Spinks vs Ali 2: The Third Coming
Appearances can be deceiving and things most certainly can look very different from the way they really are. They can also give you a distorted picture, something isn’t quite what you see.
In February 1978 we saw a little of that distortion. The incredible career of ‘The Greatest’ looked over, a seismic upset, his world heavyweight title gone. But the sports greatest ever showman wanted revenge and he wanted history.
The signs were obvious that Muhammad Ali was showing the irreversible slide to being just a normal fighter, and sadly much worse.
Ali was clinging on, but bit by bit he was slowly fading away from the formidable fighter he once was. Skills fast eroding his prime long since gone.
Leon Spinks a novice professional, albeit one who was a reigning Olympic champion, was there for a reason. Spinks seven fights in, and not all of them wins, was just what an ageing Ali needed, or so he thought.
Spinks didn’t care why he was there, Ali just didn’t care, he said he didn’t train to win, in truth he just didn’t train.
The adage of failing to prepare, never more potent. Spinks was in the right place at the right time, he took his life-changing opportunity with both fists.
Approaching 37, the old-champion now just looked old. Ali said he would return, we knew he would, but many expected a terribly sad night, they would come much later.
The rematch was set for the following September, a Superdome in New Orleans a fitting arena for a fight that would end up being pure theatre. It should have been the final act, but a failure to accept the truth saw the final curtain fall long before it should have done.
Spinks probably knew what would come, saying “Ali is the greatest, he was just the latest.”
Ali promised to dance, but would we see a return of the quick step, or just a painful slow creaking shuffle.
The clowning stopped, Ali prepared how he needed to, history was waiting. It was supposed to be one last dance, if only it was.
Spinks like many before him found life as a champion difficult. Fame and money brings trouble, Spinks found plenty. Multiple arrests threatening to derail his future and overshadow the memory he created not so long ago.
An old rival sang the National Anthem. Joe Frazier was at that time in the retirement Ali should have been. Both at an age where every punch told.
This time there would be no repeat of Ali giving away the early rounds. The timing was a little off, but as promised, Ali was on his toes, dancing his way to a famous victory.
As the fight progressed, Ali finally found his range, his ageing body started to remember what it once did so well.
Spinks kept coming but with little reward for his efforts. We saw what we should have done in February.
The new champion needed harmony in his corner, it was anything but. Spinks’s trainer George Benton had a reduced role, a criminal waste of his abilities, and he left a disjointed corner after a few rounds. Benton had seen enough, he knew what was coming, we all did.
Ali had one last great performance. It wasn’t a reincarnation, the clock wasn’t turned back, but it was enough on this night. A one-sided fight ended with a points win and Ali was a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, history made.
Spinks had his moment in the first fight, he never had another. The win over Ali had value, further opportunities would come, but his career had peaked and flat-lined in equally spectacular fashion.
Ali could have left on an incredible high, but sadly, predictably he didn’t, with further awful life-changing consequences.
The great man couldn’t let go, and neither could those around him. The money wheel more important than the health of a fighter who not only graced his sport so magnificently, he might even have saved it.
It was the last time we saw Muhammad Ali resemble anything like what we had previously seen. All the remains of what made him so great left his body that night. One last bit of magic, an illusion, a reminder to the special nights of yesteryear.
The wins over Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Joe Frazier mean far more to his legacy, but the win over Spinks enhanced it even further.
Another little chapter, one last show, if only he had stopped there.