THE unheralded kid from the St Louis ghetto shocked the boxing world as Leon Spinks battled his way to a 15 rounds split decision victory over Muhammad Ali to become the new heavyweight champion of the world on February 15, 1978.
A crowd of 5,300 at the Las Vegas Hilton Sports Pavilion, and millions watching TV pictures throughout the world, saw a gruelling, exciting fight with the 24-year-old Spinks proving too young, too determined and too insistent for the 36-year-old champion.
Ali, his face puffed and swollen, cut inside the mouth, looked on the verge of exhaustion at the finish of the fight. But he traded punches with the younger man in a last round of unforgettable excitement and bravery.
He took his defeat in the manner of a great fighter, without acrimony or alibis. He said he had no complaints about the decision.
And, most important of all, he said he won’t be retiring. He says he’s convinced he can do better next time and wants to become the first heavyweight in history to win the world title three times.
Ali and Spinks both agreed before the fight they’d defend against Ken Norton, the WBC’s top-rated contender, before meeting any other challenger.
The former champion will clearly want to rest after such a hard fight. Perhaps it will suit him to let Spinks and Norton punch it out, then go in with the winner.
Ali fighting for the crown again, in a bid to make heavyweight history, would be an enormous attraction, whether Spinks or his old rival, Norton, was defending against him.
As Ali said after the fight: “I’m still the draw. The people in the world are still with me. We have the chance to go another time. I can’t believe I’m finished.”
Spinks, a former Olympic light-heavyweight champion, having only his eighth pro fight, showed ability and stamina no-one had thought he could produce except, perhaps, those closest to him.
Ali was a 10-1 on favourite. Leon’s victory was the biggest upset in a heavyweight title fight since Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) forced Sonny Liston to quit on his stool after six rounds at Miami 14 years ago. Liston was favoured at 8-1 on.
The biggest heavyweight upset of them all occurred when 15-1 underdog James J. Braddock outpointed Max Baer at the Long Island Bowl, New York, on June 13, 1935.
That, incidentally, was also the last time the heavyweight title changed hands on a points decision. Spinks came in at 14st 1 1/4lbs, making him the lightest heavyweight title challenger since Germany’s Karl Mildenberger (weighing 13st 13lbs) was stopped in 12 rounds by Ali in Frankfurt on September 10, 1966.
Ali looked so much bigger than Spinks it was like a heavyweight against a light-heavy. Ali weighed 16st 0 1/4lb, giving him a weight advantage of 27lbs. At 6ft 3in he stood at least two inches taller than Spinks.
Spinks, though, refused to be intimidated either by Ali’s reputation or the physical disparity between them. He simply went in and punched, never allowing Ali to dictate the terms of the contest.
The challenger didn’t win simply by crude brawling, either. He cleverly slipped a lot of Ali’s jabs and showed a good, stiff jab of his own that often slammed into the champion’s face.
Spinks smartly ducked beneath many of Ali’s right hands, and there were times when he bobbed and weaved to have Ali missing by as many as three head punches at a time.
Ali, of course, got through with some good shots and it looked in the 10th round as if he might be getting on top. But Spinks blazed back at him in round 11 and outfought the champion through most of the last third of the fight.
There were scenes of unbridled ecstasy in Spinks’s corner soon as the final bell sounded, with Leon being lifted into the air by his corner crew.
Ali gave a shake of his head as he went back to his own corner at the end of the fight. He looked dejected, his head
But the same sort of thing happened after Ali’s fight with Ken Norton at the Yankee Stadium on September 28, 1976, when Ali kept his crown on a unanimous but controversial decision.
The whole of the Las Vegas arena seethed with excitement and anticipation as the verdict was awaited.
The referee doesn’t score in the State of Nevada, so it was up to the three ringside judges.
The announcer told the crowd: “We have a split decision” and boos came from all parts of the arena. Many in the crowd must have thought Ali was going to get another unpopular decision, perhaps a “sentimental” verdict on the lines of the one Joe Louis received over Jersey Joe Walcott in 1947.
This did seem distinctly possible when the score of the first judge, Art Lurie, was read out, giving victory to Ali by 143 points to 142.
There were tremendous cheers when the second score was announced, judge Lou Tabat scoring Spinks the winner by 145-140.
Then came the score of the third judge, Harold Buck, 144-141, and the announcement: “The new Champion – Leon Spinks.”
Spinks’s wife, wearing a blonde hairstyle, rushed to throw her arms around him in a scene reminiscent of the concluding one in the film Rocky and people were standing and cheering all round the ringside.
The scene in Ali’s corner was rather like that in a funeral parlour but Ali pushed his way through the people milling around in the ring to shake Spinks’s hand and acknowledge the new champion’s victory.
Many fans had probably wearied of Ali’s antics over the years and felt his clowning demeaned the most important championship in boxing, so for a lot of people, Spinks’s triumph was an immensely popular one.
Others, of course, will be saddened because Ali was licked by an opponent who might not have been considered in his class at one time.
Ali had adopted a new policy of declining interviews before the fight, claiming he was tired of talking.
His personal physician, Dr Ferdie Pacheco, was absent from his corner. Some thought this was because of bad feeling generated by comments by Dr Pacheco in his book, Fight Doctor, concerning the Ali entourage.
Dr Pacheco, though, said he’d advised Ali to retire and said he didn’t think it was right he should be in the champion’s corner.
He said he was disturbed at the punishment Ali had taken to the body, especially around the kidneys, and felt Ali could risk harming himself by continuing fighting.
Dr Pacheco warned before the fight that if Spinks could keep the pressure on for the full 15 rounds, without tiring, Ali could be in serious trouble. The doctor’s prognosis was accurate.
Spinks had only been 10 rounds twice before. Most of the boxing cognoscenti felt he’d be certain to fade after burning up stamina in the early rounds. They were hopelessly wrong.
Ali had a jaded look as he entered the ring, to the unlikely strains of “Land of Hope and Glory” while Spinks had looked relaxed and full of confidence on his way to the ring played in by “The Halls of Montezuma”, anthem of the US Marine Corps (Leon, of course, is a former Leatherneck).
Spinks had even left his dressing room before the fight to sit ringside and encourage his brother, former Olympic middle champ Michael Spinks, who outpointed Tom Bethea in a supporting bout.
Ali had found a nickname for Spinks, two in fact. He called him “Goofy” and “The Duck”, unkind references to, respectively, Leon’s gap-toothed countenance and the way Spinks’s backside somewhat sticks out. But Spinks had the last laugh.
Spinks carried the fight to Ali from the first bell and was driving Ali back at the end of the fight. He fought a disciplined fight, too, keeping more or less on top of Ali but not allowing himself to punch himself out the way George Foreman did in Zaire.
Ali urged Spinks to keep punching in the early rounds, mumbling to him through his gumshield, and Spinks obliged. Referee Dave Pearl constantly warned Ali for holding Spinks behind the neck, something Ali’s been allowed to get away with by many referees.
Spinks let nothing deter him. He took Ali’s best punches and fought right back. Ali wound up right hands in exaggerated manner, but the challenger rammed left jabs into his face.
Ali extended his left arm at times to keep Spinks off him, but Leon threw hard rights over the top.
When Spinks had Ali backed against the ropes, or in corners, he poured in punches from both hands, looking to punch around the sides of the champ’s guard or bring uppercuts through the middle. Many were taken on Ali’s arms and gloves but a lot got through.
Spinks landed some really hard rights and lefts to Ali’s ribs and his rights to the jaw often seemed to shake the champ. At times Ali danced around the ring, up on his toes, and poked and flicked at Spinks with left jabs. But Spinks patiently padded after him and often jabbed back at Ali with considerable success.
Ali’s followers whooped with delight when the old champion put together clusters of punches, but these bursts didn’t come often enough and Spinks was usually well-covered at such moments and evaded blows by ducking and weaving.
Spinks went into a big early lead because he was doing practically all the fighting for the first four rounds, and Ali wasn’t able to pull the fight back. Spinks looked a worthy winner.
A two or three rounds advantage to Spinks seemed an accurate assessment, because although Spinks was going
forward there were periods in the fight when he wasn’t able to make effective contact with his blows.
Most of the British writers scored for Ali, but really a lot of Ali’s jabs were just falling short or being slipped by Spinks.
As has been the case in the past, the old ring general, making his 20th title defence in two reigns, sometimes appeared to be doing more than he actually was, feinting, threatening and flicking punches without scoring meaningfully.
Spinks showed no respect for Ali and swept through the opening round, throwing punches with both hands as the champion went back onto the ropes.
In the second Ali could be heard telling Leon to “Keep it going, keep it going” and Spinks obliged. Ali pushed Spinks away from him at one stage, his left forearm under the challenger’s chin. Leon was told by the referee to “Watch that thumb there” as he jabbed a left into Ali’s face. The referee cautioned Ali three times in this round for holding.
Ali moved around and prodded away with left jabs at the start of the third but Spinks soon forced him into a corner and went to work with both hands with Ali just covering up, gloves in front of his face. Finally, Ali pushed him off but Spinks appeared to laugh at him and went right back in again. Ali missed with a left hook and Spinks struck a left jab into his face.
At one point Ali missed with a right, left and another right as Spinks ducked. Ali did get in one good right but Spinks came back at him with a right and a left hook to have Ali going back at the bell.
Spinks was still going well in the fourth, although he had to take two rights to the jaw early in the round. The referee again warned: “Take your hands off his neck, Ali!”.
Leon drove Ali against the four-stranded, red, white and blue ropes and hammered away, bringing up some vicious right uppercuts. Now Ali was bleeding from inside the mouth and he wasn’t looking at all happy with the proceedings.
Ali tried to aim rights at Spinks’s chin but Leon rallied with overarm rights of his own, really hard blows that had Ali pulling back with what appeared to be some alarm.
The fifth was the hardest-fought round so far. Ali was punching in rather more earnest now, but Spinks slammed back at him and Ali pretended to be wobbly after getting nailed by a right to the head.
Spinks was forced on to the ropes himself for a while, but fought his way off. Leon got in with two really good jabs at one stage while backed onto the ropes.
Ali was now clearly looking to turn the fight around but Spinks was stubborn and fighting to win. In the closing seconds of the seventh, for instance, Ali landed a right to the jaw and Spinks immediately retaliated with a right of his own.
Spinks was confident enough to pat Ali’s rump in the eighth as they parted from a clinch. Ali managed to get his left hand working fairly well in this round, although generally he wasn’t doing much more than keeping Spinks away from him.
The challenger kept doggedly pressing forward in the ninth but he wasn’t throwing quite so many shots as he had in the first four or five rounds.
Ali was timing his blows a bit better in this round, at one point pulling Spinks up with a left uppercut. Spinks launched an exciting attack when he pinned Ali in a corner and really banged away, but Ali got in some solid-looking blows in mid-ring and steadied Spinks with a left and right to the jaw near the end of the round.
Ali’s corner seemed pleased with their man’s showing in this round and urged him to “close the show.”
This Ali tried to do in the 10th, his best round of the fight. He backed Spinks up against the ropes and opened up on him with lefts and rights, jabs, hooks, uppercuts, straight and chopping right hands.
Spinks’s head was jerked round by some of these punches and it looked as if he might be wilting, as if his earlier attacks and the effort of coping with Ali’s sheer bulk might be taking toll on his resources.
Leon rallied strongly towards the end of the 10th, when Ali retreated into the ropes and covered up, but the champion had enjoyed a clear superiority in the round.
Unfortunately for Ali, he couldn’t keep his grip on the fight. Spinks walked right into him at the start of the 11th, jabbing hard lefts into Ali’s face.
Ali turned away briefly as if he’d been thumbed in the eye. He tried to land hard rights but Spinks stayed with him and outfought him in a fierce exchange. Then, towards the end of the round, Spinks crashed in a really heavy right to the jaw.
It looked a good round for Spinks and now Ali’s hold on the title was very unsafe indeed.
By the 13th Ali was looking weary and dispirited, his face swollen. He tried to jab, but Spinks was attacking strongly and driving hard punches at him, sometimes beating Ali to the jab.
Now the atmosphere was bubbling with excitement. An amazing upset was looking more and more probable.
Spinks kept coming forward in the 14th. There was a hectic exchange of punches late in the round, with Ali trying to fight his way off the ropes and Spinks sticking with him and, it appeared, landing the harder blows.
Coming out for the final round it looked as if the title was in Spinks’s grasp but Ali, not for the first time in his career, reached down within himself and found the stuff he needed to stage a marvellous rally.
He stood his ground and hammered at Spinks with lefts and rights. Spinks slugged back with both hands and they each rocked each other, with the crowd going wild with excitement.
Ali looked just about totally spent, and Spinks, too, seemed ready to drop, but still they kept punching. A right, then another, knocked Spinks back into the ropes, but back came Spinks to land an overarm right to the jaw of such force its shock seemed to go right through Ali’s body.
The bell ended what might well be the round of the year, three minutes of unremitting excitement as the fighters just went at each other, fighting as if their very lives were at stake.
All three judges gave the round to Spinks. It capped a great performance.
Spinks, a genuinely hungry fighter, had conquered a champion of far greater experience but one who’d been slowed and softened by age, hard fights and long periods of very comfortable living.
Ali said afterwards he felt he’d lost because of bad tactics. “In the first four rounds my strategy was bad,” he said. “It worked with people like Frazier, Foreman and Norton but not with Spinks.
“I figured he’d go, but he didn’t. He kept getting stronger. Next time I’ll have to come out on my toes and do my thing. Next time I’ll have to do better.
“He had a lot of energy and he just kept coming. He didn’t hurt me as much as Frazier, Foreman or Shavers but I couldn’t have lost to a better man. He’s a better fighter than Norton and he hit me harder than I thought.
“I couldn’t catch him up and pass him. I thought I won some rounds but then I fell back again and got a little tired.
“If I can’t get it next time I’ll just have to say: ‘I’m finally all washed up’ but I can’t believe I’m finished.
“Floyd Patterson won the heavyweight title twice but I’m going for the impossible by winning it three times.”
It could happen, too, because Ali would have the motivation he’s recently lacked. But whether it’s Spinks or Norton he’ll have to face, the fight seems certain to be exceptionally punishing.
Win or lose, Ali’s next ring appearance will surely be the final one. Who could deny he’s entitled to give it one last try?