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He's the Greatest, I'm the Best

Feb. 27, 1978
Feb. 27, 1978

Table of Contents
Feb. 27, 1978

The Best
NCAA
North By East
Irish Hunt
College Basketball
Golf
Motor Sports
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

He's the Greatest, I'm the Best

Ali was his man then and Ali is his man now, but when 24-year-old Leon Spinks attacked, both idol and the heavyweight title came tumbling down

They were facing the 10th round now, Muhammad Ali and the kid who had been 10 years old when Ali first won the world heavyweight championship. Ali's corner was worried. Leon Spinks, breathing easily while he listened to his trainer's whispered instructions, looked across the ring at the champion and grinned. Spinks raised his right glove and then dropped it, as though he were waving at an old friend.

This is an article from the Feb. 27, 1978 issue Original Layout

In Ali's corner, several voices formed an unintelligible babble. "Will you all shut to hell up!" Angelo Dundee shouted. Then he said in Ali's ear, "You got to go get him. You can't wait any longer. You've given him too many rounds. You got to go get him now."

Sighing deeply, Ali nodded. Pain was digging at his ribs. After the fight he recalled this moment; he had wondered absently if a rib was broken. He licked blood from his split lower lip. The right side of his head throbbed from the pounding it had taken. He said later, "I recall thinking, 'That kid is a tough son of a bitch.' " Standing at the warning buzzer, Ali decided to end it, to stop the jackhammers that had been punishing his 36-year-old body. He moved forward into the ring.

The fight was being contested before 5,300 fans in the Pavilion at the Las Vegas Hilton and millions more watched on television around the world, but at this moment the two principals seemed suddenly very alone. They came together hard in the center of the ring. Slowly and reluctantly—for the first time all night—Spinks gave ground. Ali forced him into the ropes, pumped a furious combination to the body and rocked him with a right to the head.

Spinks was hurt; he tried to escape. Ali slammed a right to the jaw, half-spun him with a hook to the head, then pounded another right to the chin.

Just as Ali had recalled his thoughts in his corner, Spinks remembers this moment. He said later that his mind flashed back to a long-ago day in St. Louis when his father told him he'd never amount to anything. "My dad had gone around and told people I would never be anything," Spinks said. "It hurt me. I've never forgotten it. I made up my mind that I was going to be somebody in this world. That, whatever price I had to pay, I was going to succeed at something."

Spinks, who is now 24, drew inspiration from the painful recollections. In the next few moments the kid who had fought to survive in the streets seemed to return to the streets. With a grimace, his mouthpiece showing suddenly white, he lifted the fight from its plush surroundings and dropped it into a dark back alley in St. Louis.

At 6'1½" and 197¼ pounds, Spinks is not a big heavyweight. Boxing experts had scoffed because his record was just about as unimpressive: after winning a gold medal at the Montreal Olympics, he had won six and drawn once in seven pro fights. But Spinks is well schooled. His body is always correctly squared, his elbows are tucked in, his stance solid and well balanced. Even in his worst moments against Ali, he had command of his body. His jab is straight and strong; his hook powerful if not yet perfect. He has a tendency to come over the top with his right, like a baseball pitcher, or to loop it from the side, so that it resembles a hook instead of a cross. But he does that because he likes to plant his right foot closer than usual to an opponent. And mainly, as Sam Solomon, his trainer, says, "As tough as Spinks is, he is even more dangerous when he is hurt."

Now in the 10th round, Ali had hurt him, and Spinks attacked. Twice he banged the champion's body, then missed with a thunderous right. Backing away, Ali jabbed and threw a right. Spinks chased him, jabbing, missing with a right, then landing a hook to the body. He was still chasing Ali at the bell.

As the fighters passed on the way to their corners, Spinks grinned again and gave Ali a pat on the rump. Ali paused and stared at him. Then the champion shook his head and wearily walked to his corner.

When the bell for Round 1 rang there were 14 people around Ali's corner. Late in the fight there were as many as 18, all of them shouting instructions. Dundee had to shoulder his way through the mob to get up the steps at the end of each round. Now, as Dundee tried to go to work, Bundini Brown, Ali's longtime handler and cheerleader, pushed past Dundee and yelled at Ali, "You've got him, champ! You've got him!"

"Aw, shut up," Ali said.

Dundee resumed command. "You've got to keep the pressure on. Stay on him, don't let him rest. He's got to get tired soon."

Ali managed a small smile. "That's what you all keep telling me," he said. "The only one getting tired out there is me."

Early in the fight, Ali gave away rounds with reckless generosity, clowning, dancing, contemptuously refusing to punch, as he has so often done before. When pressed by Spinks, he would go into the rope-a-dope that had worked so well against George Foreman and Ken Norton and, to some extent, against Earnie Shavers. It is a simple ploy: while Ali rests against the ropes, his opponents tire themselves by hammering away ineffectually at a shield of forearms and gloves. Until now no one had solved it.

Spinks' counter-strategy was stunningly executed. One of the weapons he had feared most was Ali's jab, which neutralizes opponents while piling up points. To enfeeble the jab, Spinks pounded Ali on the shoulders and biceps whenever the champion went into his shell. He also drove occasional uppercuts between Ali's forearms, snapping his head back. By the late rounds Ali's jab was more push than punishing, and Spinks was able to walk right through it.

At other times when Ali covered up, Spinks would step farther than usual to Ali's left and loop crushing hooks into his lower back. After a few of those, Ali began to lower his arms to protect his body. Spinks then moved up, hooking from both sides up and over Ali's arms and scoring heavily to the ears and cheekbones.

By the 11th round, Ali had all but abandoned the rope-a-dope. "I kept waiting for him to run out of gas," Ali said later, "but he never did. I figured I had better stop waiting."

After 515 rounds of professional fighting, almost half that number in title defenses, Ali did not panic. His pride is immense; his courage is even greater. Seeing his title slipping, he fought Spinks in the 11th and 12th rounds at his own game, head to head, and he took both rounds. And late in the 12th round Ali thought he saw what he had been waiting for: Spinks beginning to fade.

With less than 20 seconds to go in the round, Ali double-jabbed, up and down, and then hooked Spinks to the head. Spinks appeared hurt. Quickly Ali moved in for the kill—but his opponent was not the groggy victim of fights past. Instead, Spinks belted him twice to the head. The bell sounded.

For a moment Ali stood watching as Spinks walked strongly and confidently to his corner. Ali's shoulders seemed to sag.

Coasting and trying to save what little strength remained, Ali did little in the 13th round. Then, before he could set himself in Round 14, Spinks swarmed over him again, forcing him back into his own corner, blasting him to the body.

Leaping to the top step again, Bundini yelled at Spinks, "You're all done, chump. You're all done."

Looking at Bundini over Ali's shoulder, Spinks laughed. The moment allowed Ali to escape, but only briefly. Spinks chased him into another corner and hammered him three times to the body. Then he followed Ali to the ropes and whacked him three times to the head. At the bell, legs gone, arms leaden, Ali shuffled back to his corner.

"This is the ball game," Dundee told Ali. "You've got to go out and win this round big, real big. Look at him over there: he's out on his feet. He's shot his bolt. Hit him and he'll go."

Ali looked across the ring. For a man out on his feet, Spinks looked awfully strong, awfully fresh. If Ali had been less tired, he would have mentioned that to Dundee.

In Round 15, Ali was reborn in desperation. Willing his body to be young, he went out looking for the knockout he knew he needed. As they closed, Ali said something to Spinks. Spinks nodded, and they both threw savage big punches. No more artistry, no more defense. Grunting, they put this one in the trenches.

Ali tagged Spinks with a right to the temple, and the challenger staggered. As Ali rushed in to put him away, Spinks sagged back into the ropes, took two more shots to the head—and then fought back with a left and a right.

Ali fired four punches. He took a jab, and then fired five more. But his moment had passed. Spinks hit him twice. Then he hit him three more times. He missed with a hook and almost fell. Recovering, he hooked Ali to the head, hurting him. Ali was in trouble. He took another straight right, and a right uppercut. Ali managed to fire off a weak hook, but at the bell Spinks hit him with a right and Ali nearly was floored.

Shaking his head, Ali staggered back to the crowd in his corner. There he waited for the decision.

Ali was already in Las Vegas when Spinks arrived 10 days before the fight. In four weeks the champion had trimmed down from 242 pounds to 224, mostly by dieting on juices and cereal and by working out in a rubber suit. Working with Luis Sarrea, another assistant trainer, Ali also had spent hours doing torturous exercises on the rubbing table. "The table is agony," Sarrea said. "To get in shape Ali must be in agony. For this fight every day he was in agony."

"This time Ali is deadly serious," Dundee said. "He's paid his dues. He did all the physical things that made him great. He's been suffering on that exercise table. And he got a lot of rest."

While he rested, Ali thought of things that he would not tell the press. Today I will not tell them what great shape I am in; tomorrow I will not tell them how I am going to beat Spinks. After a 17-year filibuster, he had taken a vow of silence. "I've got nothing more to say," he said one day during early training in Miami, and after that he was mute. He spent most of his time in Las Vegas alone with his wife Veronica and his two daughters, Laila, 1½ months, and Hana, 19 months, in their 29th-floor penthouse suite in the Hilton. Alone is the way Veronica wants it.

Each morning Ali would get a 5 a.m. wakeup call from Gene Kilroy, his business agent. He would dress and then he would run alone 4½ miles around the Desert Inn golf course across the street from the Hilton. Around 6 in the morning, sometimes with Kilroy, sometimes alone, he would wander into the hotel coffee shop for breakfast.

Spinks regarded Ali's self-imposed silence with amusement—when he regarded it at all. There is a distressing tendency to think of Spinks, the ex-Marine who did not finish high school, as an illiterate at best and woefully stupid at worst. He is neither; Spinks crackles with a shrewd intelligence—he is merely unschooled. His gap-toothed appearance adds to the impression that he is dumb. Spinks shrugs that off as well; he has a removable bridge to fill the gap. The bridge is uncomfortable; therefore, the hell with it. As for the fight, "Hey, what is there to think about?" he said beforehand. "I've been fighting for my life since I was 10, so why is this fight different?"

Perhaps it was different, it was suggested, because Ali had been his idol for almost 20 years.

Spinks admitted that was true—outside of the ring. "Inside the ring," he said, "it's just like walking down the street and you bump into your cousin and he gets mad. He wants to fight. Now, you like your cousin, but when he draws back his fist, for a little while he ain't your cousin. People think I should be sitting around biting my nails. Hell, it's just another fight in a lifetime of fights. I'll fight Ali just like I'd fight any other guy who challenged me in the street. But I'll never say anything against him. I'm not going against the man, I'm just trying to beat him. He was my idol, he still is my idol—and when the fight is over he still will be."

Spinks made a short chopping motion with his right hand. "I don't listen to other people anyway. I don't listen because when I get in the ring they won't be doing my fighting for me. I don't care what they say. I know where I'm at, and I know where I came from. And I'll never forget either. I came from poorness to try and find some meaning of life, and I'll never forget where I came from because I never want to go back."

In the ring the cards had been collected and were handed to Chuck Hall, the announcer. Both corners grew quiet; a hush fell on the room.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Hall said, "we have a split decision." When the booing died down, Hall read, "Judge Art Lurie scores it 143-142, Ali."

Again, boos from the crowd—but an early celebration began in the champion's corner. "Quiet!" Dundee shouted. "Let's hear it."

Turning to the second slip, Hall read, "Judge Lou Tabat scores it 145-140, Spinks."

Ali stared down at the floor. Spinks stared at Hall, who now began, "Judge Harold Buck scores it 144-141, Spinks. And the new...." A swelling roar drowned out the rest of the sentence.

Ali accepted the decision without complaint. Around him rose anguished cries of robbery, of a fix, of being had. Ali, now the ex-champion, walked to his dressing room. He was crying, but his head was held high. He ignored the madness all about him.

He sat down and sipped a glass of carrot juice. Sarrea, his face emotionless, kneeled and began to remove Ali's shoes. Someone shouted, "It was robbery."

Ali's head came up. "Shut up. Nobody got robbed. I lost the fight."

The door burst open, and Michael Dokes, one of Ali's sparring partners, flew into the room. He was furious. Indicating Ali's associates, he said to Ali, "They fed you a lot of crap. They told you you were in shape and you weren't. You listened to all the wrong people."

"That's right, not in shape," someone said, grabbing the excuse from the air.

"Oh, man," Ali said in disgust. "First I was robbed and now I'm not in shape. Why don't you listen? I was beaten. I lost. He won. Can't you understand that?"

In his dressing room Spinks quieted a small gathering. "Celebrate later," he said, "but now, first things first. Before anyone starts jiving we must give our thanks to the Lord." The new heavyweight champion of the world led the prayer: "Dear God, thank you for answering my prayers. Thank you for my not getting hurt, and for my man not getting hurt. Thank you for the miracle. All praise sweet Jesus."

Outside in the hall, Dundee and his wife Helen made their way to a postfight party. His face a blank, Dundee puffed on a large cigar.

"I'm stunned," Helen said to her husband. "I feel like I'm coming apart."

"Stay calm," said Angelo.

"But how can you stay calm?"

He looked at her. "Because if I don't stay calm I'll get sick," he said.

Dundee shook his head. "I knew it was too close for comfort. I told him to stop fooling around. He was giving up too many rounds. But I heard the decision and I thought 'Well, what are you going to do; that's it.' I prepared myself for this day for a long time. I conditioned myself for it. I was young with him and now I feel old with him."

Not much later, at his own party upstairs in his room, Spinks was wearing the red WBC title belt. Champagne was uncorked. Congratulatory telephone calls and telegrams were pouring in.

A man at the telephone yelled at Spinks, "Hey, Leon, it's Western Union. They have a telegram from some guy claiming he's your relative. He wants you to send him some money right now."

"Who is it?" Spinks asked.

The man at the telephone told him.

"I never heard of no dude like that," Spinks said. "Hang up."

In his room, Ali sprawled on his bed in a striped dressing gown and talked to anyone who came in. The door was wide open. No one was turned back.

A visitor said, "Hey, champ...."

"Don't call me champ," Ali said. "He's the champ. You don't have to call me champ to be my friend. I shall return. I'll let him hold the title for a few months and enjoy it. Then I shall return."

In other parts of the hotel, plans were being drawn for Spinks' future, if not Ali's. Bob Arum, who had promoted the fight, has a contract to stage Spinks' next three fights, and an option for three more. The hotel was flooded with possible opponents: Kenny Norton and Jimmy Young, Larry Holmes and Earnie Shavers. And with negotiators from Manila and Iran, Hong Kong and the Ivory Coast. The WBC was demanding that Spinks give Norton the first shot.

"I think right now it looks like an easy opponent in May and then Norton in September," Arum said. "Unless, of course, Ali wants a return match. We have a contract with CBS for Spinks' next fight and the funds are not sufficient for a Norton fight. So Norton will be later—unless Ali is serious. There is no return contract, but Leon wants to fight him again. I think we'd be ingrates if Ali wanted to come back and somebody said no. I would feel lousy, and Leon really loves the guy. But I don't know. Do you think Ali will want to fight again?"

The answer was a resounding yes.

Late Friday night, two days after the fight, Leon Spinks stood at his hotel room window, staring out at the lights of Las Vegas.

"The thing I don't like," he said, "is people calling me the greatest. I am not the greatest. I may be the best young heavyweight, but he was the greatest. And he is still the greatest.

"I was very serious during the fight," he said, "but I also had a lot of fun. He kept saying things to me, trying to make me mad, but all he did was make me laugh. It was like he was telling me jokes. One time he called me a dirty name. I said, 'Oh, Ali, how could you say such a thing?' Can you imagine your idol calling you a dirty name?"

Around his waist Spinks was still wearing the WBC belt. He wore it as if it had been there all his life. And as if he planned never to take it off.