• September 15 down the years

Muhammad Ali makes history

Leon Spinks was not at his best for his rematch with Muhammad Ali © Getty Images

1978 Muhammad Ali became the first boxer to be world heavyweight champion three times. All very historic - though it's hard to know how good a comeback it was. When he lost the WBA heavyweight title to the unseasoned Leon Spinks ( February 15), retirement looked the kind option. Ali was 36, Spinks 11 years younger and twice as rough: just enough for a split decision. But Ali was lucky that Spinks enjoyed being world champion a tad too much. He hadn't trained hard enough for the rematch, which was held at the Superdome in New Orleans - and you couldn't take a liberty like that against a great champion, even the remains of one. Spinks simply didn't have the energy to mess with Ali the way he did first time round. So the old man was allowed to conserve energy by holding for long periods (the referee warned him in the fifth round) in between picking up points with sporadic jabs. Not much of a spectacle, but he'd provided enough of those in the past. By about the eighth round, it was clear Spinks had less and less to offer as the fight went on, and he resorted to looking for a knockout with some wild swings, meat and drink to the old python across the ring. Ali won easily on points and retired. It was Spinks's first defeat as a pro, in only his 9th fight. He didn't get another world title shot for three years, when he faced Larry Holmes ( June 12), who'd beaten Ali when the great man made a sad comeback in 1980.

1985 For many years now, the Ryder Cup had been a real mismatch. It was embarrassingly obvious that Britain & Ireland couldn't cope with the might of the USA, especially in an extended golden age which produced Palmer, Nicklaus, Trevino, Watson, Floyd, you name 'em. The last time the British Isles competed on their own was in 1977 ( September 17), when they lost 12½-7½ at Lytham St Anne's. Two years later, the USA were faced with a team picked from the whole of Europe ( September 16) - and won yet again. This was the third Ryder Cup since then, held at The Belfry in the West Midlands - and Europe won it for the first time. It wasn't even particularly close. Leading 9-7 before the last day, the Europeans won seven of the twelve singles and drew another to win by five points. Sam Torrance collected the winning point by holing a 20-footer to beat Andy North at the last hole. The USA lost the Cup for the first time since 1957 and began making plans to regain it at home two years later.

1899 There were once five brothers from Carnoustie called Smith. Two of them were US Open golf champions: Alex in 1906 and 1910, and Willie today. At the Baltimore Club, he went round in 315, making his best score of 77 in the first and last rounds. His winning margin of 11 shots was a record for the US Open until Tiger Woods broke the Major record in 2000 ( June 18). Willie was runner-up to Alex in 1906, and their brother Macdonald finished second in 1930.

Three sudden tragedies in sport.

In 2001, a horror crash cost Alex Zanardi his legs. After an unsuccessful return to Formula One in 1999, he was racing carts the following year. At Lausitz in Germany, he was leading near the end of a race when he accelerated and spun. Another car hit him smack in the side, splitting it in two, and Zanardi lost so much blood that both his legs had to be amputated. Like Wayne Rainey in motorcycling ( September 5), Zanardi refused to accept the inevitable. He designed his own prosthetic legs and began competing in touring cars within two years.

In 2007, Colin McRae died at the controls of a helicopter in his native Scotland. One of the top rally drivers of his day, he won 25 World Championship races from 1993 to 2002 and the world title in 1995.

Another Scottish competitor died at the European Swimming Championships in 1947. Nancy Raich completed her heat of the 100 metres freestyle, but against doctor's orders. She was suddenly stricken with polio (infantile paralysis, as it was described in the papers) and died in the early hours. The British record holder at 100 yards, she was 20 years old.

1967 The first track and field athlete to be banned from a major event after gender testing was introduced. There was always something not right about Ewa Klobukowska. At the 1964 Olympics, she won bronze in the 100 metres behind two American girls - but then shocked them in the sprint relay, where she anchored Poland to a world record of 43.6 seconds. The following year, Klobukowska set another world best by running the 100 in 11.1. But suspicions had always been aroused by her hard tight physique and manly face, and she wasn't allowed to run in today's European Cup final in Kiev - even though she'd passed the medical exam at the European Championships the previous year.

1923 Graphic illustration of how high Bill Tilden towered above men's tennis in the early 1920s. Wimbledon champion in 1920 and 1921, he didn't turn up for the next few years, seeing no need to make the long sea voyage to prove what didn't need proving. So this year Bill Johnston went instead. Twice US champion before Tilden came along, Little Bill won Wimbledon by thrashing another top American, Frank Hunter, 6-0 6-3 6-1 in the final. Back home, he met Big Bill in the US final. Johnston had beaten Tilden in the 1919 final, but the taller man was still perfecting his game at the time. A late starter, he won the US title for the first time in 1920, when he was already 27. Today he won it for the fourth year in a row. Johnston, easy conqueror of Wimbledon, didn't stand a chance. Tilden didn't even need to compete. He practised shots instead. Hitting with incredible accuracy from the back of the court, he moved the smaller man from side to side, keeping the ball away from Johnston's strong forehand. It ended 6-4 6-1 6-4. Tilden won the title for the next two years as well, then again in 1929 ( September 14). He beat Johnston in the final five times, including four in a row.

2000 Cathy Freeman lit the Olympic flame to start the Games in Sydney. Ten days later, in front of the biggest crowd for any Olympic event, she won the gold medal the whole country was expecting.