Leon Spinks, who won Olympic gold and then shocked the boxing world by beating Muhammad Ali to win the heavyweight title in only his eighth professional fight, has died aged 67 after a long battle with cancer.
Spinks passed away with only a few close friends and family present due to Covid-19 restrictions.
“Leon fought his battle with numerous illnesses resiliently, never losing his trademark smile,” a spokesperson said. “Showing true Spinks determination, he never threw in the towel.”
Spinks rose to fame by winning the light-heavyweight gold medal for the United States at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He shocked the boxing world just two years later when he defeated Ali in a split decision. It was only his eighth professional fight.
That would be the highlight of Spinks’ career as Ali would get his revenge in the rematch seven months later in New Orleans.
Spinks would fight for a heavyweight crown only on one other occasion, losing to Larry Holmes in 1981.
On Saturday, Holmes wrote on Twitter: “You gave me a hell of a fight but you were a good guy. You lived your life the way you wanted and it was a good one. I pray you Rest In Peace.”
Spinks retired in 1995 at the age of 42 with a pedestrian 26-17-3 record, including 14 knockouts.
But in the late 1970s, he had plenty of reasons to flash his trademark broad smile, sometimes accentuated by two missing front teeth.
After serving in the Marine Corps, Spinks won a gold medal in the light heavyweight competition at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He was undefeated in his first seven professional fights but few thought he had any chance at all against the legendary Ali, even though the champ was past his prime going into their February 15, 1978, fight in Las Vegas.
Spinks’ aggressive style and superior stamina allowed him to outduel Ali in a 15-round split decision, becoming the first boxer to take the title from Ali in the ring.
Spinks’ reign did not last long. Seven months later, he squared off again with Ali at the Superdome in New Orleans and a properly prepared Ali won a 15-round unanimous decision. Spinks already had been stripped of his WBC heavyweight title for refusing to fight No 1 contender Ken Norton in favour of the Ali rematch.
After the second Ali fight, Spinks was never again a serious championship contender, although in 1981 he took on Larry Holmes for the WBC crown. Holmes beat him on a technical knockout in the third round.
Spinks continued fighting, often for small purses, until retiring following a unanimous decision loss to Fred House on December 4, 1995.