Their first fight last February went the full 15 rounds. But this time, who knows? One powerful punch could terminate the rematch in, say, less than one minute. Or one round. Or 10 rounds. As A. J. Liebling once noted, "In a return match, it is always possible that there has occurred, subsequent or consequent to the first encounter, a change in the emotional relationship of the two principals."
If there is one certainty about the second world heavyweight championship fight between Leon Spinks and Muhammad Ali next Friday night in the New Orleans Superdome, it is that there has indeed been a change in the emotional relationship between the two. With the new champion, it is subtle, if one can credit Spinks with such depth. With Ali, the change of mood is so great as to be startling.
Ever since the third Joe Frazier fight almost three years ago, Ali had permitted his great skills to be eroded by boredom; he didn't even generate much zip for his third fight with Ken Norton or the fight with Earnie Shavers. The end result of this lassitude—and the decline brought about by age—was that last February in Las Vegas he was beaten (in his own thinking, he was humiliated) by a youngster with but seven professional fights. And now, preparing for what he vows is a last go-round at 36, Ali has punished mind and body more than he ever has before.
When the ex-champion (and oh, how he hates the ex-) arrived in New Orleans last Thursday, he had sparred more than 200 rounds. And not for a second in any of those rounds did he practice the rope-a-dope. For his first meeting with Spinks, Ali reportedly sparred less than 50 rounds. "About two rounds every ninth day," says a member of Ali's entourage. "And even then, he'd just lay against the ropes and let Michael Dokes punch him on the arms."
September 10, 1978
"All my life I knew the day would' come when I would have to kill myself," Ali says. "I always dreaded it. And now it's here. Never have I suffered like I'm forcing myself to suffer now. I've worked this hard for a fight before, but never, never for this long. To win, all I need to do is suffer. I don't want to lose and then spend the rest of my life looking back and saying, 'Damn, I should have trained harder.' "
Ali says that he wants to win this last fight more than anything he ever wanted. Even more, he says, than the gold medal at the Rome Olympics, more than the championship he won from Sonny Liston, more than the championship he won for the second time, from George Foreman in 1974. Ali wants to be the first man in history to win the heavyweight title three times—and then to retire as champion.
"All I needed was the motivating," Ali says. "I'm the type of man who has got to have pressure. Liston. Foreman. Frazier. The second Norton fight. Real bad dudes. I need that. Those were my great fights. Those were the real Ali." His face wrinkles, as though he has tasted something bad. His right hand cuts through the air, backhanding an imaginary and minor opponent. "Those other dudes," he growls. "The Joe Blows. How can a fighter get up for them? Look at the record. Blue Lewis. I looked bad. Coopman. I looked bad. Wepner. I looked bad. Evangelista. I looked bad."
He pauses and then smiles. "Spinks. I looked bad. I thought that fight was a joke. I was embarrassed fighting him. That's why I wouldn't talk before the fight. I didn't train. I didn't run. I don't know who said I sparred 50 rounds; all I remember is about six. I was fat, out of shape, tired. I got tired just walking into the ring. I let him rob my house while I was out to lunch. Spinks fought an illusion. This time he's got to fight Muhammad Ali."
With Spinks, the change is less obvious. It is mostly a refinement in self-assurance, from street-fight cocky to the cool confidence of a champion. He had floundered in the first flood of public adulation, but now his feet seem to be on firmer ground, despite the zealous attention paid to his nocturnal adventures. Like Ali, Spinks has trained long and hard for this fight, and if there is any worry in his camp, it is that he may have trained too long and too hard. At any time of the day or night, be it two o'clock in the afternoon or 3:30 in the morning, he'll suddenly take off on a six-mile run, winding up the last half mile with a furious sprint.
"I ask him what he is training for, a 15-round fight or a marathon?" says Sam Solomon, the champion's trainer. "He is jogging six miles in combat boots. I ask him, 'What's the rush?' "
With a grin and a shrug, Spinks dismisses Solomon's lament. "I know my body best, and I do what I think is best for it. After all, I'm the one fighting Ali, the one hitting and getting hit. I'm the boss. When you train hard you can fight hard. And that's the only way I know how to fight. Right now I've got the whole fight in my mind, and all I'm trying to do is put what's in my mind into my body. I whipped Ali the first time doing it my way. I don't see any good reason to change."
Although he had been training in secret since April 2, with roadwork and calisthenics, Ali retreated to his mountain stronghold at Deer Lake, Pa. on the second day of August, and there he thrashed the body that had betrayed him last February. He would arise each morning at five o'clock, dress in a blue jogging suit with white stripes on the sleeves, and then, still half asleep, he would stumble out into the darkness to ring the huge bell he has set up behind his private log cabin. The Boss, the bell said, was ready to go to work.
Once he was sure that everybody in the camp was awake, Ali would make his way to the small white mosque for a half hour of prayer and meditation. "It's where I do my thinking about living and dying," he says.
For his part, Ali hates to run, but he drove himself unrelentingly before leaving his camp for New Orleans. He would run on the rutted, rural back roads and in the hills, plodding in pain, gasping for air. mile after mile, pushing himself another 100 yards, another quarter mile. He was followed in a battered old car by Gene Kilroy, his business manager, and Bundini Brown, his faithful second and constant companion. "I want to stop, but I can't," he tried to explain one morning. "My chest burns, my throat is dry, I feel like I'm going to faint. My body begs me to stop. But I make myself run another mile, two more miles up those damn hills. Pain, all the time I'm in pain. I hurt all over. I hate it but I'm taking it. I'm making myself suffer. I have to suffer. I know this is my last fight and it's the last time I'll ever have to do it. Just a few more weeks of pain and suffering to live good all the rest of my life, to always be champion."
For the first Spinks fight, Ali weighed 224¼, including a huge belt of jiggling midsection that sagged over the top of his trunks. He had trained in Miami Beach, and always in a rubber suit. He had believed that if he boiled away the fat, if he looked trim, then he would be in shape. At least in shape to beat Spinks. "He didn't have nobody down there in Miami but a couple of yes-men, who—if you look around now—you won't see," Bundini says. "He'd say, 'Do I look good?' And they'd say, 'Yes.' He'd say, 'Am I in shape?' And they'd say, 'Yes, you're in shape.' When he came to Las Vegas to fight he looked like a big beautiful cake. Only there wasn't nothin' inside it."
Eight days before he left for New Orleans, 24 days before he would fight again, Ali got on a scale and weighed 226 pounds. His midsection obviously could stand more trimming, but the roll of fat so evident in his last eight fights wasn't there. In sparring, he had worked like the Ali of old, in the center of the ring. He kept moving and jabbing, his back never touching the ropes; moving in to throw a jab, a right hand, a hook, and then moving quickly away.
"It's like he's turned the clock back 10 years," says Angelo Dundee, who has trained Ali most of his career. "Look at the muscle tone. I haven't seen that in years. He's gone back to chopping down trees, to punishing himself with calisthenics, to working when he spars instead of just letting people hit on him. God, he looks beautiful."
For this fight, Ali brought in five new sparring partners, among them Fred Reeds, at 160 pounds, for speed work, and Tony Tubbs, 219, and Magic Davis, 217, for small wars. "I sparred with him a couple of rounds before the first fight," says Davis, a 19-year-old who has won his only pro fight. "All he'd do was lay against the ropes and let you hit him. Here it's a whole different story. He's really getting his punches off. He's never on the ropes. In Miami he looked like two cents. Here he looks like a million dollars."
And each day there were calisthenics, mostly sit-ups of various kinds, more than 300 at a crack, each under the watchful eyes of Luis Sarria, the tiny black man of undetermined age who speaks only Spanish and has been with Ali since 1965. "The people don't see this," Ali says, gasping as Sarria motions him to begin a new set of sit-ups. "All they see is my big mouth flapping. Of course, the first fight they couldn't have seen nothing, because I didn't do nothing. Now look at me. Killing myself. But no belly, no fat jaws. I'm pretty again. I'm going to go out as the world champion, moving and dancing. I can feel it. And, God, how it hurts."
For the rematch, Spinks, after some leisurely workouts at Hilton Head, S.C., has followed exactly the same training path that led him to the heavyweight title—from Kutsher's in the Catskills to a motel in Hammonton, N.J., from which he drove 100 miles round trip each day to train at the Police Gym in Upper Darby, on the outskirts of Philadelphia. The stay at Hilton Head from June 1 until the third week in July was more for relaxation than for training, although Spinks chopped his way through a small forest to build upper-body strength. He is an excellent swimmer, and mostly he spent his time in the pool, or playing tennis or basketball. And he went dancing.
There was reason for following the same path, doing everything the same way: Spinks is a man of many superstitions. Cracked mirrors, black cats, walking under ladders all terrify him. "There's no way I'll let a black cat cross in front of me." he says. "Or if I'm driving and see a black cat on the other side of the road, I'll turn around and go the other way. And if I'm walking with someone and they split a pole between us. I'll ask them to come on back and do it over again right."
As for Spinks' working schedule, "People said he wasn't training, that he was out fooling around," says Solomon. "They said he's out of shape. He's only 25 and he dances all night. Now you tell me, how's he going to get out of shape? Did you ever try the dances he does? I'd drop dead."
At Kutsher's, Spinks got serious, running many miles, most of them up and down hills, training hard but sparring only 11 rounds. Solomon thought it was too soon to do a lot of sparring. Besides, just as he had for the last fight, Spinks began to lose too much weight too quickly. By the time he began working out in Upper Darby, he was down 12 pounds to 190. For the first fight he had come in strong at 197¼.
By mid-August, Spinks' weight, or lack of it, had Solomon in a near-panic. He telephoned Dr. Robert Bass in Philadelphia, who advised him to start the champion on vitamins. "The problem is the heat," Solomon says. "Leon hates the heat. He just loses all desire to eat. He's eating two meals a day, but he's not eating much."
Spinks' idea of a meal was raw eggs and two bottles of beer. "People think it's wrong for an athlete to drink beer," he says. "It's good for you. Especially a boxer. You train and lose all that salt. Two beers puts it right back in your body. It's not what you drink that hurts you, it's how much."
Six weeks before the first Ali fight, Spinks' weight also had dropped off to 190 pounds. In desperation, Chet Cummings, Spinks' personal public-relations representative, went to Reliable Caterers at 145th and Broadway in Harlem and ordered $348 worth of soul food. The next day a truck arrived at Kutsher's filled with ham hocks and collard greens, oxtails, spareribs, neck bones, black-eyed peas, candied yams, fried chicken and corn bread. "Everything a fighter shouldn't eat," says an amazed Solomon. "And his weight went right back to normal. For him, it's the right food. I guess we are just going to have to do the same thing again."
In comparison to Ali, whose staff of more than 20 at Deer Lake cost him $12,000 a month, Spinks' entourage was tiny. Besides Solomon and Cummings, there were only Assistant Trainer Art Redden, a Marine gunnery sergeant, and his wife Marsha; Billy Walker, the equipment manager; administrative aide Butch Wilfork; sparring partner Leroy Diggs; and Betty the cook.
"Ali's got me outnumbered until we get in the ring," says Spinks. "Then it's just him and me. Outside the ring, he talks a lot and I don't say much. He's still my idol. He always will be. But in the ring, when he throws a punch, I get to throw a punch back. In the ring he's just another guy between me and me doing my thing."
A 17-year Marine Corps veteran and now the boxing coach at Camp Lejeune, Redden discovered Spinks and was his first trainer. He had found Spinks punching a heavy bag in the gym at Lejeune. "He was the right size, so I talked him into fighting this guy from the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg. In the second round Leon jumped all over the guy and the guy quit," says Redden. "He learned a lot then, but when he turned pro, he forgot a lot. But now I watch him in the gym and I can see it all coming back. He's moving good, his jab is a lot better. He's doing a lot of things I didn't see in the first fight: shifting, changing angles, bobbing and weaving, using various combinations. Ali didn't see the fighter that Leon really is. He will see that fighter this time."
As one watches Ali work, it becomes evident that he is planning to launch a dazzling assault from the opening second of the first round. He plans to maintain the blitz until a) Spinks falls from the sustained punishment, or b) Ali crumbles from exhaustion. This time Ali, the man who gave Spinks the first six rounds the first time they met, intends to give away not even six seconds.
Still, as hard as he has trained, Ali has not ignored that most vital statistic: he is 36, and Spinks is 25. Ali is going to gamble everything on a knockout—say, in the ninth or 10th round—against a man who has only been knocked off his feet once in 193 fights, and not once as a professional.
"The last time, the way I fought, all we got to see was Spinks' offense," says Ali. "This time, we're going to see his defense, if he has any. All he is going to see this time is speed, and speed and more speed, and by the 15th round he isn't even going to see that, 'cause he won't be there."
If that is indeed the kind of war Ali has decided to wage, then Spinks will likely meet him in the center of the ring. nose to nose, and slug until one of them falls. That is Spinks' type of fight: forget finesse, forge straight ahead, find your man and hit him. It could turn out to be a fight more suited to an alley than a Superdome. While sparring against Diggs, a burly 220-pounder with a good stiff jab, Spinks has worked well on banging his way inside—and then sending crunching combinations to the head and body.
"Leon may be smaller," says Diggs, "but if Ali thinks he can outmuscle him, he's in big trouble. When I first sparred with Leon, I had just come from sparring with Earnie Shavers, and when I first saw Leon, he seemed so small to look at. But he really surprised me with his upper-body strength. He's every bit as strong as Shavers. Shavers couldn't wrestle me around, but Leon, he more than holds his own."
Solomon laughs when he hears that Ali is training for a bayonet assault, cold steel at close quarters. "Go look at the films of their first fight," he says. "Ali has been fighting the same way for the last four or five years, and it's too late for him to change his stuff now. As soon as he gets hit, he covers up, and when he covers up, Leon will be all over him, just like it happened in the first fight."
This time, Ali cannot afford to go into his infamous shell, to fall back on the ropes. It seems apparent that judges have become disgusted with the tactic. No matter what he does with the rest of the round—short of a knockout, that is—if Ali reverts to the rope-a-dope, it will cost him the round.
"There won't be any rope-a-dope this time," Ali insists. "No joking, no fooling around. I joked my way through training for the first fight, and I joked my way through the fight, talking to him, cutting the fool. Not this time. This time it's a serious business."
In the end, it all comes down to this: Can Ali, at 36, come up with one more great fight? If he can, it's no contest. Ali at 25 would have destroyed Spinks at 25. But that is not to belittle the new champion. At the age of 25, Ali probably could have destroyed any heavyweight who ever lived. That includes Rocky Marciano and Joe Louis and John L. Sullivan. When he was young and good, very good, Ali would have turned them all inside out.
Ali has within himself the gift to turn back the clock one more time. He did it for three full minutes in the 15th round against Shavers in September 1977, and if he has to, he'll do it for all the rounds he needs against Spinks. Win or lose, for Spinks there will be many, many more championship fights. For Ali, there is just this one.
AN AURA IS NOT TO BE TAKEN, ER, LIGHTLY
Psychic signals are beaming in regularly to Albuquerque's Agonistes Ramu, the self-proclaimed seer who correctly predicted that three balloonists would waft safely across the Atlantic. While watching television one day last week, Ramu saw an aura around Muhammad Ali's head and got another hot flash. "Ali will definitely win back the title," says Ramu. "You can count on it. The spiritual forces don't like Leon Spinks and want him out of there." But the vision was even more precise than that: "Ali will have problems for the first four rounds. Then he will start to act in Round 5—and he'll win the fight by a knockout in the eighth round." Goodness sakes, that's some kind of fancy aura; can one bet it? "Maybe it'll be a TKO," hedges Ramu.
Other folks interested in the fight couldn't see the aura no matter how hard they squinted. But they had visions of their own:
Willie Pep, former world featherweight champion—"Ali will lick the guy. Spinks just doesn't have enough savvy."
Bill Cayton, fight historian and filmmaker—"At his peak. Ali was greater and faster than anyone, but he's lost his skill and reflexes. He might be able to put it together for this fight, but I don't think so."
Carlos Palomino, WBC world welterweight champion—"I have to go with Ali. I think he's working to get the title back and he'll do it in this one."
Ken Norton, briefly the WBC world heavyweight champion, now No. 2-ranked contender—"Ali has to overpower you with jabs and combinations to win. More he works, better he'll be. I think Ali will win."
Carlos Monzon, retired world middleweight champion—"Champions like Ali, unique in history, must seriously consider if it's so important to risk so much glory for money in so uncertain a business. I think Ali will win, if only to allow himself the pleasure of being champion once again."
Cus D'Amato, veteran trainer and manager of Floyd Patterson, among others—"The fight will be a contest of will rather than skill: two billy goats battering one another. If Ali finds the drive—and he just might—he can beat Spinks."
Joe Frazier, former world heavyweight champion—"Spinks isn't capable of dealing Ali out. He doesn't have the experience. With the knowledge and ability Ali has, it's no problem."
John Tate, No. 7-ranked heavyweight—"With Leon's youth, I think he has the edge. Ali is the better fighter, but Spinks has the stamina, and if he's hungry, well, that's it."