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This was not the old Muhammad Ali, not by a half. But last Friday night in the New Orleans Superdome, driven by an ambition as vaulting as the structure, Ali dominated without letup a badly confused Leon Spinks. And after 15 perpetual-motion rounds, Ali had won the world heavyweight championship for an unprecedented third time. The decision was unanimous and indisputable.
As a fight it was not so much a contest as it was a demonstration by an old master educating an inexperienced youngster in the fine points of the craft. But at 36, Ali teaches a better game than he plays. The result was that, as a whole, the fight was sloppy.
"Sloppy?" howled a happy Angelo Dundee, the trainer who had plotted Ali's battle plan. "It was beautifully sloppy. It was gorgeous sloppy, wonderful sloppy. And it was the only damn way we were going to beat Spinks."
The plan was simple. Ali would jab, jab, throw a right and grab. When Spinks came flailing in, Ali would hook his left hand around the back of Spinks' head and pull him into an embrace, effectively limiting Spinks to one or two punches or pulling him off balance. And Ali would dance, baby, dance. He would tie up Spinks and then dance away from him on the break, circling to the right, circling to the left. And the fight went as plotted. From the fifth round on, Dundee was shouting across the ring at Spinks, "Where did he go, Leon? Where did he go?"
Spinks was clearly asking himself the same question. Where Ali assuredly did not go was to the ropes, as he had done while losing his beloved championship to Leon in their fight in Las Vegas in February. Gone was the infamous rope-a-dope, by means of which Ali had coasted for long periods during his last few fights. This was the first time in recent memory that Ali stayed in the center of the ring, circling, jabbing and throwing occasional, if not very accurate, combinations, the first time in years he had not engaged in any extraneous foolishness. And when in doubt, he would seize Spinks in a mighty bear hug. At 221 pounds against 201, it was no contest.
Like many in the mammoth crowd, Referee Lucien Joubert would have preferred something more pure in the way of boxing, and in the early rounds he warned Ali repeatedly as he unclasped Ali's hand from Spinks' head. Finally, at the end of the sixth round, he told Dundee that he had taken the fifth round away from Ali.
"For what?" Dundee said.
"For holding. I warned him about it."
"Now you tell me," Dundee yelled. "You take a round away from my guy and now you tell me? What the hell were you waiting for?"
But at this stage in the fight it didn't matter. Now, instead of throwing just one punch after the jab, Ali began unloading combinations, and if they weren't causing any particular pain, many of them were scoring points.