Muhammad Ali’s career was filled with paradoxes and ironies, not least of which, for a man widely (and deservedly) regarded as the greatest heavyweight of them all, he fought in more title-fight stinkers than any of his peers. To be fair, many of these bouts took place late in Ali’s career, when he had become, in Dave Anderson’s phrase, “more actor than athlete.” And perhaps the stinker of all Ali stinkers was his title defense against Alfredo Evangelista, a lightly regarded Spaniard by way of Uruguay, in Landover, Maryland, on May 16, 1977—40 years ago today.
Back then, I was a few months from my 11th birthday, and this was the first time I got to see an Ali fight on television, live. I was excited by the prospect. It’s hard to describe how big Ali was by this time to people who didn’t grow up then, in a world without the Internet and social media. He was constantly in the news, a subject of argument in school, and, though more loved than hated by now, still a lightning rod for opinion. It seemed like he was everywhere, yet the chance to watch him actually do his thing, to fight—that didn’t come along too often.
Problem was, Ali had barely trained for Evangelista—understandably, given the challenger’s profile—and at 35, the champ’s skills were eroding, along with his commitment. He came into the ring looking soft, though at a decent weight of 221. Ali really didn’t want to fight anymore, but he needed the money, as by some estimates he supported an entourage of about 150 people. And he certainly didn’t want to fight Ken Norton or Jimmy Young again, the leading contenders, both of whom gave him fits in the ring. But to accept $2.75 million for light opposition against Evangelista—how could he say no to that? This was as safe a fight as one could find.
Yet even safe challengers could make Ali look bad in 1977. It was a truly awful fight. Evangelista tried, but he had little to offer in the way of skill or punching power. Still, he made what action there was, dutifully coming after Ali with what might be called uninspired aggression. Ali barely fought at all, content to do his wearisome rope-a-dope routine, to mug for the crowd, and to try, in the briefest flashes, to get a combination in. His constant mockery showed his disregard not only for his challenger but also for the audience, which booed lustily at points and would have been justified in booing more. It was a stultifying 15 rounds, at the end of which Ali was awarded a unanimous decision.
The only redeeming quality to the event was listening to Howard Cosell’s wonderfully anti-corporate frankness. He spent most of the 15 rounds excoriating the fight—“third round action, such as it is,” he sniffed—and speculating as to whether Ali had anything left at all as a fighter. “I’m sorry we televised it,” he said near the end, the kind of statement that would create a Twitter storm today and possibly prompt a firing. As for Ali, he, showed no sense of embarrassment for his performance, spending his post-fight interview greeting his “Muslim brothers” around the world and boorishly telling TV viewers to “go out and see my movie.”
He was referring to The Greatest, in which he played himself in a big-screen adaptation of his autobiography. The film was basically an extended commercial for Ali, but some critics, like Vincent Canby in the New York Times, looked more kindly on it. The movie was saved, Canby wrote, by Ali’s presence, which “dominates the screen and turns a rather ordinary, one-in-a-million success story into a first-rate piece of popular Americana.”
Films telling the story of a hero’s life and career are usually a telltale sign that the career, at least, is winding down. That was certainly true in Ali’s case. The Greatest premiered a few days after the Evangelista fight, in which Ali had performed so wretchedly that many in boxing voiced publicly their desire to see him get out of the ring before he got hurt. Within his own camp, his personal physician, Ferdie Pacheco, was also making that argument. But the Ali money train would go on—and May 16, 1977, was the last time that it wouldn’t be dangerous.