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."
"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?' "