Interview with Dave Hannigan, author of ‘Drama In The Bahamas: Muhammad Ali’s Last Fight’

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By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (July 29) — The public’s thirst for knowledge and information about Muhammad Ali has been a constant for more than 50 years.

It won’t vanish now after The Greatest’s death at age 74 in June.

Many people will revisit faded newspaper clippings and magazine articles and take books about the boxing legend off their dusty shelves. Much of this rich material, of course, is about his most famous fights against the likes of Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, among others.

New York-based Irish sports columnist and author Dave Hannigan took a different approach with his latest book.

The 45-year-old native of Cork city who has lived in New York since 2000, explained the reason he based his new Ali book on a different theme in a recent Irish Times column

“If you type Muhammad Ali into Amazon, there are almost 17000 titles about him or in which he is heavily featured,”  wrote Hannigan, who teach history at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, New York. “That’s way too many books and given that perhaps a dozen of them are among the finest non-fiction works available, the canon is already rich enough for anybody seeking enlightenment about why he matters. So, in truth, my motivation was way more selfish than spreading the gospel or telling what I think is a fascinating untold story about the dying embers of his career. I also wanted to immerse myself in the world of Ali because, for a writer, there is no more enjoyable place to spend time.”

He added: “The boxing, at that point in his career, was the least of his concerns, so you never know where the research will take you. One minute he’s in Las Vegas fighting to keep his boxing license, the next he’s in London meeting with MPs and promoting ‘Freedom Road’ an NBC television movie in which he played. He pops up in Portland, Oregon, meeting with a freeze dried food company about initiatives to feed the hungry in the Third World then he’s giving a press conference in a Chicago hospital where he namechecks the hunger strikers in the Maze Prison as one of his more recent inspirations in his latest comeback.

“This is the wonderful way of it with Ali. The sport is secondary to his place in society. I flicked through the index of the book the other morning. Among the entries are Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Leonid Breshnev, Deng Xiaoping, Muammar Gaddafi, Liam Neeson, Eddie Murphy and Bobby Womack. Only an Ali story could include a cast list that diverse.”

Hannigan’s new book, “Drama In The Bahamas: Muhammad Ali’s Last Fight,” focuses on the final chapter of Ali’s career in the ring, his Dec. 11, 1981, bout against Trevor Berbick.

His book’s release date is Aug. 2.

I recently caught up with Hannigan via email to learn more about this interesting project and the way it all came together. Our interview follows.

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There have been countless books written about Muhammad Ali over the decades and millions of column inches devoted to him in newspapers and magazines. So what prompted you to pursue this book project at this time? Was this a target, a goal, for many years?

There are dozens of books about Ali but this is different because it is a snapshot of a long-forgotten moment in his life and contains many stories and details that even devout Ali-watches will not have heard before. By concentrating on the 12 months leading up to his last fight, I’ve pieced together a portrait of Ali that is far removed from the legend and the icon. Here, he is struggling to find a place to fight, a television network to broadcast the bout, an audience that wants to see him. It offers glimpses of how he was already suffering physically in a way that would define his later decades and also shows how, at the end, he was chewed up and spat out by the sport – just like every other boxer before and after him.

How long were you working on this project from start to finish?

I started work on this project in December, 2014 and the final manuscript went to the printers in May, 2016.

Can you cite some of the most published references – books, magazines, newspapers, etc. – and broadcasts and individuals who were key figures for you in getting the stories that stitched the book together? Are there a handful of individuals who were especially instrumental in  gathering this material based on interviews with them? 

I was blessed in terms of the material that was available. Indeed, the impetus to write the book in the first place came after re-reading Hugh Mcllvaney’s reportage before and after the fight for The Observer in England. There was so much color in his account that I wanted to know more about the chaos and the circus surrounding this sordid event. That journalists like George Vecsey, Dave Kindred, Allen Abel and Michael Farber covered that week in the Bahamas in forensic detail provided an invaluable road map to me as I tried to recreate the bizarre circumstances of Ali’s final fight.

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Dave Hannigan

What do you hope the book accomplishes as it becomes a part of the Ali oeuvre just a few weeks after he passed away?

This book establishes for once and for all that the medical evidence shows that Muhammad Ali should never have fought Trevor Berbick and forensically details the way in which those involved tried to convince a skeptical media he was okay to fight. In the light of his subsequent rapid physical decline in the years after, this book chronicles how that final outing may have contributed more to his suffering than was previously envisaged. As an addendum, the book also tells the story of Berbick’s astonishing life from Guantanamo Bay to becoming world champion to going to jail for rape and believing himself to be getting visited by Christ!

Were you able to get to know Berbick, before he died in 2006. If you didn’t, can you explain a bit about your research and interviews and pursuit of info about Berbick and those close to him and other observers at that time and in the years thereafter?

One of the things that attracted me to the idea of the book was the story of Berbick. It wasn’t just that this was Ali’s last fight, it was also the incredible life and terrible death of this other heavyweight champion. I knew nothing about Berbick’s early life and navigating the route he took is difficult because of his tendency to exaggerate and give different accounts of his own biography. That was challenging but worth it because even though I think Berbick is worth a full biography of his own, the two chapters I devote to his improbable rise and steep fall in this book are compelling. The fact he went from lacing up gloves for the first time in his late teens in Guantanamo Bay to getting in the ring with Ali and later (Mike) Tyson is remarkable.

Did you retrace the steps, so to speak, where Ali and Berbick were before and during their fight in the Bahamas and elsewhere? Asking that, I refer to doing some background reporting on the scene in Nassau?

Unfortunately, my budget didn’t extend to getting on the ground in Nassau but I talked to people who were there and who still live there and they again filled in details and offered wonderful color about the event.

How important was it to contrast Ali at the height of his powers with his declining physical skills in 1981 to give this book its appropriate narrative?

I think in a way that’s the point of the book, to show how far removed he was from the height of his powers. I hope that I paint a picture of a boxer who should have been nowhere near a ring by that point in his life. Aside from the medical stuff I mentioned above, the diminishing of his physical skills was so obvious to those on the scene, especially the veteran reporters who had been trailing him all across the planet for most of two decades. There’s a wonderful line in the book where Ali admits after the fight that the first time he held Berbick in clinch he could feel how hard the younger man’s body was next to the soft flab of his own. A small detail that captures everything really.

Did you inform Ali and his family that this project was in the works in recent months/years? Was his family actively involved in this book – interviews, meetings, etc.?

No, no contact with the family at all.

How central to the story’s narrative were some of Ali’s key rivals – Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, etc. – in the years before the last fight?

Joe Frazier features in this story in a cameo role because he too returns to the ring at the same time as Ali and his comeback is equally pathetic and sad and just plain wrong. Again, his fight takes place even farther off Broadway than Ali’s and he ekes out a draw that should have been a loss. But, Frazier does come out with a great line in the build-up, describing himself and Ali as “two old black brothers trying to come back, must have partied all their money away.”

What inspires you to write about boxing and Muhammad Ali in particular?

I’ve been fascinated by Ali since I used to read about him in my Uncle Bobby’s Ring magazines. The only fights I actually remember watching live as a child were the Holmes and the (Leon) Spinks’ fights. In 2002 I wrote a book about his fight in Dublin against Al “Blue” Lewis because I wanted to capture the impact he had on Ireland during a crazy week in 1972. I returned to the subject all these years later, at least in part because there is no more fun assignment than spending your nights reading great writers about Ali, watching footage of him and talking to those whose lives he touched. But there’s also the sense that he is the most important athlete of the 20th century and one of the most compelling historical figures.

What are your general thoughts about the way the public reacted to his death in June, plus the published recollections and memorials that filled the news pages, websites, airwaves, etc.?

I think the reaction worldwide, the outpouring of affection and the general air of collective mourning summed up how he was so much more significant than a boxer. He was a cultural figure of such renown and import.

From the final service, too, how did you react to hearing Lonnie Ali, Billy Crystal, Bill Clinton, among others?

I thought the memorial, the funeral and everything about his passing was poignant but also terribly classy. And again, the range of speakers, the diversity of their backgrounds, spoke to the kind of man he had evolved into over his time in the public eye.

At what point in life did you develop a genuine interest in boxing? What was the catalyst?

My mother’s brothers were amateur boxers and although we were allowed to watch them fight, we were never allowed to get in the ring. So I guess the next best thing is to read and, eventually, decades later, try to write about.

What sparked your interest in writing about boxing? Who are a few of the boxing writers,past and present, you most admire and respect?

Like most people who have worked in sports journalism, you read everything and anything in your quest to become better. At a certain point, you realize that some of the finest sportswriting ever has been on boxing so you immerse yourself in that and hope by osmosis that some of the quality seeps into your own work.

Do you have a favorite all-time boxing book? Newspaper article?

Thomas Hauser’s “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times” is the definitive work on Ali and is not just my favorite boxing book but one of my favorite books, period. But there are so many others, even in recent years, Dave Kindred’s “Sound and Fury,” David Remnick’s “King of the World” and Mark Kram’s “Ghosts of Manila” are all magnificent. My favorite article on boxing might just be Hugh Mcllvaney’s report on the Welsh boxer Johnny Owen’s demise in Los Angeles in 1980.

If Ali and Berbick fought in 2016, what type of hype before, during and after the bout do you think it would have had because of the social media craze that has transformed the spread of information and reactions with people everywhere?

It’s almost unimaginable what Ali would have been like in the social media age. We hear now that athletes enjoy the accessibility social media gives them to their fans – they can talk directly to them online. Ali talked directly to them in person. Even in the twilight of his career in this book, he is repeatedly engaging with fans and passersby and journalists in a way that made him unique. And again, this is what makes him different. The fame and adulation he enjoyed worldwide, these were grown organically by him and his actions. There was no advertising campaign. Nike or Adidas weren’t putting him on billboards. This was the result of him being who he was.

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Follow Dave Hannigan on Twitter: @daveyhannigan

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