World Heavyweight Champion: 1978
Born: St Louis, Missouri, USA. July 11 1953
World Heavyweight Champion: 1978
NABF Cruiserweight Champion: 1982
Olympic Gold Medal 1976
Won 26 (14 Kos) Lost 17 Drawn 3
The Spinks brothers Leon and Michael have the distinction of being the only siblings to win the world heavyweight crown. They are also both Olympic champions. Leon took the light-heavyweight title in Montreal in 1976, with younger brother Michael winning the middleweight division the same year. Ali covers up during his 15-round fight with Leon Spinks in Las Vegas, February 15, 1978. Spinks had only turned professional the year before, and was unbeaten in seven fights in that time. Ali noted his opponent’s lack of experience and made the mistake of training accordingly.
In February 1978, Leon Spinks joined a very exclusive club. It had just two other members, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. The entry test was specific and very stiff: you had to have beaten the great Muhammad Ali in the ring. Spinks had the good fortune of making his entry bid when Ali was 36 year old and a declining force. Nevertheless, the boxing world was still stunned when he took his opportunity and claimed the greatest prize in sport.
Spinks was born on July 11, 1953. One of seven children, he grew up in straitened circumstances in a St Louis ghetto. Lack of money and opportunity spurred him on to make a career for himself in the ring; and once he embarked on the road, the early privations gave him a fierce drive to succeed. First he scaled the heights of the amateur world by taking the light-heavyweight gold medal at the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976. It was the same title that his hero, Muhammad Ali, had won 16 years earlier. Spinks used his Olympic success to launch his professional career, which began in January 1977. In the next 13 months he had seven fights, including four first-round knockouts. Then, at the age of 24, he was given a shot at the world title.
Spinks wins split decision
Ali didn’t rate Spinks. Always ready to undermine his opponents with a disdainful soubriquet, Ali cranked up the pre-fight hype by calling Spinks ‘Goofy’. The bookmakers agreed with the assessment, if not the way it was expressed. Spinks was a 10-1 shot to depose the champion. They were the kind of outsider’s odds that the young Cassius Clay had faced when he stepped into the ring against the ‘invincible’ Sonny Liston 15 years earlier. An undertrained Ali tried to rope-a-dope the young pretender, but Spinks was young and strong and didn’t tire as the champion expected. It was Spinks who landed the better punches, and he got the benefit of a split decision. Referee Art Lurie scored the fight in Ali’s favour, with both judges giving it to Spinks. There was some dissent from those ringside, who felt that Ali was robbed. Ali was dignified in defeat, however. He conceded that it was a fair decision, and immediately disappointed those who wanted to see him retire by vowing to fight on.
While Ali was left to lick his wounds, the new champion had the world at his feet. His purse for the title fight had been £150,000. Now there was the prospect of getting a lot nearer the £1.75 million that Ali had been paid. It didn’t work out as planned, however. The WBC ordered Spinks to meet Ken Norton in his first defence. Spinks demurred, preferring to line up a lucrative return with Ali. The WBC duly stripped Spinks of their title, installing Ken Norton – the conqueror of Jimmy Young – as champion. Arrangements for the Spinks-Ali return continued regardless. The fact that only the WBA crown was now at stake didn’t dent the interest that it generated. The fight took place in New Orleans, on September 15, 1978. This one also went the distance, but the decision was more clear-cut. Ali gave an outstanding performance, the last of his glittering career. He made Spinks look like a novice, and in the process gave him an unwanted place in the record books: his seven-months tenure as heavyweight champion was the shortest in ring history.
Still only 25, there should have been plenty of time for Spinks to bounce back. But Neon Leon had already reached his pinnacle; now there was a steady decline. After losing his crown, Spinks was knocked out in barely two minutes by Gerrie Coetzee. He recovered from that reversal to win his next four fights and earn himself a crack at Larry Holmes for the WBC title. That fight took place in Detroit, on June 12, 1981. Holmes destroyed the former champion in three rounds. Spinks continued to ply his trade, stepping down to the cruiserweight and junior-heavyweight divisions. There would be no more glory days, however. Nor was there much inner peace. Spinks was a man who often seemed to be at war with himself. He was also certainly ill-used by some of those around him, whose interest quickly waned when he became a loser. Spinks was no great boxer and certainly not a distinguished champion. But the record books show that he is up there in very illustrious company as someone who scaled the heights of the amateur boxing world, then repeated the achievement in the professional ranks.