FOTY 1978: Ali / Spinks

This is an entry in an occasional series of posts looking back at the Ring Magazine Fights of the Year from 1970 to 2009.

In 1978, Muhammad Ali defended his unified (WBC & WBA) Heavyweight championship against Leon Spinks in Las Vegas. Spinks came in as an underdog (with a 6-0-1 record) and shocked everyone by winning a majority decision (140-145 and 141-144, vs. one judge’s 143-142 for Ali). I scored it a bit wider (139-146), but recognize even the dissenting judge’s score as reasonable; there were a lot of close rounds in this fight.

This fight was arguably the high point of Spinks’ professional life. As for Ali, it was the penultimate fight to his legitimate career: only a rematch (which he would win) and an ill-advised 2-fight comeback (both losses) remained ahead of him.


The cliche about history repeating as farce might have some relevance here. This fight had more than a few echos of Ali / Frazier III. Ali was fighting a faster, more agile opponent whose goal was to close, trap, and attack, and Ali’s strategy relied upon a mix of tactics: circling and jabbing, trading, and the infamous rope-a-dope.

The outcome here would be different.


The differences in this fight sprang from the facts that Ali was far over the hill, and that Spinks, for all his virtues, was no Joe Frazier. So you were left with a pale imitation of the great Ali / Frazier fights, in which Ali deployed the old tricks, but couldn’t make them stick even against a lesser opponent.

(I should add that I hate to run down Spinks, because he was a very good fighter in his own right. To give him his due, he was better at fighting on the outside that Joe Frazier ever was. Frazier, however, was one of the all time greats, and Spinks was not.)

All that said, the 15th round was a magnificent display of skill, endurance, and spirit, and the equal of any round in the Ali / Frazier trilogy.

Round Notes

1: Spinks looks smaller and faster, but, more importantly, explosive. He seems consistently able to get over, under, around, or through Ali’s guard. Early in the round Ali does his rope-a-dope thing, but seems to get hit heavily. Eventually he clinches to get off the ropes. Ali is driven back to the ropes several times this round, and never seems to like it there. Later in the round it starts to box and trade with Spinks, but still gets the worse of it. Spinks’ round, no matter how you figure it.

2: Ali seems to want to manhandle Spinks this round: He grabs, pushes, extends his left arm into Spinks’ face, etc. He is repeatedly warned, particularly for pulling on Spinks’ neck. The net effect might be to slow Spinks down a little, but it’s not enough to win in the face of Spinks’ aggression and superior punching.

3: Ali’s strategy now seems to be to circle away while pot-shotting Spinks’ head. He’s able to do this for maybe half the round, and that half he wins, albeit narrowly. The other half of the time Spinks is able to trap him on the ropes, and attack. Ali’s defense looks better here, but he’s still getting hit, and hit cleanly. It wouldn’t be impossible to give this round to Ali, but I didn’t.

4: Ali seems to find something new: In the middle of the ring he is now able to periodically land a right to Spinks’ head. It’s a strange punch: Almost a lead right given how ineffectual Ali’s flicking jab is. Spinks drives Ali to the ropes a few times, where he does his usual good work. A difficult round to score; I give it to Ali based on ring generalship, as Spinks seems momentarily perplexed by Ali’s tactics.

5: The fighters begin by leaning on each other in the center of the ring; Ali seems to be trying (and succeeding) to push Spinks back with sheer mass. The fight then returns to the pattern of the previous round, but Spinks now seems, on balance, more effective.

6: Ali’s back to circling and pot-shotting, and I think he controls enough of this round to win it. It’s ugly when he gets on the ropes and Spinks punches through his guard, though.

7: Spinks throws more, lands more, and controls the round. Ali looks like he’s resting this round; he doesn’t seem to have much of a strategy.

8: Much as in the 7th, Spinks is simply controlling the fight. He slips most of Ali’s punches until he is able to close and land.

9: I continue to object on every level to Ali’s “lay on the ropes and get hit in the head” strategy. He employs it for perhaps 2m of this round, and so loses it. Even when he starts to box again, I wouldn’t say that he’s particularly effective.

10: Ali begins to trade with Spinks, and, in my opinion, gets the better of it. At one point he even backs Spinks into the ropes. Ali’s round on punching, generalship, and (surprisingly) aggression.

11: This round begins as the last ended, with the fighters trading. The difference is that Spinks is now winning the exchange. Ali resumes circling for a while, but loses ground in the scoring while doing so. The round finishes with a hard exchange that Spinks wins.

12: Another tough round to score. Ali largely stays off the ropes, and Spinks largely stays in range, so the two fighters are engaging almost all the time. I think Ali gets slightly the better of it, particularly since he seems to be more in control of the fight.

13: This round plays like a continuation of the 12th, except that Ali seems weary and more frequently finds his way to the ropes, while Spinks seems more in control, and, in my view, wins the round.

14: Ali begins by going back to circling and pot-shotting; when Spinks closes he clinches, and the referee breaks them. It’s not pretty, but I think it’s winning him the round. As the round goes on Spinks is more able to trap Ali against the ropes and do his usual good work. Ali has a good last-minute flurry, but I don’t think it’s enough to win the round. Another close one, though.

15: An amazing 15th round as the fighters meet and slug it out. A phenomenal display of stamina and heart. The exchange goes back and forth, now favoring Spinks, now Ali. It’s hard to score this any way but by who wins the last exchange, and on that basis I award the round to Spinks.

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