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.