World Heavyweight Champion: 1978-1979
Having lost his title to Leon Spinks in February 1978, Muhammad Ali could have walked away from the sport and nobody would have had anything but the highest regard for the man and his achievements. Indeed, many fervently hoped the 36-year-old legend would call it a day. But there were two stumbling-blocks. One was financial. He had earned a fortune from boxing – £1.75 million from the Spinks fight alone – but he was not that well off. There were two ex-wives and several children to support; there was a huge entourage and the inevitable hangers-on; there were some ill-judged investments; there was his natural generosity; and of course, there was Uncle Sam’s cut to be taken care of. But the second reason for Ali’s determination to fight on was probably the more pivotal. That was all about ego, professional pride and the burning desire to prove that he was still the best, even when others began to doubt it. Floyd Patterson had come back to win the title for a second time. So had Ali. But no one had won it three times, and that was motivation enough for the ebullient, ever-confident Ali.
Showdown with Spinks
Ali took Spinks far more seriously in New Orleans, on September 15, 1978. It wasn’t the most exciting of contests, but Ali gave a masterly performance. There was no sitting back on the ropes inviting Spinks on to him. Ali jabbed and moved, holding the centre of the ring as much as possible. It was Spinks who was under-prepared this time, and the result was a unanimous points decision. Ali had rewritten the record books once again.
The victory over Spinks also meant that he had avenged each of the three defeats which blotted his ring career. To the relief of many fight fans, Ali then decided to hang up his gloves. It left the way clear for Larry Holmes, the outstanding heavyweight of the day. Holmes had beaten Ken Norton, the man the WBC had installed as champion following Spinks’ refusal to meet him. There was a problem though. Holmes was declared champion when Spinks was still the rightful holder of the title, and the Easton Assassin’s claim was rendered even more dubious when Ali triumphed over Spinks in the return. Holmes was to get his chance to silence all the critics and cement his grip on the title. For on October 2, 1980, Ali couldn’t resist another tilt at the crown. Not content with three stints as champion, he wanted to put himself out of sight as far as the record books were concerned by winning it for a fourth time.
Larry Holmes paid homage to the master by holding something back, yet he still handed Ali a terrible beating in the 10 rounds that the fight lasted. The old spark failed to flicker even briefly that day in Las Vegas. Ali’s failure to answer the bell for the 11th was one of the saddest moments in the history of sport, let alone boxing. A once mighty warrior, a superbly honed athlete, remained slumped in his chair and looked like a frail geriatric. It was Angelo Dundee who called time. Better to end the contest sitting on a stool than laid flat out on the canvas, Ali’s mentor over 20 years and 65 fights pointed out. Even that wasn’t enough for Ali. He came back one more time, in Nassau, December 1981, when he was outpointed by Trevor Berbick, a Jamaican based in Canada. Ali was a month short of his 40th birthday when the curtain finally rang down for good.
The passage of time soon erased the stain of those final two humiliating defeats. The world wanted to remember Ali at the peak of his powers. They wanted to pay homage to the man who had been a colossus of the sport for nearly two decades, gracing it with some of the most sublime skills ever seen in the ring. The onset of Parkinson’s syndrome endeared him still further to a world that loved him already. The image of his unsteady hand lighting the Olympic flame at the 1996 Games in Atlanta will live long in the memory. He is still revered, still beautiful. And still The Greatest. .