Jeff Pearlman

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They stole the ring bell from a cow

drama-in-the-bahamas

There is a publishing company named, conveniently, “Sports Publishing.” They’re based out of New York, they’ve released a ton of books and they’re known for being cheap, shoddy and awful at PR.

Hence, when my friend Mike Moodian suggested a Sports Publishing-released book titled, “Drama in the Bahamas,” I was a tad skeptical. It’s just … I hate literary on the cheap, and too often that house seems to push stuff out without much thought, effort or concern.

Mike’s judgement, however, is always on point. I also happen to be in a very Muhammad Ali mood of late, what with the coming release of Jonathan Eig’s 640-page definitive biography, “Ali: A Life” and the accompanying podcast (an excellent listen, FYI).

So I plunked down the $17, ordered Dave Hannigan’s look into Ali’s final fight (against Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas), opened to the first page … and could. Not. Put. It. Down. I’m being 95-percent literal here—”Drama in the Bahamas” has been glued to my hands for the past four days, and when I finally reached the 189th and final page this morning, I took a deep breath, slapped down the cover and took great satisfaction in knowing I’d experienced genuine reading bliss.

So what makes this thing so good? A few thoughts …

• I love slivers in time: And this is a sliver. A tiny, oft-forgotten sliver. I’d argue, oh, 85 percent of boxing fans think Ali’s final fight came against Larry Holmes. It didn’t. On Oct. 2, 1980, Ali was battered, bruised and embarrassed by Holmes in a meeting that goes down as one of the great shames in the history of modern sport. It proved Ali was a done product who should have left the ring long ago. Most state commissions agreed, and he was banned from fighting  in New Jersey, New York and Las Vegas.

So, after retiring then un-retiring (as all fighters seem to do), he fooled himself into thinking there was a little gas remaining in the tank, and agreed to square off against the lightly regarded Berbick in Nassau. Most media outlets refused to attend. Tickets were easy to come by. The preposterously named “Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre” was a shit plop. The promoters were con artists. Everyone was taking advantage of Ali—who was already slurring his words and whose skill was 90 percent gone.

What transpired—fascinating.

• I’d never heard of Dave Hannigan. And even his website leaves me asking, “Who the heck is this guy?” Well, this guy can write. So many tremendous passages; so much thrilling detail. According to the end notes, Hannigan only interviewed six people—which is usually a major turnoff. But the research is astounding; the ability to pluck nuggets from myriad sources genuinely impressive.

Here, for example, is a passage on the fight’s immediate aftermath. A young Tommy Hearns fought on the undercard, and he’d suffered a serious injury …

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There are dozens upon dozens of these gems. Everywhere. Every page. The event was so poorly organized that no one thought to bring a ring bell—and the folks in charge had to swipe one off the neck of a nearby cow. Lemme say that again: In order for Ali’s final fight to take place, a bell had to be swiped from a cow.

So, yes, the bell between rounds was a cow bell.

Moo.

• This wasn’t a Muhammad Ali blowjob. And that’s important, because we don’t need more of those. Ali took this fight out of foolish pride, out of the need for money, out of a willingness to fall for false praise and hyped-up jargon.

• Trevor Berbick is just as unique as Ali. Maybe even more so. He was a Jamaican Canadian Floridian. He wanted to fight Ali. He didn’t want to fight Ali. He feared hurting him. He wanted to hurt him. He was a normal guy. He was a guy who thought God spoke to him; who blamed every setback on folks poisoning his food and water. Yes, he’s crazy—just like so many fighters are crazy. But he’s also sympathetic, rotten, whole. A million things in one.

I can’t praise Hannigan’s work enough. So I’ll say, simply, buy this book.

You won’t regret it.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life