SI Vault
Pat Putnam
February 27, 1978
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
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February 27, 1978

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

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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.

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 6'1�" and 197� 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.

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