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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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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, 1� 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 4� 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."

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