On January 15, at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Denver Broncos 27-10 in Super Bowl XII. A new cartoon titled “The Smurfs” debuted on television and rapidly became a children’s favorite for years to come.
While Christopher Reeve hit the big screen as “Superman” in one of the year’s blockbuster hits, Space Invaders, the first ever arcade video game, became one of the most popular and iconic video games of all time.
The year was 1978.
One constant through the better part of the decade was the dominance of Muhammad Ali in the Heavyweight division. Ali, the world champion, had not seen defeat since March of 1973 when he lost a split decision and had his jaw broken by Ken Norton in the process.
That loss would be redeemed less than six months later as Ali began a 14-fight win streak. In that five-year run, he beat Norton twice, regained the title from George Foreman, handed Joe Frazier a pair of losses and earned victories over Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle and Earnie Shavers.
Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky as Cassius Clay. He would win a gold medal as a Light Heavyweight in the 1960 Olympic games in Rome. Clay would later change his name after winning the title from Sonny Liston in February of 1964.
Now, in 1978, he was one of the most recognizable faces on the planet and was firmly at the center of the debate when discussing who the best Heavyweight of all time was.
Next on the agenda for Ali was Leon Spinks whom Ali agreed to face in Las Vegas on February 15.
Born in St Louis, Missouri, “Neon” Leon was about as unorthodox a fighter in the ring as many had ever seen. His juking movements and awkward style stood singularly unique and gave opponents fits.
Spinks won a gold medal in the Light Heavyweight division in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. He then turned professional in January of 1977. Having fought only seven times, a total of 31 rounds, Spinks earned six wins and a lone draw against the well-travelled Scott LeDoux.
What he lacked in skill and experience he made up for in toughness and courage. In just his eighth professional fight, Spinks would enter the ring against Ali as a 10-1 underdog. Despite his inexperience, Spinks shocked the world by winning a 15 round split-decision victory over a slow and sluggish Ali.
Never at a loss for words, Ali summed up his unlikely defeat. “I let him rob my house while I was out to lunch.”
After just eight professional fights, Spinks was the WBA and WBC Heavyweight champion. The politics of boxing then reared its ugly head as the WBC stripped Spinks for refusing to face the No. 1 contender, Ken Norton. Instead, Spinks chose to give Ali an immediate rematch.
It was also the public’s choice.
Hyped as “Battle of New Orleans,” the Superdome again took center stage and played host as over 63,000 fans set a record for the largest indoor crowd to witness a boxing match.
On September 15, the fight, scheduled for 15 rounds, was televised live on ABC and carried a viewing audience of nearly 90 million people. The venerable Howard Cosell would analyze the matchup and call the blow-by-blow action.
Despite losing to Spinks just seven months before, Ali (55-3, 37 KOs) displayed his usual confidence while alluding to retirement, “I know this will be my last fight. I’ll be three times champion.”
Ali, 36, would enter the ring first. Wearing a white robe and white trunks with black trim, Ali was led by trainer Angelo Dundee. He was attempting to make history by winning the Heavyweight crown an unprecedented third time. The long walk was crowded as his entourage and police tried to clear a path for the former champion.
Wearing a red robe and red trunks with gold trim, Spinks (7-0-1, 5 KOs) entered the arena next. At just 25, the champion also faced a long walk to the ring while led by his trainers, bodyguards, and police.
If an isle existed, it was near impossible to see. Cosell summed up the scene perfectly, “The place is a positive madhouse. This crowd is going absolutely wild. This simply amazing scene continues, the crowd unending in its roars.”
One of Spinks’ bodyguards, who helped him into the ring and stood on the ring apron in his corner, was a then unknown Mr. T.
The former Heavyweight champion Joe Frazier then entered the ring to sing the national anthem. Many in the ring and in the crowd sang along with the Heavyweight legend and ring great. As the camera pulled back, providing a panoramic view of the arena, the mass of fans that had poured into the Superdome was inconceivable to the naked eye.
After the fighters were introduced, Ali received final instructions in his corner from Dundee. Across the ring, Spinks engaged in a long hug in his corner with his brother and Olympic teammate, Michael. Ali then stood ready as Spinks knelt in prayer in his corner.
As a crescendo of noise flowed through the arena before the opening bell, Cosell commented.
“So the moment approaches. It has built up, I think, to everything that the crowd expected by way of pre-fight tension and anticipation.”
The bell sounded to begin Round 1. The two met head on as Ali immediately began dancing and firing his left jab. He looked quick, sharp and graceful in the early moments. As he moved backward and circled, the champion pressed forward. Spinks looked to attack and to brawl, bobbing and weaving while looking to close the distance.
At 6’3”, Ali enjoyed a three-inch reach advantage and looked to use every bit of it while creating his offense off his long left jab. Spinks fired straight rights to the body hoping to slow Ali and take away his legs.
In the second round, Spinks stuck to his game plan, trying to trap Ali in a corner and maul him. Ali responded with a wrinkle from his own game plan, unloading a sizzling combination while moving to his left.
As the rounds continued, Ali was clearly more comfortable moving to his left, using his wisdom, experience and movement to befuddle Spinks. The crowd remained raucous, leaving Cosell to observe, “25 years in sports, I have never heard a crowd like this!”
In the seventh, Spinks was desperately trying to catch Ali, to land a series of combinations and to pin him against the ropes or in a corner. Ali was able to elude the champion’s traps, continue to box and work his left jab, and began to catch Spinks with uppercuts on the way in.
By the 10th round, Ali had taken total command of the action. As the round was winding down, he stepped back and broke out the “Ali Shuffle” for the first time in the bout. As the crowd thundered, nearly blowing the roof off the Superdome, Cosell screamed, “Even a little bit of a shuffle! That shows you how he feels! He’s in command of this fight!”
Upon entering the championship rounds, the crowd remained enthusiastically into the fight and firmly behind Ali. The pattern remained consistent, Ali controlling the action, still dancing, still firing. Spinks, giving all he had, never for a second showed any signs of relenting, but was beginning to show fatigue.
As the bell sounded to end the fight, the ring filled quickly as police then hurried to surround it. Ali stood in a corner, facing the crowd, and held up three fingers. Then, in a moment of vintage Ali, he combed his hair while patting it ever so slightly prior to the pending verdict.
As the decision was announced in the ring, the crowd roared as Ali had won a unanimous decision. Scored on rounds, two judges gave Ali 10 rounds and the third gave him 11. It was a resounding victory for the now three-time champion.
While the ring announcer concluded the decision, Ali was raised into the air, slightly tilted to his left, in the now iconic image of the new champion smiling and blowing kisses to the fans seated at ringside.
After the victory, Ali again hinted at retirement and reflected, “I killed myself to get ready for Spinks. I suffered and sacrificed more than I ever did. There’s nothing left for me to gain by fighting.”
This would be Ali’s last victory as he would officially step down as champion in June of 1979. He would make a comeback and fight twice more, suffering losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. After the loss to Berbick he hung up the gloves for good.
He is, still, widely regarded as the greatest Heavyweight fighter of all time.
Although Spinks would fight another 17 years, he would never reach another pinnacle as he did against Ali. He would get a crack at the new champion, Holmes, in 1981. Suffering a brutal third-round TKO loss, Spinks would moonlight as both a Heavyweight and a Cruiserweight in the years to come.
He last fought in 1995.