When Muhammad Ali lost the Heavyweight championship to Leon Spinks in early 1978 many expected him to retire. He was facing issues with his kidneys and despite being “The Greatest” boxing at the very top wasn’t a sport for 36 years old.
However, Ali was having none of it, he wanted to become the first man to win the Heavyweight title for the third time before retiring. And to do this he did something which he’d rarely done in the last few years unless he was competing against an A-Lister, he trained hard. He rented a home in the suburbs New Orleans and rarely was seen in the main city for close to 3 months.
The fight was to take place from the Louisiana Superdome on September 15, 1978, exactly 7 months after Ali lost the title. The fight was broadcasted in over 80 countries and the sold out arena witnessed a crowd of close to 65000 the highest ever for a boxing bout, almost all of them were praying for Ali to regain his title.
As soon as Ali stripped out of his robe everyone knew that all his claims of being ready for the fight were no joke, there wasn’t an extra pound of fat on Ali’s body. By the end of the first couple of rounds, most in the arena knew that they were going to witness history. Ali was dancing as always around the ring. Any form of attack from Spinks was met with precise defense combined with neat jabs and double hooks. The impact of the years on Ali as visible too, they were clear misses with right-hand chops but Spinks did not have the speed to exploit any of the weaknesses. The fifth round was taken away from Ali by the referee for constantly holding Spinks but that was about as good as it got for the champion. A textbook performance meant that as the rounds went on Spinks morale went down, Ali was simply not showing any signs of slowing down. To his credit, Spinks did win the last couple of rounds as Ali visibly tired but at the end of the 15th neither the referee nor any of the judges had given Ali anything less than 10 rounds.
Ali had delivered what he had promised, to become the first boxer to win the Heavyweight title thrice his victory coming 14 years after his first title triumph. As most critics wondered, this was certainly not a 36-year-old Ali, this looked more like a 25-year-old athlete who had exposed Leon for his real level which was a fighter who was just competing in his 9th professional bout.
Ali had punished himself to close his story the way he wanted, to retire as the World Champion. He knew that his killer knockout punch didn’t exist anymore and that he had to last 15 rounds to win it. After the fight, Ali acknowledged his sacrifices and claimed that there was nothing left for him to fight for.
If this was indeed his indeed the end of the Ali story then the final chapter had been a fitting conclusion, a man fighting against all odds to live up to the name he had always given himself – “The Greatest”