Alan Hubbard

Dusk was settling over the desert and a vast car park behind Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, where a stadium had been built to house the world-title fight between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes, exactly 40 years ago next month, when veteran ring announcer Chuck Hull called for quiet before the bout began. "Pray silence" he requested, "while Gladys Knight, of Gladys Knight and the Pips, sings our glorious national anthem."

From the back of the arena came the yell: "Gladys Knight sucks!"

Unfazed ,the ever-imperturbable Hull quickly responded: "Nevertheless… she will still sing the national anthem!"

Laughter rippled through the 18,000 capacity crowd, and Gladys did sing the Star Spangled Banner. But what followed was no laughing matter.

It was the saddest night I have ever witnessed in boxing, as the man who once was not only "The Greatest", but the slickest, smartest and most popular boxer in boxing history dismally disintegrated before our eyes into an unrecognisable shell of his former self.

Mine were not the only moist eyes at ringside as we watched mournfully while Ali painfully took his lumps. Here, at 38, was a shot fighter, his timing, reflexes and balance - all had evaporated since last he appeared in the ring, regaining his World Boxing Association title from Leon Spinks two years earlier.

A legend was getting licked, humiliation being inflicted, somewhat reluctantly by the man he once employed as his chief sparring partner and who had become a friend.

Drew Bundini Brown was responsible for Muhammad Ali's most iconic phrase ©Getty Images
Drew Bundini Brown was responsible for Muhammad Ali's most iconic phrase ©Getty Images

The one-time dancing feet stumbled and those memorably flashing fists fumbled, making him easy prey for the jabbing Holmes who clearly did not relish the task of beating up someone he always admired as his ring idol. Indeed, as the one-sided drubbing continued Holmes clearly began pulling his punches, glancing frequently towards referee Richard Greene with a grimace, beckoning with his right hand for him to step in stop the fight. But for some reason the vastly experienced Greene was disinclined to do so, even in the ninth round when Ali had rope-a-doped himself and had nothing left with which to fire back. He was reduced to target practice for Holmes’ now token, powderpuff blows.

At the end of the 10th round Holmes mouthed "Please stop it" to Greene, who was collecting the judges’ scorecards. Ali sat slumped, dull-eyed and expressionless on his stool, and trainer Angelo Dundee took one look at his battered features and whispered to him: "Enough, champ."

He turned to look at Greene who still had not come over to examine the stricken Ali waving to him to him to do so and yelling "I am the chief second and I stop the fight!" From the ringside steps came the rasping voice of Drew Bundini Brown, who had the title of assistant trainer. "No, no, no," he screamed jerking at Dundee’s bloodied shirt sleeve. "One more round, one more round."

There had been friction between them in the past and Dundee, shouted back at him: "Fuck you. No!"

Then he turned back to Greene - who committed suicide three years later after the death of a South Korean fighter, Kim Duk-koo, in a bout he refereed. "The ball game’s over," repeating, "I am the chief second and I stop the fight."

Bundini looked imploringly at Herbert Muhammad sitting in the front row but Ali’s manager averted his gaze and stared at the floor.

Meanwhile Dundee gently dabbed his man’s facial wounds and led him gently from the ring, wrapping his gown around him. By now Bundini was sobbing as he followed them to the dressing room.

Why the self-styled guru, who had been an on-off employee since the young Cassius Clay dethroned Sonny Liston in 1964, wanted the shattered Ali to continue remains a mystery. It did seem at the time like the selfish plea of someone losing his meal ticket, fearing the feast of 16 years was over.

It was never fully explained by Bundini himself, nor in the newly-published book Bundini: Don't Believe The Hype - stylised with a red line through the word don’t - by Todd B Snyder who is not a journalist but an associate professor of rhetoric and writing at Siena College in New York.

In fact he rather glosses over the importance of the incident in his exploration of the relationship between Ali and Bundini in an otherwise excellent read.

All Bundini ever really said about it was that it was he who wanted to stop the fight rather than Dundee. Which sounds rather bizarre.

Actually there was much that was bizarre about Bundini himself, the ex-sailor who once worked as a cornerman with Sugar Ray Robinson and attached himself to Ali before the first Liston fight. He nominated himself assistant trainer without, one suspects, the endorsement of Dundee but I certainly never saw him assist in his training other than holding the heavy bag in the gym for Ali to punch.

Yet he was much more than a gofer - go for this, go for that. He was the camp jester and AIi’s motivator in chief, not that Ali needed much motivation. However, he did dream up what has become boxing’s most celebrated phrase. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," both he and Ali chanted face-to-face in a vocal duet: "Rumble, young man rumble… aaaahh!"

Bundini, as Snyder explains, became indelibly linked to Ali’s phenomenal success and there is no doubt, that as George Foreman once said, he was "the source of Ali‘s spirit" even though Ali fired him from the camp on several occasions because of various misdeeds, like selling the champion’s tee-shirts without permission and pocketing the proceeds.

Larry Holmes, left, and Muhammad Ali, centre, with George Foreman in 2015 ©Getty Images
Larry Holmes, left, and Muhammad Ali, centre, with George Foreman in 2015 ©Getty Images

The book, published by Hamilcar, is superbly composed as you would expect from a professor of writing but it tends to veer towards something of a hagiography, largely because it is told in part through the eyes of Bundini’s only son, Drew Bundini Brown III, who clearly idolised his father and possibly put topspin on some of the tales.

Yes, the irascible Florida-born Bundini, who died after a fall in 1987 aged 59, was an important part of the Ali story but it is somewhat overplayed. Such was Ali’s own personality and talent, he surely would have become what he was without any artificial assistance, entertaining as it was.

Of the scores of books written around Ali, this one deserves to be among those on the top shelf for its lucidity of prose and insight into a master of hype who had the charisma of Ali himself but perhaps became too dependent on him for comfort.

Bundini always claimed that his odd nickname came from the Indian meaning "lover" which he earned in days as a seaman, rather than a cornerman. Well, nobody loved Ali more than him.

That bout with Holmes was one fight too far. Ali, probably already in the early grip of Parkinson’s disease, should never have been in the ring especially against an outstanding champion like Holmes.

One more round, Bundini? It might have seen the premature death of Ali and, such was his stature, that of boxing, too.