The kid never had a chance

Joe Flaherty September 25 1978

The kid never had a chance

Joe Flaherty September 25 1978

The kid never had a chance

Joe Flaherty

Let us begin with a true story. The emphasis is on true because what follows is perhaps clouded by chicanery or, at the very least, incarcerated by ego. But on to the eternal verity: Muhammad Ali, whose sense of history begins with “I” and ends with “me,” in times past used to sit in the office of Teddy Brenner, recently retired matchmaker of Madison Square Garden, and talk of his favorite subject. The conversation included not only memories of things past but projections of things future. That is, how Ali could dazzle unborn generations with his achievements? It was presumed Allah would inform the generations bygone

or, in the vernacular of the game, those ancestors who had hung them up.

In their futuristic projections, it was the consensus of Ali and Brenner that the thing that would wow destiny’s tots would be an encounter of the third kind. Which circuitously brings us to Leon Spinks.

It is fistic lore that Ali and Floyd Patterson are the only men who ever regained the heavyweight crown. No man in the annals of the ring ever pulled off the hat trick. It was agreed that if Ali managed that, he, like Franklin Delano Roosevelt—who contended in his game every four years— would stand alone in the history books; Ali would swoon at the thought of this coup. And add to this the religious distinction of being the first Moslem man to be doubly reborn, which would not only give him the edge over the Christian Jimmy Carter, but over Jimmy’s spiritual mentor as well. Peter expanded his rock on less.

But of course the flaw in the scenario

was that Ali had to lose his title. Considering his choice of opponents in those days, this seemed unlikely. They were well-known trial horses, steeped in the canon that it is better to receive than to give. But Leon Spinks was a fresh face (which on meditation is as kind as you can get about his face).

Leon had had seven pro fights with opponents who were intent on giving violence a bad name. In the seven fights, Spinks KO’d five adversaries, drew to one, Scott LeDoux, and decisioned Alfio Righetti, a racy Italian entry who indeed performed as if he needed a tuneup.

When Ali chose Spinks as his opponent Feb. 15 in Las Vegas, the cauliflower cognoscenti rightfully roared. But lo, and behold, the unheralded Spinks pummelled the champion across 15 rounds and copped the heavyweight crown. This fact was so shocking there was a movement afoot to give the ghost of Wendell Willkie a recount in his Roosevelt bout.

It was then that Ali launched a public relations campaign without precedent. To mix, not our metaphors but our presidents, he pulled a Nixon and attacked the press. He said it was the press who had taken Spinks too lightly and duped the innocent Ali into not training. He claimed Spinks was made of sterner stuif and was a veritable closet tiger. For anyone besides Ali, this fandango would have been impossible. But it must be remembered that it was he who had transformed black fighters into Great White Hopes. He claimed the media had lulled him into sparring only 50 rounds for the first Spinks fight, then claimed that, during his preparation for “The Third Coming,” the number was actually 10.

History books began to be strewn about like confetti. Not only would he regain his title for the third time, he would do it in New Orleans, where James J. Corbett took the invincible John L. Sullivan, and, to boot, do it in the Superdome where the “Confrontation of the Century” would outgross the record $2.5-million live gate for Dempsey-Tunney at Soldier’s Field in Chicago.

And come they did. Some 70,000. Paying $6 million. Among them were such cinematic popinjays as John Travolta, Liza Minnelli, Hugh O’Brian and Lome Greene, a gaggle of political hacks, and the more honest element of pimps and hookers. “The Third Coming” T-shirts were being hawked outside at $10 a pop, which to the annointed is cheap enough for a sacramental vestment. Liturgical chants of “Ali, Ali” filled the air.

Ali appeared in subdued white trunks with a black stripe, bowing to restraint. After all, “The Third Coming” was

gaudy enough. Spinks, obviously believing the hype Ali bestowed on him, was resplendent in regal red and gold, missing the point that sacrifices are also the favorites of couturiers.

For three rounds it was interesting and, although Ali was outclassing Spinks, there was the possibility that the 25-year-old kid’s energy might wear down the 36-year-old Ali. There was no doubt the kid had honest aspirations, and he proved it by leading with his face. Only Ali’s waning skills (his reflexes are all but gone) saved it from becoming a shambles. These days Ali is capable of missing the proverbial side of a barn door. But as the fourth round proceeded, the sham was up.

Spinks’s only tactic was frustrated lunging (plus the dubious device of trying to injure Ali’s hands with his head). In the clinches, Spinks started to look heavenward, hoping for divine intervention or at least some reinforcement of Ali’s pre-fight estimate of him. Perhaps his glory might be etched on the dome ceiling?

Ali started to call up a forgotten weapon, his left hook, which he hasn’t

successfully used in years. His reliable right-hand lead, which is a classic sucker punch only to be applied to novices, started to land repeatedly.

At the conclusion of the fifth, Ali let the rest of us in on the hype. After a big round, he shot Spinks a scornful look over his shoulder as he walked to his corner. In the seventh he got downright disrespectful when he laid a shuffle on the baffled Spinks. It was vaudeville time.

Spinks now totally reverted to the amateur he is. His punches became so wide, Orson Welles could stand safely in their parenthetical breadth. He started to slap with the palms of his gloves. Ali then picked him at will, embellishing the travesty with shuffles and struts.

In the end, Spinks won four rounds only because Ali coasted in the 14th and 15th. But it was testimony to Ali’s decline that the kid went the distance.

At the post-fight press conference Ali forestalled his promised retirement. Only a damn fool would give up $3.5 -million paydays like this, and nobody has accused Ali’s IQ of slipping.

As is his wont, he bragged of the miracle he had wrought—which brings us back to the truth: a miracle indeed did occur, but not the one Ali had tried to

shill. Ali’s miraculous achievement was that he had convinced Spinks, the public, and many members of the press that this gross amateur was a worthy contender—and he created this illusion in a mere seven months. (For those into symbolism, the number “7” figures largely in creation.)

But one shouldn’t be too cynical about

all this. After all, one can view Spinks’s fleeting elevation (the shortest reign by a heavyweight champ in history) as a blessing bestowed on a ghetto kid — but only if one can ignore the bounty that befell Ali and the promoters.

But then again, miracles and collections traditionally have gone hand in pocket. It is so recorded in history.