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Today in Sports History: 2/15 | Leon Spinks Defeats Muhammad Ali in Split Decision

Today in sports history (1978), Leon Spinks defeated Muhammad Ali to win the undisputed heavyweight championship. Ali came into this fight with 10-1 odds to win. Leon Spinks was coming off of the 1976 Olympics, where he won the gold medal. Ali knew that he had to get through Spinks before he could fight Ken Norton. The winner of this fight would then in turn fight Norton.

Ali had recently retired and was looking for a tune-up fight before the anticipated matchup against Norton. The 24-year old Spinks was 6-0-1, winning five of his fights by knockout.

Muhammed Ali was noted for not fully training for this fight, thinking it was going to be an easy win. Spinks, on the other hand, knew that this was what could jump-start his career. He trained for a 15-round fight even though he never went more than 10. Knowing that he had never gone more than 10 rounds, Ali’s camp was not prepared for a full 15-round fight.

Leon Spinks Muhammad Ali Boxing today in sports history
Credit: Associated Press Photo

Leon Spinks Upsets Muhammad Ali | Today in Sports History

Spinks opened the fight rushing Ali. Leon Spinks threw punches and rolls, which in turn backed Muhammed Ali up to the ropes. At the ropes, Spinks continued to put the pressure on using uppercuts and hooks to both the head and the body. In response, Ali was talking trash and using his dodging skills to avoid the contact. Just like George Foreman, Ali tried to employ the rope-a-dope strategy to let Spinks tire himself out early in the fight. The referee also was not letting Ali hold Spinks, which Ali had become accustomed to doing in the past.

As the middle rounds of the fight developed, Ali seemed to fight with a little more urgency, as he sensed Spinks was not tiring quickly. Fighting back, Ali’s punches were not doing very much damage. This changed come the 10th round, as Ali started to use his elite boxing skills to take control of the fight. When the 15th round rolled around, everyone thought that Ali would outlast Spinks, as he was known as one of the better finishers in boxing at the time.

That did not occur in this fight though, as Spinks did what so many others couldn’t to Ali, and that was continuing to fight. Ali came out blazing in the 15th, using body shots and punches to the chin. Leon Spinks came back with a left uppercut and a right hand to the body in the closing seconds of the fight.

Spinks ended up winning the classic fight on a split decision, where many people thought that it should have been unanimous.

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