Thirty–five years ago today, Muhammad Ali did something no one else has ever done. He won the heavyweight title for the third time.
Seven months earlier, Ali got sloppy and lost his title to Leon Spinks, a newcomer fighting in only his eighth professional fight. The 36–year–old Ali clearly expected an easy time with Spinks, but he wound up losing a 15–round decision.
Ali took the rematch seriously and came into it in much better shape. In many ways, he looked like the Ali of a few years earlier when he won bouts with George Foreman and Joe Frazier.
The Spinks fights were televised in those pre–cable days by one of the networks. That was one of the great things about the years when Ali was the champ. He made boxing accessible to everyone. Before and after Ali's championship years, heavyweight title fights were televised in that era's version of pay–per–view telecasts. They were shown via closed circuit in theaters, and, as I recall, tickets definitely were not cheap (in the financial context of the times).
But Joe Six–Pack could watch heavyweight title fights from the comfort of his own living room — and without paying a penny for the privilege — when Ali was champ.
I didn't get to see Ali lose his title to Spinks in February 1978. It was regarded as a foregone conclusion that Ali would win, and I accepted a social invitation of some kind — and, as a result, missed one of the great upsets in boxing history.
Seven months later, when the two of them met in a rematch, I was in front of the TV watching. I wasn't about to miss it. The Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila get all the attention in the Ali story, but, for me, the fight that took place 35 years ago tonight was the most anticipated fight of my life.
As I watched the rematch, it was hard for me to believe Ali could have lost to Spinks in that first fight. Ali was sharp. He was crisp. He was in charge of the fight from the beginning.
Long before the final bell sounded, I knew Ali would recapture his title that night — barring some totally unexpected development. Not only did Ali look like he was in charge of the fight, but Spinks appeared hesitant, sluggish, even confused at times. In the later rounds, maybe that confusion was due to all the blows Spinks had taken from Ali. But I could not explain why he was that way in the early rounds.
I thought it was a mismatch. It was hard for me to believe the fight went the distance. True, it resulted in a unanimous decision for Ali, but his age was catching up to him. The Ali of even two years prior would have finished off Spinks in a few rounds, as he did Jean–Pierre Coopman and Richard Dunn (with a 15–round decision over a more highly regarded challenger, Jimmy Young, in between) in a three—month span in 1976.
But, after beating Spinks, Ali went more than two years before unsuccessfully defending his title against Larry Holmes in October 1980.
The Era of Ali was over.