Earlier that year, in February, Ali lost the heavyweight title to the 1976 Olympic Champion, Leon Spinks.
The signs of a physical decline were evident during a bout with the stoic Earnie Shavers, the previous year. Absorbing concussive punishment against an inferior fighter, the 36-year-old laboured to a unanimous decision.
Shortly after, the New York State athletic commission confirmed suspicions Ali was nearing the end of his career, declaring the Olympic gold medallists’ kidneys were failing. Ferdie Pacheco, his long time doctor and confidant, prescribed a clear course of action, signalling to Ali and his team that the time had come to hang up the gloves.
Against doctors’ orders Ali signed to fight Spinks, who also boasted an Olympic gold medal. The ill-advised bout was scheduled to take place in the city of sin, Las Vegas, in February, 1978.
The fighter, born Cassius Clay, was unprepared for the contest, allegedly sparring just 20 rounds.
The champion entered the ring, under the lights in Las Vegas, looking out of sorts and out of shape. The Heavyweight who claimed he “floats like a butterfly” looked bloated as he de-robed and touched gloves.
Regardless of the champion being past his best, Spinks, from St Louis, was still the heavy underdog. While Spinks enjoyed an illustrious amateur career, winning gold in the 1976 Olympic Games, in Montreal, he was a mere novice in the professional ranks, with only eight fights to his credit.
The lethargic Ali struggled to get a foothold in the fight. His renowned reflexes, footwork, movement, and even speech, appeared impaired. It was, perhaps, the first signs of Parkinson’s disease, which he would be tragically diagnosed with in later life.
The fight, which is comparable to a modern day matchup between champion Wladimir Klitschko and the inexperienced Anthony Joshua, went the distance. The contender, who was the aggressor throughout, churned out a surprise split decision against the heavyweight king.
The new WBC heavyweight champion of the world was immediately stripped of his crown, having chosen to take the Ali rematch, overseen by the WBA, instead of facing his WBC mandatory, Ken Norton.
Spinks proved in preparation for his return with Ali that for some, too much can come too soon. His fondness for the nightlife earned Spinks the moniker “Neon Leon”, as he detrimentally embraced his new found fame and fortune.
On September 15, 1978, Ali returned to the ring, appearing conditioned and focused. Over 15 rounds, the improved Ali was awarded a unanimous verdict, out boxing the young champion, and becoming the first man to be crowned heavyweight world champion, on three occasions.