI testing of the brain, an EKG, cardiac testing, neurological testing and an eye exam.
And that’s all well and good. But the system as set forth by the ARP failed in a big way in this instance. Rather than dwell on a history that can’t be changed, this fight should be learned from.
For any fighter at that age stepping into combat there should be a form of agility testing. A man who can’t move, whose hips are shot to that degree, should not be allowed to fight, even if his body looks good and his brain and eyes test out okay.
Quite frankly, anyone over the age of 45, the onus should be to prove you are fit enough to fight.