Leon Spinks, Former Heavyweight Champion who Upset Muhammad Ali, Dead at 67

FILE – In this June 12, 2011, file photo, former heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks waves during a Boxing Hall of Fame parade in Canastota, N.Y. Leon Spinks is in a Las Vegas hospital after a second operation for abdominal problems. The 61-year-old boxer who catapulted to fame by beating Muhammad Ali in 1978 had the second surgery in recent days after complications from the first emergency surgery. (AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

Leon Spinks, who surprised the boxing world by beating Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight title in 1978, died Friday night at age 67, according to the Firm PR, a public relations firm that represents him.

Spinks, who had been suffering from prostate and other cancers for five years, died with his wife, Brenda, by his side, the firm said.

The St. Louis native, a former Marine who won a gold medal as a light heavyweight at the 1976 Olympics, was just 13 months and eight fights into his pro boxing career when he stepped into a ring against Ali on Feb. 15, 1978, in Las Vegas.

But Spinks — a heavy underdog who had never gone beyond 10 rounds — came right after the champ, who was 36 years old and clearly on the downside of his career.

Spinks, then 24, had enough endurance to survive a 15th-round flurry from Ali — and provide one of his own in the closing seconds. The split decision went to Spinks, who flashed his famous gap-toothed grin after becoming the only fighter to take a title from Ali in the ring.

“I don’t think I won too young,” Spinks told the Associated Press in 2003. “Anybody who had the opportunity like I did would have taken it, too.”

But that would turn out to be the highlight of Spinks’ career. First, he was stripped of the WBC title for refusing to defend against top contender Ken Norton. Instead, Spinks chose a rematch with Ali, who took back the WBA title in a unanimous decision at the Superdome in New Orleans seven months after their first bout.

It was the last win of Ali’s career.


Spinks would fight just once more for the heavyweight title, a TKO loss to Larry Holmes for the WBC belt in June 1981. He then dropped down to the cruiserweight division, but lost his only title shot to Dwight Muhammad Qawi on a sixth-round TKO in March 1986. At points during his professional career, he had Mr. T, the future movie and television star, as his bodyguard.

Spinks retired at age 42 after losing a unanimous decision to Fred Houpe in December 1995 and finished his career with an unremarkable record of 26-17-3 (14 KOs).

Spinks, who battled in wrestling and mixed martial arts later in his career, dealt with financial and medical problems later in life.

“I was a poor young guy,” Spinks told the New York Daily News in 1997. “I never had nothing. All of a sudden I had something. I tried to do too much. I was crazy. I didn’t care about nothing. You think it’s never going to end.”

In 2014, he suffered intestinal damage and was hospitalized after swallowing a piece of chicken bone. It led to multiple surgeries. In 2019, he was in and out of the hospital while undergoing treatment for prostate cancer.

Spinks was the brother of Hall of Fame former heavyweight and light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks and the father of former undisputed welterweight world champion Cory Spinks.


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