Ali trained less than ever for the fight against Leon Spinks that was to take place in Las Vegas on February 15, 1978. He started training at 242 pounds and sparred less than twenty rounds.
This attitude would take his toll. Ali once again tried to be successful with his "rope-a-dope"-strategy but this time it didnít work. Spinks didnít tire and kept punching on Aliís arms and belly. When Ali went off the ropes to attack, his body refused obedience. The judges scored 2:1 for Spinks and Muhammad Ali had lost the title in the ring for the first and only time.
In Thomas Hauser's biography, Ali comments on his defeat: "Of all the fights I lost in boxing, losing to Spinks hurt the most. Thatís because it was my own fault. Leon fought clean; he did the best he could. But it was emberassing that someone with so little fighting skills could beat me."
After this loss, Ali was determined to win the title back. A rematch was scheduled although the WBC stripped Spinks of their version of the title because he didnít fight Ken Norton - the WBA version remained.
While Spinks enjoyed the advantages of being champion - he was, for example, caught with cocain - Ali struggled to get into good shape again.
Ali announced before the fight that he would not "rope-a-dope" again but try to keep Spinks in distance. This worked pretty good - Spinks also couldnít cope with Ali holding most of the time. Still, it was a pretty boring fight. Ali who dominated most of the rounds won an unanimous decision and became the first boxer in the history of the heavyweight division to win the title three times.
After this bout, Ali retired from boxing.
After his retirement, Ali traveled around the world. He was hosted by heads of states and important politicians all over the world. He also visited Russia where he met Leonid Brezhnev. In February 1980, Ali was entrusted by president Carter to promote the boycott of the Moscow Olympics. However, Ali was not successful.
After his unfortunate negotiations, Ali despite qualms of his entourage (including his mother) planned to return to professional boxing. Beside his need for money, Ali's longing for pugilistic immortality was liable for this decision. His foe was to be Larry Holmes, a former sparring partner of Ali who had become champion in the meantime. Despite being "only" challenger, Ali was paid eight million dollars, four times as much as Holmes.
Because of various concerns about his health, Ali checked into the Mayo clinic in Minnesota to undergo a medical examination. Ali was granted a license by the physicians although they had spotted a hole in a brain membrane. The fact that Ali also had problems to touch his nose with closed eyes and had told the doctors that he had been speaking inarticulately every now and then, didnít change their opinion that he was able to fight Holmes. The doctors didnít realize that these symptoms were signs of a commencing, severe disease that could be worsened by punches to the head.
Ali weighed 254 pounds when he started to train for this bout but soon started to lose weight rapidly. It seemed that Ali was in the best condition he had been for years. But the cause of his slimming was not hard training or a special diet but a drug that had been incorrectly prescribed by Herbert Muhammadís personal physician to cure a hypothyroid condition Ali simply didnít have. This drug interfered Aliís metabolism. As a result, Ali lost pound after pound but was increasingly exhausted after slight exertions.
Ali finally weighed 216 pounds when he entered the ring against Holmes. However, he was not in the constitution to fight a professional 15-round bout. His body was dehydrated and the faintest movements made him short of breath. After a few rounds it became obvious that Ali had no chance. Again and again, Holmes signaled the referee to stop the uneven fight because he didnít want to hurt the man that he still admired. After round ten, Angelo Dundee did what he doubtlessly should have done much earlier - he liberated his protege from his torture - against vehement protests of Bundini. "It was not a fight; it was an execution", Thomas Hauser later wrote and one canít contradict him. Ferdie Pacheco said that Ali was lucky to survive this fight. It indeed seems incredible that the Ali-Holmes fight took place at all.
But the ones who thought this painful defeat made Ali realize that he should not box any more, were taught better. In autumn of 1981, Ali - almost 40 years old - entered the ring one more time to fight Trevor Berbick on the Bahamas because no site in the USA had been found.
It was not an honorable ending for a career that had been that great. At least Ali was not knocked out in his last fight but that is about the only positive aspect one can think of.
The loss against Trevor Berbick was the last of 61 professional fights in Muhamad Aliís unique career that had lasted for 21 years.