The Greatest Is Gone

An era ends as an aging Ali yields his crown

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Then, just as he had so many times before, Ali tried to take command in the middle rounds, and for a time the old magic blinked on. In the champion's corner, Trainer Angelo Dundee had noticed that Spinks' early bobbing and weaving had degenerated into an amateur's dangerously upright stance as the young challenger appeared to tire. "This is it," Dundee told Ali before the 10th round. "He's ready to fall. This round, champ, this round. Go get him! Hit him! Take him out now!"

Ali tried. He flicked the famous snakelike jab, laced together combinations and shot rights to Spinks' head. It was exquisitely conceived boxing from Ali, the aesthetician of ring art. But what the canny mind desired, the 36-year-old body—measuring itself now in the milliseconds between impulse and action—could not deliver. Age had slowed the timing: too many punches landed without sting, grazed past Spinks' youth-quick dodges or missed altogether.

Spinks got through the 10th round and four more, giving as good as he got, enough to maintain the early points he had built up against Ali. Then came the 15th. Ali bravely swung for the knockout that alone could have saved his championship. His rallies were reminiscent of the magnificent final rounds he had fought in the past—against Joe Frazier and Ken Norton—but there was no power in his punches. He slowed, seemed to move as if underwater, locked in leaden embrace with an equally exhausted Spinks. Finally, unable to fight any longer, Muhammad Ali absorbed two last-second uppercuts, and accepted the final bell, beaten, but on his feet.

In victory Ali had sought the microphones to shout that he was the prettiest, the greatest. In defeat, battered and swollen, blood splattered on his trunks from a 5th-round cut in his mouth, he did not shy from the questions: "I lost fair and square to Spinks. I did everything right, and I lost. I lost simply because Spinks was better, that's all. It's just another experience in my life, nothing to cry about."

Ali departed the next day on one of those journeys to a global constituency unique to his championship reign. This time the destination was Bangladesh, where he was to dedicate a sports stadium named in his honor. He left behind a new boxing king and a glorious—and sometimes infuriating—past.

To peer into the kaleidoscope of memories of Ali, studying the changing shapes and shifting images, is to glimpse reflections not just of a man, but of an American time. Demanding that the nation know his every thought, insisting that the public mark each of his deeds, he was bound to the events—and thus the lives—of his era.

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