Almost everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, boxing fans included. Did Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey really have a “secret fight?” Did Dempsey have loaded gloves when he massacred Jess Willard? Did the powers that be conspire against Larry Holmes, seeing to it that he could not be allowed to break Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 record; Holmes being “robbed” of the decision in his 49th fight, this against Michael Spinks?
Another one goes like this: An aging Muhammad Ali, knowing he was near the end and barely hanging onto the heavyweight crown, wanted no part of the fourth fight with Ken Norton so he instead fought another guy and lost to him on purpose, knowing he could come back and gain revenge. By 1978, there were two accepted versions of the world heavyweight title – the WBC version and the WBA version. With the WBC ordering 36-year-old Ali to again face Norton – Kenny of course being the toughest nut Ali had ever tried in vain to crack – Ali instead came up with a plan.
Ali verbally agreed that he would again fight Norton, but not until after his fight with a young Olympian named Leon Spinks. The conspiracy theory says Ali had in fact no inclination to face Norton again, that he would instead “lose on purpose” against Spinks, sit back and watch the shocking headlines generate, and then come back and get revenge over Spinks and then retire on top; with any and all talk of a fourth Norton duel forgotten.
Ali’s plan would also see him make boxing history as the only man to have ever won the crown three times. It would be the perfect way to go out. But is there any truth to the story, to the conspiracy theory?
As we know, Spinks sadly passed away a few days ago, losing his battle with cancer at the age of 67. On the night of February 15, 1978 (43 years ago today), a raw, 6-0-1, 24-year-old Spinks shocked the world by taking Ali’s belts via 15 round split decision. Also as fight fans know, Ali did next to nothing for the first ten rounds of the fight in Las Vegas. Ali did come on in the later rounds, perhaps to put on a show and make the fight “look good,” or perhaps in a very real effort to save his crown. The 15th round was brutal, with both men rocking and reeling. Ali, open-mouthed and bleeding, pushed his aging, less than the toned body as hard as he could as he tried to get the better of the relentless Spinks.
It is then, tough to believe that Ali went through all that “on purpose.” The thing with these conspiracy theories is the way they are so easy to believe, so convenient to believe – so comforting. No way could a novice like Spinks beat the great Ali! Well, if you subscribe to this particular conspiracy theory Spinks never did beat Ali. Not really.
But Spinks did win the fight. Ali was at his lowest ebb after losing his crown; Spinks being the only man to have taken the title from “The Greatest” in the ring. Ali sure whipped himself into great shape for the rematch and he did make history as the first three-time heavyweight king. But Ali had never “planned” to lose to Spinks. On the contrary, the loss he knew he could have avoided had he trained hard still hurt Ali even after the glory of the New Orleans return.
To suggest Ali lost on purpose is an affront to the great man, as it is an insult to the efforts of the young and green yet incredibly motivated fighter who pulled it off. Nobody should have ever tried to take Leon Spinks’ finest moment away from him. But, hey, everyone loves a conspiracy theory.