Lee Groves

10: Most historically significant upsets

4. Leon Spinks W 15 Muhammad Ali I: Feb. 15, 1978, Hilton Hotel, Las Vegas

Nearly five months after winning a difficult 15-rounder against Earnie Shavers, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was in the mood for a breather. He thought he found one in “Neon” Leon Spinks, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist at light heavyweight who showed heart and raw ability but was viewed as an almost laughable antagonist for the iconic Ali.

The concept appeared to be utterly absurd. No heavyweight aside from 1956 Olympic champion Pete Rademacher (who challenged Floyd Patterson in his pro debut) had ever entered a heavyweight title fight with so little professional experience. Spinks’ 31 rounds as a pro just exceeded the 30 championship rounds Ali fought in his last two fights. The pair’s professional records only magnified the gulf in experience – Ali 55-2 (37) and 19 title defenses in two reigns, Spinks 7-0-1 (5). To make matters worse, Spinks had struggled against his two best opponents to date, Scott LeDoux (D 10) and Alfio Righetti (W 10), the latter of which ostensibly earned Spinks his date with destiny. Finally, it was thought that Spinks’ wide-open brawling style was tailor-made for Ali’s still-superb counterpunching.

While the experts said the 36-year-old Ali was nowhere near the fighter he was even two years ago when he toppled George Foreman, the thought of Spinks shoving Ali from the mountaintop bordered on the insane.

Chalk one up for the crazy people.

First, Spinks and his team gave themselves the best chance for victory. For the first time in his life Spinks went away to a training camp in the Catskills and aside from a brief road trip to a billiards room in South Carolina Spinks remained focused on his task and whipped himself into tremendous condition. While Spinks raised his game Ali let his slide. He went through the motions at Deer Lake, Pa., logging only 20 rounds of sparring. When Ali stepped onto the scales he weighed a soft 224 1/4 while Spinks was a fit-and-ready 197 1/4.

Ali’s fight plan was crystal-clear: Use the “rope-a-dope” to draw Spinks in and lower the boom after he gets tired. That plan had one giant flaw – Spinks didn’t get tired.

While Ali clowned, Spinks worked – and worked hard. He hammered Ali’s ribs, arms, shoulders and face with energetic volleys and soon Ali sported a leaky nostril and a mouthpiece stained with blood. During two early-round stretches Spinks unloaded 22 and 37 unanswered punches. The punches didn’t hurt Ali but they scored points, and plenty of them.

After Spinks won the first three rounds with ease Ali finally started to crank of his attack in the fourth as he landed a chopping right that briefly stunned Spinks. The challenger responded like a champion by shaking it off and igniting a tumultuous toe-to-toe exchange that ended with Spinks pounding Ali relentlessly. Ali won the fifth by stringing together effective combinations and rounds six through eight with his classic stick-and-move tactics.

Spinks returned to his bob-and-weave in the ninth, which saw the challenger rattle Ali with a 17-punch fusillade. A late one-two by Ali that nailed Spinks gave chief second Angelo Dundee hope that his man would repel this unexpectedly difficult challenger.

“He’s ready,” Dundee said. “Let’s go to work. Bury him. The left hook will take him out.”

Ali turned up the energy in rounds 10 and 11 by throwing soft but scoring flurries while Spinks broke out of his mid-fight funk by engaging Ali in a toe-to-toe slugfest in the 12th. Spinks’ chief second Sam Soliman, however, felt his charge needed an extra boost for the final stretch drive. There was no other way to explain why he had Spinks drink from a mysterious bottle between rounds 12 and 13.

“You’re doing it baby! You’re doing it!” Soloman told Spinks. “But I want you to keep that left hand going!” He then told his fighter to spit out the water so he could give him some “juice.”

Fueled by the possibility of achieving an impossible dream – and perhaps also by the contents of the bottle – Spinks showed more energy and bounce in the 13th. One of his overhand rights drove Ali to the ropes and had him hanging on. For the first time, the prospect of Leon Spinks actually winning the title began to creep into many minds.

Just as he had against Joe Frazier in the final stages of “The Thrilla in Manila,” Ali dug deep into his reservoirs and produced a ferocious rally. But Spinks was more than equal to the task as he fought like a man possessed – possessed by the idea of achieving the ultimate victory.

The 15th round was a study in ambition, brutality and athletic excellence as the two men traded viciously for 180 solid seconds. But it was Spinks who produced the final burst as he landed a left-right, two uppercuts and a parting left-right to the face as the fight concluded.

Art Lurie saw Ali a 143-142 winner, a card that brought vociferous boos from the crowd. But judges Lou Tabat and Harold Buck saw the fight 145-140 and 144-141 for the winner – and new – champion. As Spinks would later put it, “The Latest” had beaten “The Greatest.”

The bout was deemed THE RING’s Fight of the Year for 1978 and the 15th round its Round of the Year. But as far as upsets go, Spinks-Ali I remains a surprise for all time. 

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