This Week in Sports History, September 14-20

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May Your Hands Always Be Busy

September 15, 1978

In the years after taking back his heavyweight title from George Foreman in Zaire, Muhammad Ali fought some serious opponents (Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers) and some less dangerous ones (Jean-Pierre Coopman, Richard Dunn, Alfredo Evangelista).  Leon Spinks was supposed to be one of the latter, an Olympic light-heavyweight gold medalist who had just seven professional fights.  But Spinks pursued Ali tirelessly, and won a split decision in Las Vegas in February 1978.  The rematch would be seven months later, in New Orleans.

On this date, before a huge crowd at the Superdome and a national television audience, Ali out-danced, out-boxed, and outsmarted Spinks, looking more like a master giving a lesson than a challenger taking on a champion.  Ali won a unanimous decision, making him the first man to win the heavyweight title three times.  Had he stopped then as he intended, with a kiss and a wave to the cameras, Ali might display a very different face to the world today.  Instead, he had two more, ill-advised fights, both losses: in October 1980 against Larry Holmes, and in December 1981 against Trevor Berbick.   Holmes battered his hero for ten unhappy rounds, doing immeasurable damage to the 38-year-old Ali; ten rounds with the much younger Berbick didn’t help either.  But on one last night, thirty-one years ago this week, Ali turned back the clock, leading Howard Cosell at ringside to recite the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” 

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