Leon Spinks, who unexpectedly defeated world boxing legend Muhammed Ali in February 1978 to claim the heavyweight championship, died on Friday at the age of 67.
He succumbed to prostate cancer and other forms of cancer that had ailed him in recent years, public relation group Firm PR said in a statement.
At just 24 years old, unranked and considered an underdog by everyone, Spinks shocked the boxing world when he defeated Ali, then 36, in a 15-round bout in front of a crowd of 5,300 people in the Pavilion at the Las Vegas Hilton. The judges awarded Spinks a victory by split decision.
“I’m not The Greatest,” Spinks said afterward. “Just the latest.”
However, Spinks’ reign as heavyweight champion did not last long. Ali reclaimed his title from Spinks in September 1978 in front of a crowd of 72,000 people at the Superdome in New Orleans and a national TV audience estimated at 90 million people – nearly half the U.S. viewership at the time.
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And just like that, Spinks’ name, with his signature missing front-teeth grin and easy-going personality, were marked in the boxing legend books. His career took a downwards spiral from there. He fought on and off into the mid-1990s.
His career ended with a record of 26 victories, 17 defeats, and three draws.
“He was a good soul,” said Gene Kilroy, who was Ali’s business manager when he fought Spinks, in an AP interview.
Born July 11, 1953, Spinks was raised in poverty in St. Louis. He was the oldest of seven children and started boxing at a young age before he dropped out of high school in his junior year. He joined the Marines boxing program where he lost his front teeth.
In 1976, Spinks won gold in the light heavyweight division for Team USA at the Montreal Olympics.
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Heavy drinking and a party life cost him all his boxing fortunes. By 2005, he was living in Columbus, Nebraska, where he unloaded trucks and worked as a custodian at the YMCA to help make ends meet.
Spinks married three times and was the father to three sons, all of whom became boxers.
“‘Neon Leon’ – a 1976 Olympic champion – reached the very top in just his eighth professional fight. It’s an achievement that should never be downplayed nor forgotten,” Boxing News tweeted.