The Greatest Is Gone

An era ends as an aging Ali yields his crown

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For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground,

And tell sad stories of the death of kings:

How some have been deposed, some slain in war.

Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos 'd...

—Shakespeare, King Richard II

"We have a split decision," Ring Announcer Chuck 'Hull proclaimed, and absolute silence fell over the plush Las Vegas boxing emporium where Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks had struggled through 15 lashing rounds to claim sport's most special crown. "Judge Art Lurie: 143-142, Ali. Judge Lou Tabat: 145-140, Spinks. Judge Harold Buck: 144-141." A pause, a breath in that utter stillness and then: "The new Heavyweight Champion of the World, Leon Spinks!"

All but the first two words were lost in the roar of the crowd, that unmistakable, primordial voice of a fight crowd hailing a new king of the most basic sport. But the silence before the verdict had spoken too, for it anticipated the passing of a giant, a unique athlete whose skills and life had resonances far beyond the ring. As Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., Cassius X, or Muhammad Ali, he had talked from center stage, mirror and lightning rod for a tumultuous era. Olympic gold medalist, Louisville Lip, upstart champion, Black Muslim convert, draft resister, abomination, martyr, restored champion, road show.

Through everything, Ali was a fighter. In his youth, when he psyched himself into manic pretensions and took the title from Sonny Listen, he was a dazzling, dancing fighter. In midcareer, when he willed his body through three epic bouts with Joe Frazier, he was a courageous fighter. Toward the end, when he paced his guttering resources to turn away muscular challengers like Ken Norton, he was a thinking fighter. Last week he was an old fighter. He had to match the craft of his past against an opponent who seemed to have little more than youth, stamina—and courage—on his side.

Leon Spinks, just 24, had fought only seven times as a professional after a busy amateur career that culminated, as had Cassius Clay's, with the winning of the Olympic light heavyweight gold medal. Spinks had never fought more than ten rounds. The demanding logic of a title bout requires 15 rounds: it is the final five that probe the heart and take the true measure of a fighter's will. Ali was perhaps the greatest war horse in heavyweight history, a man who had the guts and gifts to win the excruciating final rounds. The odds against Spinks were so prohibitive that only one Las Vegas betting shop would cover wagers—a general cowardice that shook the city's bookmaking creed.

As he fought Spinks, Muhammad Ali's career, in all of its various styles, was suddenly telescoped. He talked and taunted in the early rounds, danced and threw flurries of punches just as he had years ago—though he paused on the ropes and covered up to rest. He was casually giving rounds away to Spinks, confident the pace would wear him down.

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