Three-decade search for Leon Spinks-Muhammad Ali rematch concludes with miracle find
There are levels to being a boxing fan. In WBA parlance, one could say there are regular, interim, full and super champs.
We all have our preferences. No historian can know every fight, every fighter, every era, although some of them could give it a damn good try. I couldn’t, but my main area of expertise is Muhammad Ali. There’s no period in boxing history that I know better and it’s a road that I’ve been travelling for three decades. I met Ali in 1994, I read every book I could find, I collected his fights through the VHS era, and I’m still upgrading my collection on DVD and Blu-ray to this day. One could say, when it comes to Ali, that I’m a WBA super-freak champion.
Ali had 61 professional fights (56-5, 37 knockouts). Thirteen of his first 19 bouts are not available in full, and only extended highlights of his 1973 tune-up against Rudi Lubbers were broadcast by ABC. Everything else, however, is out there. All in, we have 47 complete Muhammad Ali fights, and when you consider the amount of Sugar Ray Robinson action that we’ll never see, that is a blessing.
So where does Ali’s 1978 rematch with Leon Spinks come in? Well, I’ve owned the full 15 rounds of that fight for longer than I can remember: The ABC version, an alternate U.S. version, a master copy without commentary – you name it. Being an Ali superfreak means that you don’t just want the fights; you want them in the best condition possible and you want as many original broadcasts as you can track down.
Through some research, I discovered that Spinks-Ali 2 was broadcast by U.K. network ITV on Saturday, September 16, 1978, the day after the fight. The show ran for one hour, which means, with commercials, you’d probably lose two or three rounds. However, the fight was called by legendary British journalist and commentator Reg Gutteridge and I wanted it. No, I damn well needed it!
This a mission that goes all the way back to the early 1990s.
I tried fight film collectors, on both sides of the pond, and came up short. I contacted ITV, but it’s not in their policy to release footage that’s exclusively owned by a fight promoter, in this case Top Rank. When I broke into boxing writing, I quizzed fighters, trainers, promoters, managers, insiders and nobody could help. I would also look on YouTube, hoping against hope that I’d come across the elusive ITV broadcast one day, but it was not to be.
Then, last week, the miraculous happens.
I type in “Ali-Spinks” on eBay, just as I had been doing for over 20 years, and up pops this tiny little video tape. It wasn’t Betamax, it wasn’t VHS; it was a one-reel analogue recording format named VCR, which was first made available in 1972. Apparently the video recorder required to play it (N-1500) cost £500 ($700) back in the day, so let’s just say that it wasn’t a staple of every family’s household.
On the tape it reads “Ali vs. Leon Spinks,” the tape was in England, the day/ month was written in U.K. style (15/9/78), and it was on a format that was around at the time. Could this be it? And if it is it, what the hell am I going to play it on? I thought it was impressive to still own a VHS video recorder, but this was a whole new level.
I contacted another collector, Martin Lee, who had been searching for this version of the Spinks-Ali rematch for longer than I had. He didn’t need time to think about it. Martin bought the tape and – crucially – stumbled across someone with the facility to convert it.
Now, the cassette had been discovered during a house clearance. It’s been kicking around for 43 ½ years. What state was it going to be in? Will it even play? Will Ali’s third heavyweight title win still be on the tape? I had visions of a grainy version of The Great Escape, Bugs Bunny re-runs or a seventies porno flick, but when I saw the screenshots, I almost hit the floor. How the hell this has been preserved for that length of time is beyond me, but the moment has pretty much made my year. It was totally worth the wait.
Realistically, there’s not much more in the way of Ali material that I need now. However, if anyone has a BBC broadcast of the second fight against Joe Frazier, then you’ll never buy another drink in your life.
The discovery of the U.K. broadcast of the Spinks-Ali rematch was made all the more poignant because we lost “Neon” Leon earlier this month. The former champ succumbed to a long battle with cancer on February 5 and, in tribute, I went out of my way to watch his finest hour; the split decision win over Ali in February 1978, which was later named The Ring Magazine Fight of the Year.
Anyway, I could ramble on some more, but I have the Spinks-Ali rematch – ITV version – to watch for the third time in 24 hours.
Tom Gray is Managing Editor for Ring Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing