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The Unlikely Legend of Leon Spinks

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Before there was Buster Douglas, there was Leon Spinks. One could argue, with some gravity, that Douglas’s “Upset of the Century” over Mike Tyson was largely dubbed such due to modest hyperbole, and more accurately, the short memory of sportswriters and fans.

Sure, Buster’s KO of Mike Tyson in Tokyo back in 1990 was a stunner, but it surely made more sense than Leon Spinks (who had only been fighting professionally for barely one year) taking a unanimous decision over the greatest of all time. That’s not to say that Spinks was completely unheralded—he was a top amateur who took gold as a light heavyweight at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.

Still, when Leon Spinks entered the ring against the (admittedly fading) Ali in February of 1978, he had only 7 fights under his belt—one, a split draw against journeyman Scott Ledoux. What was he even doing in the arena in the first place? Which is probably what Ali was thinking too. Poorly prepped, and assuming an easy victory, the champ was consistently outboxed by the relative novice he met in the ring on that winter’s night in Las Vegas.

Spinks left Ali puffy and swollen, and when the split decision victory was announced for Spinks, the only mystery was how the judge who scored the fight for Ali saw the bout differently than the other two. I was in grade school at the time, and I can still remember the shock that made its way across the playground the next day. How did this happen?

Of course, in retrospect, the outcome makes more sense. Ali was well past his prime, didn’t take his training or his opponent seriously, and, as it turns out, Leon Spinks was pretty damn talented. For such an upset to take place, the stars have to line up just right.

Even so, when you compare it to the Douglas victory over Tyson, it still feels more shocking. Douglas was a big, highly-talented underachiever with 35 professional fights under his belt when he separated Tyson from his mouthpiece over 30 years ago. Spinks was hardly more than a well-regarded amateur with only 7 more pro fights than zero to his name.

After taking both the WBA and WBC belts from Ali, Spinks was stripped of the latter when he refused to fight the WBC’s number one contender, Ken Norton.

The March 19, 1978 NY Times sports section. Leon Spinks had to deal with plenty of BS in boxing, but the sport gave him a superb reason for being.

Instead, Leon Spinks gave Ali a rematch exactly 9 months later in the Louisiana Superdome. This time, Ali wasn’t looking past Spinks, had a strong training camp, and avenged the loss with a unanimous decision victory. In doing so, Ali became the first boxer to win the heavyweight title for a third time.

Sadly, the fortunes of Leon Spinks made a distinct turn for the worse after relinquishing the heavyweight crown to Ali.

In his very next bout in June of ’79, Spinks suffered a TKO defeat at the fists of Gerrie Coetzee. Spinks would fight for the heavyweight title just one more time, in 1981 against Larry Holmes, again losing by TKO.

After the loss to Holmes, Spinks moved down to the cruiserweight class, and had enough success to warrant a title bout against Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1986. Once again, Spinks went down to defeat by TKO.

Spinks held a record of 17-5-2 after the Qawi fight. He fought 22 more times over the next 9 years before retiring from the fight game in 1995. When he did, his record stood at a very modest 26-17-3.

If you look at his career in full context, he wasn’t even the best boxer in his family tree. Brother Michael, also a gold medalist in Montreal as a middleweight, went on to become a champion at light heavyweight before pulling his own sizable upset when he defeated Larry Holmes for the heavyweight title in September of ‘85.

Unlike Leon, Michael would win (although controversially) his rematch, before getting destroyed by Mike Tyson in 91 seconds in June of ‘88. Michael retired with a record of 31-1 and was later inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Leon’s son, Cory, had a fine professional career of his own, winning belts in both the welterweight and junior middleweight classes. Despite having very little punching power, Cory retired in 2013 with a fine record of 39-8.

While both brother and son may have outshined Leon’s boxing career in totality, neither ever had a night like Leon Spinks did on February 15, 1978. Much like the man he beat on that fabled evening did in ‘64 against Sonny Liston, Leon Spinks “shook up the world.”

Sadly, Leon’s post-boxing career was full of health troubles and tragedy. His speech began to slur and he was later diagnosed with brain shrinkage due to all those years taking shots to the head. His son Leon Calvin, a professional boxer himself with a 2-0 record as a light heavyweight, was shot to death in 1990 while driving to his girlfriend’s house.

And in February 5th, at the age of 67, Leon Spinks succumbed to prostate cancer which had spread.

Although the boxing career of Leon Spinks is largely made up of one single moment, what an extraordinary moment it was.

I can still recall the cover of Sports Illustrated from the week after Spinks defeated Ali. There the young man was on the cover, in a knit hat, and a wide smile that exposed two missing front teeth. Underneath his chin was his name in block letters with an exclamation point punctuating the magnitude of his accomplishment:

LEON!

However brief it was, who among us can claim such a distinction?

Who?

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