By Kevin “The Voice” Kincade
Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell, Jerry Quarry, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton; these names were all history, all the past, the land to which he was heading. His time in the sport was quickly drawing to a close with the final chapter to be writ. There was a new age dawning in the land of heavyweights, in the world, really. Time does not stand still, not for anyone, and nothing can last forever, not even Muhammad Ali. The Olympic Gold Medal in Rome, throwing that medal into the murky waters of the Ohio River in a moment of tragic realization that all of the gold in the world wouldn’t make him equal in some eyes. Whatever happened to his bicycle? He wouldn’t even be here now, if he’d found it, if it were never stolen. If it had been there when he got back from the street fair, this journey which was now drawing to a close, would never have happened. He never would have gone into Joe Martin’s gym all those many years ago and began his sojourn into immortality. All of this because of a bike thief; and now, all gone, all of it fading into the mists of time through his rearview mirror and hovering in the memories of those who knew, of those who were privileged to live in the time and say, “I was there.”
“How can I call myself, “The Greatest”, if I can’t beat a man like Spinks?” he asked Howard Cosell in a prefight interview. Leon was watching, mere minutes before the time came to walk that aisle in New Orleans at the Superdome. Ali seemed so tired and Cosell asked him if this was the case. “No, I’m just relaxed;” but there was indeed weariness in his voice. Eighteen years fighting as a pro, facing some of the best heavyweights to ever lace up gloves and besting them. Living the life of a champion, in exile, a hated man, and an adored hero, an icon to millions around the world. Now, in the twilight of his career, he had one last task: to be the first man to ever win the World Title three times. “How can I call myself, “The Greatest”, if I can’t beat a man like Spinks?”
The words had to sting; they had to gnaw at the confidence of a man who undoubtedly was feeling the pressure of the event. Nobody had expected him to win seven months ago when he’d upset “The Greatest,” possibly not even him. Upon entering the ring, it was apparent that the Champion had taken him lightly. He was fat, almost non-committal to the task at hand, treating it as if it were merely one of his exhibitions, like the one he’d put on the year before against young heavyweight, Michael Dokes. That night in the Hilton Hotel and before the whole world, he’d showed them he was not to be taken lightly. He outhustled the man, out worked the man, and when Ali turned on the jets in the later rounds, he stood toe to toe with him and gave as good as he got, better even. He’d beaten him, fair and square. He was the Heavyweight Champion of the World, no matter what the WBC would say later. He beat the man; and that made him “the man”, or was he?
The 63,000 plus who had packed the Superdome that night weren’t there to see him. They were there to see Muhammad Ali do it just one more time. They were there to witness history and see their hero set the record straight and put Leon back in his place among rest of the pack. Outside of the small contingent of friends, family, and new hangers-on, the vast bulk of the howling masses, who were reverberating the inside of the 8th Wonder of the World with their vocal jubilation’s were doing so in anticipation of what they expected to witness: the resounding defeat of “a man like Spinks”, who didn’t deserve to be in the same ring with a living legend. They were there to witness history, a presumed history where Spinks would be cast aside as an afterthought.
How could one not feel intimidated by such a moment? Many suspected Leon’s trouble with the law in the last few months and his recent foray into the French Quarter on the eve of the fight was testament to him reveling in the glory of the championship, maybe even overlooking the event at hand, presuming the old man was shot and he’d have even an easier time of it in the rematch. Others filed away his behavior as a simple case of “too much too soon”, an example of what happens when a young man, not accustomed to notoriety is suddenly enveloped with more fame than he was ever equipped to handle. A more logical deduction would be that he was trying to soak it all in before he woke up and the dream ended.
If there were any illusions as to the enormity of the event, the crush of the crowd upon exiting the dressing room quickly snuffed them. Even the atmosphere in Madison Square Garden on the night of March 8th, 1971 paled in comparison to what met the combatants when they entered the Superdome on September 15th, 1978. Ali Vs Frazier I took place before a capacity crowd of 20,455. By fight time, there were more than three times that many people in the Superdome. The sound was both constant and deafening. There had never been another indoor event such as this one and had there been a bigger building in which to house it, it would have been filled to the brim as well.
The noise in the packed arena amped up a notch as Ali entered to the strands of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and doubled when he climbed through the ropes into full view of the crowd. There were no histrionics, no leading the crowd in chants, no clowning at all. Ali’s face was expressionless as he shadow boxed and strode around the ring. There was an air of seriousness to him not seen since his second bout with Ken Norton. There was a job to be done, a chapter to be completed, a legacy to wrap up. He was obviously in his own world, as if the crowd and the noise didn’t exist. His mind had to be on one thing and one thing alone, winning.
Shortly after Ali made his appearance, the “Marines Hymn” began echoing throughout the structure, mingled with the roar of the masses. Slowly, painstakingly, just as Ali had done, Leon Spinks inched his way towards his date with destiny. Whether or not he could once again defeat the former champion would soon be decided. There was a smattering of boos when Leon ducked through the ropes, nothing like before the 5,000 in Las Vegas. He no longer wore the armor of the beloved heavy underdog. He was now the antagonist standing in the way of the hero of millions from regaining his rightful place on the throne.
It was a surreal scene when former rival, Joe Frazier, stepped up to the microphone to sing the national anthem. It was hard to read Ali’s expression, as the camera zoomed in on him while “Smokin’ Joe” sang about broad stripes and bright stars. Was he remembering this history they’d written together, or bemusedly critiquing Frazier’s performance in his mind’s ear? There was a Mona Lisa-esque smile hiding behind his lips, so it’s hard to say. Whatever was on his mind, he gave no clue, for while Joe was accepting the appreciation of the New Orleans throng, Ali retreated once again into his inner thoughts. This night wasn’t about Joe Frazier; it was about Leon Spinks.
Between Champ Clark’s announcements and the opening bell, Spinks wore a nervous, childlike smile as he waved to his friends and supporters at ringside. Though it may not have been the case, it appeared he was doing everything in his power to avoid thinking about what was going to happen once that bell sounded, soaking in the last vestiges of championship and appreciation before it was all over. Surely, he kept telling himself, “I did it once, I can do it again;” but how does a fighter with only 8 professional fights under his belt reckon with the reality that he’s about to face a living legend whose out to prove the last time was a fluke? How does one reconcile the inner demons, the self-doubt, knowing he was taken lightly before and this time he wasn’t? The look on Spinks’ face during the prefight instructions was reminiscent of a child facing his father after being caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Gone was the “just happy to be here” smile of the first fight. In its place was the nervous grin of a man diving into the ocean when he can see the sharks in the water.
The first four rounds didn’t hold much of what one would call “action”, as much as it revealed itself to be the opening stanzas of a story. Ali’s timing was off, as it had been for the last few years and he wasn’t connecting, though, unlike the first fight, he was trying; and Spinks fighting out of a crouch wasn’t’ helping matters. Also, unlike the first time, Ali began the round on his toes, dancing and circling to Spinks’ right and then to his left, mixing up his motion to keep his opponent off balance. Unlike in his youth, though, it was a slow dance; but it was still fluid, still purposeful, still out of the younger man’s range. Ali had a four-inch reach advantage on Spinks and he was using every bit of it.
Leon, to his credit, attempted to nullify the distance with wild bull-like rushes to get on the inside; but what he found was a man who was intent on showing him his true physical strength. Every time Spinks would rush him, Ali would grab the younger man and wrestle him into the ropes. If Leon attempted to do the same thing to Ali, Muhammad, expertly, using his years of experience in the squared circle, would shift his weight, pressing it on top of his 207 lb. adversary and outmuscle the smaller man, once again, into the ropes, crushing his 221 lbs. on top of him. Spinks would gesture and laugh; but it had to be playing on his mind. Before, Ali had limply let him dominate on the inside, this time, it was like a man playing with a small child.
In the third, still on his toes, Ali’s timing began to reemerge from the cobwebs. Just like so many old jazz musicians to be found in any club in the Big Easy, who appeared almost catatonic before the music began to play, only to become reinvigorated to life at the hint of the first note, Ali began to find his groove. Single flicking jabs and off-target hooks started to merge into combinations, finding their mark; and when Spinks wailed back in return, Ali would grab and hold, or somehow, dart just out of range again.
The anticipation of the crowd intensified as, more and more, Ali’s movement began to resemble a memory of a time long past. Dancing, sliding left, sliding right, flicking that jab out there and occasionally three or four surprisingly fast punches would connect in a row. The look of frustration on Spinks’ face was understandable. His jab kept falling short, while Ali’s was beginning to land. His counters were ineffectual and one at a time. Any time he began to mount an offense or got close enough to do damage, the old man would grab him and tie him up until Lucien Joubert could separate them or Ali forcefully pushed him off, himself.
Towards the end of the 5th, Muhammad suddenly planted his feet and uncorked a blindingly fast, vicious, five punch combination, catching Spinks on the way in, leaving the younger man slightly hurt and befuddled. He tried to fire back; but, once again, Ali tied him up, only to back away with a dead pan expression when Joubert stepped in. The crowd erupted in chants of “ALI!!! ALI!! ALI!!!!” The chant resounded throughout the Superdome as the participants made their way back to their corners.
The rounds slipped by as the night wore on and time grew short. Ali’s timing, his rhythm, while not that of the man he once was, was on the mark. Demonstrating the epitome of ring generalship more and more; it was becoming a one-man show with Ali dictating the pace and what Spinks could and could not do. A battle for the World Heavyweight Championship was morphing into a boxing lesson with one of the greatest who ever lived, now in the waning moments of his long career, educating a hungry young man about all he did not know, reinforcing the self-doubt the ’76 Olympian must have had in himself.
Further and further Ali pulled away from the champion. The jabs were landing, the right hand leads zipping out whenever he chose to launch them, occasionally landing solid to the adoration of the masses, who had not ceased cheering from even before the fight began. It was happening, history was happening.
“I will destroy Spinks.”
When Ali said this, prior to the fight, most assumed he meant he would go out and unleash fury upon the former Marine and stop him; but there are many ways to “destroy” a man. A knockout loss is devastating; but, ultimately, if the man who was knocked out is mentally strong enough, he can come back. Such a man can argue to himself that he simply got caught, that the other guy got lucky; but if you completely dominate a man in every aspect of the word, you leave no doubt as to who the better man is. You can mentally and psychologically destroy him by meticulously deconstructing his own belief in himself, by showing him that every positive notion he had about his abilities were ill construed, a lie.
In a way, this is the cruelest of all “destructions,” for it is certainly the hardest of all to overcome and many fighters who suffer such humiliation never recover. Names which come to mind, in recent years, are Kelly Pavlik, who was on top of the world before an old veteran, Bernard Hopkins, neutered him on national television. Jeff “Left Hook” Lacy, touted as the mini-Mike Tyson, was never the same after Joe Calzaghe stopped his tear through the super-middleweight division in front of a howling hometown contingent. And who can forget Marco Antonio Barrera’s demeaning life lesson to “Prince” Naseem Hamed, never put on a pair of boxing gloves again?
Undoubtedly, there are other factors which could have played into these fighters’ declines; but the losses noted, without question, played a role. Leon Spinks, who was at the very beginning of his professional career when he won the biggest of all prizes, was certainly also in the most vulnerable and impressionable of positions, as he had been placed at the top of the mountain before he had built the kind of foundation necessary to catch him, should he fall. Now, here he was on the biggest stage ever, watching almost in slow motion, as he was being categorically dismembered piece by piece for all the world to see. The more rounds which ticked by, the more Muhammad Ali was dragging him deeper and deeper into the abyss.
Spinks had a glimmer of hope in the 9th, as Ali came off his toes for the first time, apparently to catch a breather. The younger man tried to make the most of it; but, as always, Ali tied him up whenever he stepped inside. The fight was not “exciting”, so to speak; but it was not meant to be by the design of its architect. Excitement, usually means risk and why risk when you can dominate? Every move was planned out, every risk calculated. School was in session as Ali continued with the education of Leon. One almost got the feeling he meant Spinks no harm, as much as he meant to show him, “This is who I am, not that lazy man you faced before. This is Muhammad Ali.”
Very few could believe what they were witnessing. The other belt holder, Larry Holmes was at ringside, hoarse from rooting for his friend and former mentor. Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s former physician, sitting behind the announcing table, confided, “I didn’t believe he could come up with this kind of effort.” Ali had done countless hours of calisthenics, sparred more than 300 rounds for this fight. If he was to lose, he would have no excuses; but he was doing anything but losing and by Round 10, you could see he felt it.
Back on his toes at the start of the round, smoothly dancing to his left, to his right, firing the jab with more conviction, shooting the right when Leon forgot to move his head. Ali backed towards a neutral corner with Spinks following, almost as if in a dream. Ali stopped and flashed a shuffle for the crowd, who roared their approval. He was feeling it now. Spinks took the cue to charge in and was met with a blistering combination for his effort, only to be left alone as Ali danced away to the cheers of the congregation while his man, Bundini pounded his hands on the canvas in jubilation.
In between rounds, the desperation in the Spinks corner was impossible to hide. “Push yourself, Leon! You’ve gotta push yourself! You have got to go!!” Sam Solomon knew the score. His fighter was way behind in this fight and Ali was widening the gap. Across the way, Muhammad, perhaps plagued with his own self-doubt in the wake of losing to Leon the first time, looked over his shoulder to his friend, Lloyd Wells, who was in the crowd, “Am I winning?” Wells quickly replied with a smile, “You’re way ahead!!”
Rounds 11 through 15 unfolded in storybook fashion for Ali fans. The 36 year old was still on his toes, bouncing, sticking, moving, making Spinks pay when he came in, grabbing him, and then pushing the younger man back out of range. Again and again Leon would lunge to find air or a glancing blow, only to be peppered for his trouble. “It’s all over son!” Bundini Brown could be heard hollering from Ali’s corner.
It was more desperation in Spink’s corner before the 13th as Solomon implored, “You’ve got to fight your fight!!! You’re fighting his fight!! You have got to find a way to hit him!!”
Ali came out dancing again, giving the crowd and Leon a light shuffle, once again causing the crowd noise to rise in crescendo. Their man was putting on a show. After all those years of half-hearted efforts, saving his moments for here and there, he was dancing, the butterfly was stinging again. It must have indeed felt like a dream, a deposit into the time capsule for one last moment of glory, one last memory for the faithful, and Leon Spinks was helpless to do anything about it, reduced to the role of consequential bit player in a stage production scripted for one man and one man alone.
In the fourteenth, as if in a nod to Zaire, Ali leaned back into the ropes and grabbed Spinks as he bored in, holding him tight like a lover and leaned to whisper in his ear. Only the two know what was said; but no sooner had the secret been conveyed, than Ali pushed him away, spun around, and uncorked a blazing 5-punch combination which had Spinks covering futilely as one would try to stop a swarm of angry bees. BOP, BOP, BOP, BOP, BAM!
“ALI!!! ALI!! ALI!!!”
In three more minutes, it was over.
The multitude, predictably, rushed the ring, jamming it beyond capacity, all wanting to touch him, to congratulate him before the announcement was made, or to just say they stood on hallowed ground where it happened. Ali got knocked to the ground in his corner; but was up in no time. This was nothing new for him. He could be seen smiling and talking to the folks at ringside over the topmost strand, combing his hair, has had become his habit. Giving a wink, while touching his face all around, as if to say, “I’m still pretty,” mouthing the words, “Am I the greatest of all time? Of All Time??”
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Champ Clark, the announcer, opened his mic and spoke. “May I have your attention, please?” A quieting of the crowd followed; but the sound never disappeared. There was never any doubt as to the decision, only the width of the margins.
Judge Ernie Cojoe and referee Lucien Joubert both had it scored 10 Rounds to 4, while Judge Herman Preis saw it 11-4; but all three men had the same man winning. For the third time, the Heavyweight Champion of the World, was Muhammad Ali.
Most people never heard the third score of Lucien Joubert, for when Champ read off the second score for Ali, the crowd noise nearly blew the roof off of the Superdome. You probably could have been on the other side of New Orleans and known that Ali was once again King.
Calling the fight for ABC was Ali’s long time agitator and friend, Howard Cosell, who was obviously emotionally moved by watching his friend’s performance that night. After uncertainty in the early rounds, it became clear that somehow Ali had recaptured a fragment of his youth once more, which moved Cosell to cite some meaningful lyrics from a Bob Dylan tune:
“May your hands be always busy. May your feet be always swift. May you lay a strong foundation, when the winds of changes shift.”
While nothing, indeed, lasts forever, Ali did indeed lay a strong foundation, as he is still one of the most talked about champions in heavyweight history, and probably always will be. Though some few still revile him for his political stance in the late 1960’s, his passing, this year, was met with great sorrow by the vast majority. It is very rare in life that one gets the chance to witness a true icon take shape and grow, to see a person whose talents, whose accomplishments, whose personality, whose character are so much larger than life, they leave everyone else in their wake. Such people are treasures to be remembered long after they shuck off the mortal coil.
For those who were at the Superdome on September 15th, 1978, theirs is a memory they realized while they were living it, which is why the noise never ceased from start to long after the finish. It would have been grand, if Ali could have left this lasting image to be the last one of his fistic career; but even icons are human and subject to human weaknesses.
Still, in the end, it is fair to say Cosell’s citation of Dylan was as accurate and poignant as they come. When one considers that the retelling of tales and the life of memories keep all of those remembered immortal. Such is certainly true, looking back on the life of Muhammad
Ali, for he is one who has lived who will never be forgotten.
Indeed, through memory, he will remain, Forever Young.