On a chilly May night in 1955, Archie Moore defeated Nino Valdez in a 15-round heavyweight fight at the old Cashman Field in downtown Las Vegas. It was not a title fight, though its promoters tried to bill it that way. It was, though, if you take Las Vegas Sun publisher Hank Greenspun’s word for it, the “greatest event for the town since the government started using the area for atom bomb tests.”
Greenspun added that Las Vegas was on its way to becoming a first-rate fight town. The truth was that the bout’s attendance had fallen miserably short of promoter Jack “Doc” Kearns’ boasts of 14,000 (announced at 10,800, it was reportedly closer to 6,000), and although the city seemed to be built for the fight game, it would be stuck being second-rate without a first-rate venue.
It got one in 1959, when the Las Vegas Convention Center opened, offering a 9,000-seat rotunda within walking distance of the Strip, but the city still had bigger issues tarnishing its national image, with Jim Crow remaining the unwritten law on the Strip. That began to change, too, in 1960 when NAACP threats to demonstrate at all segregated casinos effectively broke the back of the practices that had earned Las Vegas the title “Mississippi of the West.“
That same year, a black teenager from Louisville, Ky., named Cassius Clay earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic boxing team. In Rome that summer, Clay captured America’s attention with his combination of skill and flair in the ring as he won the light heavyweight gold medal. He was handsome, clever, cocksure and talkative—though not yet the quintessentially Vegas showman he would become.
In 1961, Las Vegas landed its first look at Clay when he defeated a Hawaiian named Duke Sabedong at the Convention Center. It was the beginning of a 20-year ring relationship between the city and the man we came to know as Muhammad Ali. By the time Ali retired in 1981, he was the most recognized person on the planet, and with his help Las Vegas had become the “Fight Capital of the World.”
With such deep ties to Las Vegas, it’s only fitting that Ali’s life and legacy will be celebrated Feb. 18 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The Power of Love Gala, a fundraiser for the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health (KeepMemoryAlive.org), will double as a 70th birthday party for Ali, who has been battling Parkinson’s disease for nearly three decades. In conjunction with the milestone, Vegas Seven spoke with some of the men who experienced Ali’s finest moments—and greatest setbacks—in Las Vegas.
Ali, at 19 years old, wasn’t even old enough to gamble when he earned a 10-round unanimous decision over Sabedong before about 3,000 spectators at the Convention Center on June 26, 1961. It was just his seventh professional bout, still the beginning of his climb to greatness. And while the fight itself was no classic, one encounter leading up to it had a monumental impact on Ali’s flair for self-promotion.
Royce Feour: A day or two before the fight, promoter Mel “Red” Greb lined up Ali and Gorgeous George, who was wrestling at the Convention Center that same week, to go to Channel 8 for the sportscast. So Ali met Gorgeous George there, and he is the one who got Ali to start being a showman. He said in effect, “Son, you’ll really enhance your career if you start working some showbiz in.” Ali had never done that, and after that was when Ali started that, after meeting and talking with Gorgeous George before the Duke Sabedong fight.
Gene Kilroy: Ali went over to the station, and there sat Gorgeous George. All the calls were coming in: “Gorgeous George, what are you going to do to that guy?” George says, “I’m going to put perfume on him. He needs deodorant; he’s not like me. I’ve got my pretty gold hair. I’m going to throw golden bobby pins to the audience, and I’m so pretty.” Everyone was calling and talking to Gorgeous George; nobody was talking to Ali. He didn’t get one call.
Ali’s next fight, he started talking about how pretty he was, how smart he was, how this he was. Well, the people started to dislike him, and they would come to the fights and cheer against him. But then anything he said he would do he did. He’d start predicting what round the fight would end. And at that time, they would give you flat money. They didn’t give you extra money, “If the fight sells $2 million, you’re gonna get X-percentage; if it sells 3, you get more.” It was flat, so he didn’t have to do anything. But he never saw a camera he didn’t like.
When Ali returned for his next fight in Las Vegas, against Floyd Patterson on Nov. 22, 1965, he arrived with both greater acclaim and notoriety. He had defeated Sonny Liston twice to win and retain the world heavyweight title, improving to 21-0, but he made just as many headlines immediately after his first victory over Liston by announcing that he had converted to Islam and was changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.
It was a name change that the public and media all but ignored (ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell being a notable exception), and even the sign outside the Stardust Hotel directing people toward Ali’s workouts read: “Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay) training here daily after 1 p.m.”
Feour: Ali attracted a very militant black following. I worked at the Las Vegas Sun then. And the Sun ran big front-page stories not on the fight, but the sheriff and the fear that Las Vegas was going to be—I don’t think invaded is too strong a word—that all these militant blacks were going to come to Las Vegas to see Ali fight. The sheriff’s department was saying, “We’re going to be prepared in case that happens.” In fact, I think they expected it to happen. And as it turned out, that didn’t happen.
Ali, who stayed at the El Morocco Motel before fighting Patterson, predicted that he would “punish” the former two-time heavyweight champ for his continued references to Ali as “Clay” and perceived slights toward the Nation of Islam. What followed was a one-sided bout in which Ali retained his title with a 12th-round technical knockout.
Feour: Patterson lost maybe every round. He had a bad back, and round after round he was just bent over, plodding very slowly. He could barely move; he was like a sitting duck. And a young Ali moved—jab, jab, jab—just beating him, and you wanted the referee to stop the fight it was so one-sided. And not only one-sided, but it was an obviously lame, injured fighter that Ali was beating up on.”
Marc Ratner: No question in my mind that Ali could have stopped Patterson [earlier]. Ali was saying to him, “What’s my name?”—trying to make him say “Ali” instead of “Cassius Clay.” But he did carry him. He was nasty with Patterson.
For the next two years, Ali continued to defend his title in fights outside Las Vegas. In 1967, he was arrested, had his title stripped and was found guilty on draft evasion charges after refusing induction into the U.S. Army on religious grounds during the Vietnam War. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he famously said. For three years at the height of his career, he was unable to fight—no state boxing commission would license him.
While the case was under appeal to the Supreme Court in 1970, Ali was allowed to fight Jerry Quarry in Georgia, the only state in America that had no boxing commission. He was ultimately vindicated in 1971 when his conviction was overturned, but there were many people who weren’t ready to embrace Ali’s return to the ring.
Ratner: Ali was hated; he wasn’t loved. Today he’s loved, but there was a time when people wanted to see him get beat as much as to see him fight. The whole thing with the Black Muslims, with Vietnam, there were a lot of problems with that.
Bob Arum: I got a call one day [in 1970] from Jimmy the Greek, who said he had made arrangements with Paul Laxalt, who was governor, to give Ali a license. So I signed Ali and Joe Frazier to fight in Las Vegas and came out to Vegas to get a license. The guy I was with was a PR man named Harold Conrad, and we were staying at the Desert Inn, and unfortunately we ran into Moe Dalitz, who had sold the Desert Inn to Howard Hughes [in 1967], and when he found out why we were there he was outraged because he said Ali wasn’t a good American, so he called the Hughes people. We were at the El Morocco Motel, and we were at a meeting being held there, and somebody from Hughes’ office called Jimmy the Greek and said Howard Hughes didn’t want Ali fighting in Vegas, and so once I heard that I withdrew the application.
Ali didn’t land another fight in Las Vegas until June 27, 1972—a rematch with Jerry Quarry at the Convention Center. On the undercard of the bout, Quarry’s brother, Mike, fought Bob Foster, an African-American. The card was marketed as “The Soul Brothers vs. the Quarry Brothers.”
Ali was no longer the champ after losing to Joe Frazier in the “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden in 1971. But his celebrity was stronger than ever following two wins at the Astrodome (the third and fourth of his career) and successful bouts in Zurich, Tokyo and Vancouver.
Public perceptions of Ali already had begun to change, and that was evident during his open workouts at Caesars Palace, where he turned on the charm for the adoring crowds.
Kilroy: Ali had bought a brand-new mobile home and decides we’re going to drive it to Las Vegas. We drive for five days and get into Caesars Palace at about 2 o’clock in the morning. As we walk in, craps tables were going. We walked right down the center of the casino. Everyone stopped to look at Ali. People start cheering, “Hey, Champ!” We go to the coffee shop, have a nice breakfast. We get our rooms. Even though he got in at 2 in the morning, he was always dedicated to running, so I get up about 4 o’clock and go down and talk to the bellman, “Where’s a good place to run?” He said, “The Dunes Golf Course; it’s soft and you find a lot of people run over there.” So Ali runs the Dunes Golf Course, 3 miles all the way around. …
We agreed to work out open to the public, which they don’t do today; fighters don’t do it. Fighters hide out today. Ali was available to everybody. We ate in the coffee shop, and people would come up to us. Everybody was good to us. He was truly the people’s champion.
Here’s what was nice about him that other fighters wouldn’t do: He’d get done in the morning and see some little kid walking through the casino or something, and he’d say, “I bet there’s a lot of sick little kids in the hospital here. We should go visit them.” And when he’d get done training at 3 o’clock and take a shower, he’d say “Let’s go.” We’d go on our own. And he would see those little kids, and afterward he’d tell me how lucky he was.
Feour: The people watching him train were in awe. You should have seen the looks on their faces. They were hanging on every word. His shtick, I didn’t even find it that funny, and it was even kind of corny, but it didn’t matter. They laughed and applauded at everything he said. They simply loved Muhammad Ali. And I don’t think they were all just hicks. I think many of them were surely businesspeople, doctors and lawyers— sophisticated, intelligent people—but you put them by Muhammad Ali and they were childlike.
Weighing a sleek 216 pounds, Ali defeated Quarry by a seventh-round TKO. It was an easy battle, and Ali even threw in a few of his patented “Ali Shuffles”; 12 years into his pro career, his speed was still superior to anyone in his class.
Kilroy: So we’re out here for the Quarry fight when Elvis is appearing here [at the Hilton]. My friend Tom Hulett was the tour manager for Elvis; I played football in the service with him. I call Tom, who says Elvis would love to meet Ali. So we go to the show; they put us down in Elvis’ booth. Elvis comes out and does a couple of songs, and then he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, a fellow came here to see me tonight, and I’m really honored: Muhammad Ali!”
We go backstage afterward, and Ali tells Elvis, “Man, you are a prisoner in your own body. You gotta get out amongst the people.” Ali said, “If you walk down the street with me and didn’t have your cape and glasses on, they wouldn’t know who you are. You gotta be out there with the people.” And all the guys around Elvis said, “No, no, no. You can’t do that.” And Ali told him, “This isn’t right.”
The King must have taken a liking to The Greatest, because when Ali returned to Las Vegas in 1973 to fight European heavyweight champion Joe Bugner at the Convention Center on Valentine’s Day, he received a gift from Presley: a specially designed rhinestone-studded robe that resembled one of Elvis’ capes. Ali loved the cape and wore it before his one-sided 12-round unanimous decision over Bugner. He also wore it for his next bout, one that resulted in a broken jaw for Ali.
Kilroy: That’s when Elvis made up the famous robe for Ali, the one that said “People’s Choice” on the back. He wore it for the [Ken] Norton fight [in San Diego in March 1973], and when he got beat, some of the people around Ali, the voodoo nonsense, said the only reason he got beat was because he had the Elvis robe on, and so he never wore it again.
Ali not only recovered to beat Norton in a rematch, he also went on to defeat both Frazier and George Foreman in 1974 to reclaim the heavyweight title 10 years after first winning it. So it was as a 33-year-old world champion that Ali returned to Las Vegas to fight Ron Lyle on May 16, 1975. ABC spent nearly $1 million to broadcast the bout, which was Ali’s first on live network television since 1966, and just the fourth heavyweight title fight on live home TV in 10 years. The champ, who received $1 million for the fight, struggled early before winning by TKO in the 11th round.
Kilroy: Ron Lyle was beating Ali, and [Ali’s] brother, Rahman, came up to the corner, and said, “You’re blowing it.” So then Ali came out and opened up on him, and then asked the referee to stop the fight [because it had become so one-sided]. But Lyle was winning up until that.
Although he was usually the main attraction when he was in Las Vegas, Ali also enjoyed doing some stargazing of his own when he was on the Strip.
Kilroy: One night Ali and I went to see Redd Foxx. We went backstage and Foxx comes out, and these two big guys are with him, and Foxx says, “Start some shit with me. I got my man here will whip your ass.” Redd Foxx was always clowning. Ali loved Tom Jones, Harry Belafonte, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Bill Cosby—he loved those entertainers. He couldn’t believe it.
And Caesars Palace to me, I thought I died and went to heaven. I mean here we’re sitting having breakfast—Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Paul Anka would come in, hang out for a while and leave. All the pretty cocktail waitresses there, it was like a screening for the Miss Universe or Miss America pageants.
Our big problem was keeping him under wraps. Everybody wanted to do this or that. Unbelievable. He stayed focused on the fight, but you’ve got to keep the people away who would want to take him here or there.
Months after beating Lyle, Ali defeated Frazier in the 14-round “Thrilla in Manila” and then announced his retirement. He would end up fighting again in less than five months, and made six title defenses before his bout with Leon Spinks at the Hilton Pavilion on Feb. 15, 1978. Ali was 36 years old, weighed 224 pounds and had a professional record of 55-2; Spinks was 24, weighed 197 pounds and was 6-0-1 since turning pro after winning a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics.
Arum: Ali was relatively embarrassed that the fight was made because Spinks was so inexperienced. Ali didn’t feel he was a worthy opponent, but Ali was a great showman, so he came up with the idea that he wouldn’t talk to the press because he didn’t want to be embarrassed being asked, “Why are you fighting Leon Spinks?” So he then came up with the idea that he would take a vow of silence, and he would not talk to anybody. And then when, finally, he came into Vegas for the week of the fight, he announced that he was renouncing his vow of silence. And, of course, the newspaper guys, the media guys, we couldn’t fit them into the suite because now Ali was talking. He was a great, great showman. The rating that CBS got—because it was on prime-time free television—was enormous. It was a win-win for everybody—except Ali.
Kilroy: Ali’s wife just had a baby [Laila], and she wanted him to be down there in Florida. So he went down there, and he really didn’t train for the first Spinks fight. We met him out here in Vegas; he wasn’t running. I brought Kris Kristofferson in to run with him so he would run. Then one morning, around 4 o’clock, we’re going out to run and here comes Spinks through the door with two ladies, and Ali says “Why am I punishing myself? Here’s a guy with seven pro fights staying out all night. I don’t need to …” And I said, “You gotta do it. You gotta do it.” But he wasn’t in shape for that fight, and then he knew he made a mistake.
A CBS national television audience and 5,300 fans at the Hilton watched as Ali gave away many of the early rounds, and Spinks fought off the champ’s late advances to win a 15-round split decision in one of the greatest upsets in boxing history.
Arum: The winner of that fight, who everybody was assuming would be Ali, was required by the WBC at the time to fight Ken Norton. So when Spinks won that fight, he was required to fight Norton. But Ali got me in the dressing room afterward, and he says, “Bob, you were never involved in boxing; I brought you in. The one thing you can do for me is to get me the rematch.” And I said, “Ali, you really shouldn’t be fighting anymore.” But he agreed with me that win or lose in the rematch, he would retire. So that’s when I got sideways with the WBC. I made the Ali rematch with Leon, which was held in New Orleans at the Superdome, and Ali won the fight and retired as he had agreed. Of course, a couple of years later [promoter Don] King got a hold of him and put him in with Larry Holmes, and that had tragic consequences.
After becoming the first man to win the heavyweight championship three times, Ali could have retired from the ring with a storybook ending. But with an $8 million payday awaiting him to fight undefeated WBC champion Holmes in a 25,000-seat temporary arena in the Caesars Palace parking lot, Ali was unwilling to lay down his gloves.
With former personal physician Ferdie Pacheco making public his health concerns, and with more than 500 rounds of professional fights to his name, the 38-year-old Ali had to prove to Nevada Athletic Commission members that his body could withstand the punishment of another bout.
Kilroy: When Ali fought Holmes out here, they said he had to get a physical exam, so I took him to the Mayo Clinic. Now what better place can you go? And they said everything was working. I would have talked him out of it if he wasn’t hitting on all cylinders.
Sig Rogich: We were concerned about his health. I flew back to his training site in Deer Lake [Pa.] and he saw me there when he was in the ring. I was watching him—they gave us permission to come and watch him, and I told him I had to watch him to be sure I was convinced he was healthy. And I had a doctor with us, too. And the press was there, and he was saying, “This man is here to watch me box. He doesn’t think that I’m healthy enough. We’ll show him.” And he’d start a rapid-punching display, and then he’d look at me and laugh. He was always on his game.
He lost a lot of weight for that fight, and I always thought that was the reason he didn’t perform well. He was totally spent by the time he got in the ring. He wanted to look his best, and he wanted to bring his body back to the days of old, and I don’t know what he took to do that, what kind of dehydrating medication he took, but he lost a lot of weight. And when he came into that ring, he looked sensational but he had no energy. He never got on track, he never had his punch with him, and he got beat up badly—very badly.
It would have been tough not to allow him to fight. But, yes, I had that thought. I wish he wouldn’t have fought then. I’d like to remember him at his peak, at his best. And this certainly was not his best.
Kilroy: There was a doctor who said he could shoot Ali up with something to make him feel stronger. I was totally against it. And I noticed from then on he was dehydrated.
Feour: It was just like Ali-Patterson, but it was the opposite scenario. It was an old, infirm Ali fighting the younger champion. Toward the end before the corner asked the referee to stop it, Holmes wouldn’t fight all out. But he wasn’t carrying Ali to punish him, as Ali had done to Patterson. He was carrying him so as not to hurt him. He would land a couple of punches and then look at the referee as if to say, “Why don’t you stop this?” And then [Ali’s] corner finally did, but the referee should have stopped it. It was definitely sad for everybody, because he was a mere shadow of what he was. Holmes exhibited as much sportsmanship as you’re ever going to see in the ring.
Ratner: Holmes almost didn’t want to hit him. It was a sad fight.
Kilroy: All that talk about Larry Holmes that said he took it easy on [Ali], that’s bullshit. Larry Holmes tried to kill him. He was scared to death the first three rounds. He thought Ali was holding back, and then he found out Ali had nothing. When Holmes hit him in the ninth round, Ali hollered, and Herbert Muhammad [Ali’s manager] told [trainer] Angelo Dundee, “Stop the fight, stop the fight.” But Ali said that night up in his suite, “They have no pictures of me lying on the ground with another fighter standing over me.”
Arum: I think I attribute a lot of the worsening of Ali’s condition to that fight—his training for that fight, and the beating that he took in that fight.
Rogich: When I was chairman of the commission, a few months after the fight with Holmes, Ali wanted to fight here, and I told him and his people that I was not going to allow it. I didn’t think it was good for him, and I didn’t think it was good for Nevada. I thought he needed just to stop fighting, and so I called for a show-cause hearing to tell the world why we should or should not suspend his license.
We had a hearing, and there must have been 50 press people there, maybe more, and during the course of it I felt I had the support of my commission in denying him a license to fight in Nevada. And [Ali] and I were really good friends in those days. I had gone out and watched him train prior to the Holmes fight, and I had to approve it—and I saw Holmes, too. So we were having the hearing, and he was being cute like he is, doing magic tricks at the table and just doing all the things that make him so loveable.
I stopped the hearing and we took a little break, and I went in the bathroom—Gene Kilroy was there, as a matter of fact—and Ali came in, and I said, “Gene, you’re not going to win this hearing, and it’s not going to look good for him to be denied a license. Why don’t you just withdraw your application and I’ll end the hearing, because I’m pretty convinced I have the support of my commission. I won’t embarrass him, and we won’t go into his health problems or anything, we’ll just end it.” And they said, “Would you do that?” And I said, “Yes,” and so we came back out and I said, “Mr. Ali has withdrawn his application, and that ends this hearing.” And I just gaveled it shut and left. The press went a little crazy—they wanted to continue and talk, so I just adjourned the meeting and got up and left.
Ali’s friends hoped this would help protect his health. But when they look back now, they see it was already too late—and they reflect on when they should have advised him to retire.
Arum: I would have told him that morning in Manila, after he and Frazier engaged in one of the most brutal fights in the history of boxing. That was it; neither guy was ever the same again.
Ali fought once more after the Holmes fight, losing a 10-round unanimous decision to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas on Dec. 11, 1981, closing his career at 56-5 with 37 knockouts. By 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a disorder of the central nervous system that has affected his speech and motor skills. In fighting his illness, Ali has proven more inspiring than he ever was in the ring, appearing almost divine with his trembling right arm raised high after lighting the torch to open the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta in one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history.
Many of Ali’s opponents, as well as such boxing legends as Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran, are expected at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Feb. 18 to celebrate Ali’s birthday at the Ruvo Center gala. Proceeds will fund research and treatment of neurocognitive disorders.
Arum: The Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Brain Institute is very, very important for what they’re doing for the sport of boxing. They have instituted a program where fighters, when they start out, get thoroughly tested—brain scans and whatever they can do with modern technology—and at periodic intervals they get tested and retested so the experts can detect deterioration by making comparisons over a young man’s history, which you couldn’t do before. And they believe by doing this, they can stop fighters from fighting [too long], to prevent serious brain damage from happening.
Perhaps if they had something like this at the time Ali was fighting, his condition wouldn’t have deteriorated to where it is today.