Leon Spinks stunned the world on February 15, 1978. The 1976 Olympic Gold medalist for Boxing, Spinks got the opportunity to face “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali. Ali had just come off of a widely praised victory over Earnie Shavers, and chose Spinks as his opponent partially due to a desire to avoid Ken Norton, whom he’d already fought three times. Spinks amazed everyone by beating Ali in a split decision in only his eighth professional fight.
A number of factors led to Ali’s loss. He had already flirted with retirement in 1976 before returning the next year to beat Alfredo Evangelista. He was out of shape. And he underestimated his opponent. He wouldn’t make that mistake again. Ali got his chance for some payback when Spinks agreed to a rematch for the World Boxing Association heavyweight title in New Orleans on September 15, 1978.
Despite the fact that he’d lost in February, Ali was still considered the favorite. The wildly charismatic and controversial boxer had managed to delight and infuriate the American public throughout his career. When The Saturday Evening Post profiled him in 1964, one significant focus of the piece had been his conversion to Islam. At time of the Spinks fights, Ali had recently undergone an additional religious journey, turning from the Nation of Islam in 1975 and embracing Sunni Islam beliefs.
On the night of September 15, it was safe to say that the world was watching. ABC had the rights to the fight, and they broadcast it to an estimated 90 million people in the U.S. Around the world, the total audience for the bout was a record 2 billion people. Ali arrived in shape and ready to throw hands. Spinks found himself fighting a different Ali. The man he’d fought in February had been a bit sluggish; this Ali focused on footwork and jabs, locking up Spinks up whenever he came in too close (in fact, the referee stripped the fifth round from Ali in favor of Spinks because of Ali’s excessive holding).
The fight went the distance, and Ali won in a unanimous decision by the judges. It was his third WBA heavyweight championship, making him the first man to accomplish that feat. Ali sent an official letter to the WBA in June of 1979 to announce his retirement, but he ended up competing in two more fights. He would lose once to Larry Holmes in 1980, and again to Trevor Berbick in 1981. After that, he hung up his gloves for good. After Ali, only one other American boxer has had three WBA heavyweight reigns, fellow Olympian Evander Holyfield.
Spinks didn’t have a stellar career after the fight with Ali. He himself was beaten by Holmes in 1981, though Holmes would later drop the title to Leon’s brother, Michael Spinks, in 1985, making them the only brothers to be heavyweight champs. Leon Spinks tried to shed weight and box as a cruiserweight to little success. After that, he became a professional wrestler for Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling in Japan; he took that the title in 1992, making him the only person to be both an American boxing and professional wrestling champion in his career. Leon and Michael Spinks, like Ali, have been inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame. Leon’s son, Cory, was also a boxing champ in the welterweight and IBC junior middleweight divisions. Today, Leon Spinks lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.
As for Ali, his later years focused on humanitarian projects and philanthropy. Though he began to suffer from the effects of Parkinson’s Disease, he kept a high public profile. A Gold medal-winning Olympic boxer himself (he earned the Light Heavyweight medal in Rome in 1960), he was invited to light the Olympic flame at the Atlanta games in 1996. After years of declining health, Muhammad Ali died on June 3, 2016 at age 74, leaving behind the vibrant legacy of a larger-than-life personality that couldn’t help but set new standards in his sport.
In the hyper-competitive world of high-stakes athletics, an injection of politics or social justice can inspire annoyance or rousing support; but it always starts a conversation. For over a century, these athletes have used the field, court, or track to express a broader view of how the world ought to be.
The Irish Olympian won gold and silver medals in the 1906 games. O’Connor was registered with Great Britain since Ireland lacked an Olympic Committee. At the medals ceremony, the Union Jack was raised, so O’Connor climbed a flagpole and hoisted an Irish flag while his teammate fought off guards below. His act of resistance was likely the first time an Irish flag was seen at an international sporting event.
1960 Olympics “Under Protest”
Taiwanese Olympic athletes marched into Rome’s 1960 opening ceremony behind a sign reading “UNDER PROTEST.” The team was vexed at their committee’s decision to enter the games under the island’s western name, Formosa, instead of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s preferred designation, Republic of China.
Vietnam War, 1967
In 1967, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight title and had his boxing license suspended after he refused to step forward at his scheduled induction into the military. Ali said, “No, I will not go 10,000 miles from here to help murder and kill another poor people simply to continue the domination of white slave-masters over the darker people of the earth.” After an appeal to the Supreme Court, Ali’s conviction was dropped by a unanimous decision in 1971.
John Carlos/Tommie Smith
Mexico City’s 1968 games came in the midst of a tumultuous year for the U.S. (assassinations, Vietnam War protests, and constant racial tensions). After black athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith earned bronze and gold medals, respectively, for the 200-meter dash, they used their medals ceremony as a platform for what was perhaps the most iconic sports protest in history. As the U.S. national anthem played, the runners bowed their heads and raised their gloved fists into the air. The San Jose State University students returned from the Olympics to myriad criticism and even death threats over their gesture, perceived to be one of black power radicalism. Smith described it as “a cry for freedom and for human rights,” saying, “we had to be seen because we couldn’t be heard.”
“Black 14,” 1969
Football coach Lloyd Eaton dismissed 14 African American players from the University of Wyoming team when they asked to wear black armbands during their upcoming game against Brigham Young University. The players planned the act of solidarity after BYU students had allegedly uttered racial slurs at them in past matches. They had also learned of the Mormon policy of disallowing African Americans from priesthood. After the “Black 14” were kicked off UW’s football team, a nationwide press controversy ensued. The previously undefeated team lost its last four games in the season, and Coach Eaton was fired the next year.
During the Denver Nuggets’ 1996 season, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a Muslim, refused to stand for the pregame national anthem, saying, “My duty is to my creator, not to nationalistic ideology.” Abdul-Rauf was immediately suspended, but later allowed to play when he compromised that he would pray with his hands over his face while standing for the anthem. The player was booed routinely by patrons (72 percent of people in Denver disagreed with Abdul-Rauf, according to a poll). Two Denver radio deejays even faced charges for entering a mosque in Abdul-Rauf jerseys playing the national anthem with instruments as a stunt.
God Bless America, 2004
After growing up in Puerto Rico, where the U.S. Navy used the island of Vieques as a weapons testing ground for 60 years, Toronto Blue Jay Carlos Delgado was decidedly skeptical of U.S. military occupation. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Delgado refused to stand for the routine seventh inning stretch rendition of “God Bless America.” His antiwar protest went largely unnoticed since he remained in the dugout during the song. Delgado saw little backlash even though the Iraq War was overwhelmingly popular among Americans at the time. It was even, apparently, popular among Canadians, since the Toronto Skydome played the song at their games until 2004.
Muhammad Ali, now 70 years old, is one of America’s most admired athletes. He has received an honorary doctorate at Princeton University, the Spirit of America award, the Presidential Citizens Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
All these honors in late life could obscure the fact that Muhammad Ali, in his youth, was a highly controversial figure—a racial revolutionary, some feared.
Ali had been generally popular up to the day he beat Sonny Liston in 1964 to become boxing’s heavyweight champion. Shortly afterward, though, he announced that he’d joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name from Cassius Marcellus Clay.
The Nation of Islam was then widely regarded by the American media as a highly dangerous group. There were fearful rumors that the Black Muslims would forcibly create a separate nation for black Americans. So when Ali announced his conversion, the media reacted as if they had been betrayed. A Post editorial from ’64 captures the tone of dismissal and fear.
For a time, when he was confining himself to bad poetry, Cassius was a loudmouth but a likable character who seemed to be harmless in or out of the ring. Then he won the championship and became, in his own estimation, “The Greatest.” After the fight, he acknowledged that he was a Black Muslim, converted by the arch-extremist, Malcolm X, the man who crowed that President Kennedy’s assassination was “a case of the chickens coming home to roost.” Malcolm X was separated from the Black Muslim movement after that remark and is now attempting to organize his own black nation. He wants to arm all the Negroes in the U.S. and ultimately take them back to Africa.
One Post writer went so far as to hint that Ali was simply using his status as a Black Muslim to increase ticket sales.
Clay’s history of calculated deceptions now prompts the suspicion, of course, that his present case of galloping religion is but another decoy to serve who knows what end. Clay himself strengthened the suspicion when he declared, “Just by my being a Muslim, that should draw a bigger gate…”
On re-examination, however, Clay’s remarks were nothing more than cute verbiage. He well knows… that his commitment to Islam has cost him roughly two million dollars in commercial endorsements.
The quote came from a ’64 Post article, “Muslim Champ,” by Myron Cope, which generally overlooked Ali the boxer to focus on Ali the Muslim. Cope regarded Ali’s new faith with frank derision.
Cassius Marcellus Clay, who now calls himself Brother Muhammad Ali… is convinced he is a beacon of righteousness in a wicked world.
Having succeeded Malcolm X as the loudest [sic] Black Muslim, Clay has been fighting a socio-religious battle with the Christian world, and this, more than anything else, seems to have taken away his former exuberance. He still acts the clown for TV cameras but only to sell fight tickets.
Reading the article today, it’s clear that Cope’s preconceptions were obscuring his view of Ali. He claimed that Ali had “completely severed communication with whites,” even though Ali spoke freely with Cope for this article. Ali also proves himself to be more tolerant than Cope concerning the use of his old name.
“Call me Muhammad or call me Ali,” Clay advised as we drove to his house, “but if you forget and call me Cassius, that won’t bother me none.”
Cope didn’t forget. He deliberately referred to him throughout the article as Cassius Clay. And though he portrayed Ali as a zealot of his new “cult,” the champion voiced rather middle-of-the-road political opinions.
Cruising along, the new Clay discussed politics. “Kennedy,” he said, “just seemed so nice, he didn’t seem like a President.” He expressed an admiration for Barry Goldwater, saying that “he say what he thinks.”
In fact, Ali showed himself to be little changed from the spirited, sociable boxer Cope had traveled with in his pre-championship days.
I had been unwilling to believe that a young man with so bright a gift for teasing the world could hate. Henry H. Arrington, a Negro attorney and adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr., told me; “I can assure you I have never seen any indication whatsoever of Cassius disliking white people generally.”
Whatever the actual teaching propounded in the Muslim meetings, Clay denies that he considers all whites to be devils. “I’m stressing just the works that the whites generally have been doing,” he said in his dressing room. “They blow up all these little colored people in church, wash people down the street with water hoses. It’s not the color that make you a devil, just the deeds that you do.
“It’s as our leader Elijah Muhammad teaches us. Couldn’t nobody argue it. I’m no authority on Islam. I am just a follower. If you be a blue race, and you do the works of the devil, then we can call you a devil. You got white people who died under demonstrations, died under tractor wheels for colored people. I wouldn’t call them no devil.”
He was attracted to the cult, he explained, because its people neither drank nor smoked, and they deported themselves well.
“I am an American; I was born here,” he said softly, trying to make himself understood. “Our leader and teacher will tell you himself, we respect America and respect whites for coming here and making a paradise from nothing. It’s not hate or fighting or arguing. We just want freedom.”
Ali’s religion was still a hot issue in 1965, when he fought former heavyweight champion Floyd Paterson. In an unpublished story, Post writer Bill Bridges described how the Ali-Patterson bout was being regarded as a test of Christianity and Muslim faiths. Some of Ali’s supporters, who had become estranged when he joined the Nation of Islam, were hoping that a Patterson victory would convince Ali to return to his old faith. After Patterson was defeated, however, there was no more talk about the match proving which was the superior faith.
The following photos were taken for Bill Bridges’ unpublished Post feature and were never printed.
Photo at top left: Ali exchanges angry looks at his former trainer, who had departed after Ali joined the Nation of Islam. Bottom left: the trainer can be seen mid-picture, with the arm of sports writer George Plimpton around his shoulders. He had hoped a defeat would return Ali to the Christian faith. Instead, with Ali victorious, the trainer returned to Ali who forgave him and rehired him as trainer.