Headshot of Leon Spinks. Courtesy of USA Boxing.
Leon Spinks, a 1976 Olympic gold medalist in boxing who shocked the world when he upset Muhammad Ali a year and a half later, died Friday in Henderson, Nevada, his family announced. He was 67.
Originally from St. Louis, Spinks began boxing at age 13 as an escape from the tough neighborhood he grew up in. After dropping out of high school and joining the Marines, Spinks became a prolific amateur fighter, rising to prominence with his powerful, brawling style. In 1976 he qualified for the Montreal Games alongside younger brother Michael Spinks.
Competing in the light heavyweight division against opponents with more refined technique, Spinks nonetheless charged through the Olympic competition, knocking out his first opponent before winning three consecutive 5-0 decisions.
Facing Cuba’s Sixto Soria in the gold-medal bout, Spinks won when the referee stopped the contest in the third round. Michael Spinks also won a gold medal competing in the middleweight division.
Leon Spinks became best known, however, for his eighth pro fight, which took place on Feb. 15, 1978, in Las Vegas. Facing a heavily favored but aging Ali, Spinks steadily jabbed away at “The Greatest” before eventually winning a split decision to claim the heavyweight championship.
“I’m not The Greatest,” Spinks memorably proclaimed. “Just the latest.”
That proved to be the high point in Spinks’ career, however. Spinks was stripped of one of his heavyweight titles for refusing to fight the top contender, then lost a rematch with Ali seven months after the first meeting. He continued fighting until 1995, finally retiring at age 42 with a record of 26-17-3, with 14 knockouts.
Three of Spinks’ sons with girlfriend Zadie Mae Calvin went on to become boxers as well, with Cory Spinks becoming a welterweight champion.
Leon Spinks eventually moved to Las Vegas an in 2011 married Brenda Glur Spinks. He announced in 2019 that he was being treated for prostate cancer.