Born on July 11, 1953, in St. Louis, Missouri, boxer Leon Spinks won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1976 Olympic Games. He upset Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight title in 1978 after just seven professional bouts, but lost the rematch seven months later. Financial problems forced Spinks to continue fighting long past his prime until he retired in 1995 with a career record of 26-17-3.
Childhood and Amateur Boxing Career
Leon Spinks was born on July 11, 1953, in St. Louis, Missouri. He weighed less than four pounds at birth, and at 2 weeks old, he developed yellow jaundice and almost died.
As a boy, Spinks dealt with low blood pressure and periodic fainting spells, hardly a prescription for survival in the crime-infested area of St. Louis, where he resided. Along with his younger brother, Michael, who also went on to become a champion boxer, Spinks was a frequent target of neighborhood gangs.
"Sometimes I'd fight back," he later recalled. "But when we were younger, there were always too many guys fighting us at one time."
Spinks's childhood was also shaped by the absence of his father, who abandoned the family after his seventh child was born. That left the childrearing to Spinks's mother, Kay, a tough, God-fearing woman who survived off welfare assistance and read the Bible to her children for hours after supper every day.
Spinks made it to the 10th grade before dropping out of school and joining the Marine Corps. For the undisciplined 20-year-old, adjusting to military code was a tough transition. He frequently fought with his drill sergeants and his boot camp experience lasted an unprecedented six months.
Eventually, Spinks made peace with his new life, got out of boot camp and joined the All-Marine boxing team. By 1976, he was arguably the best amateur boxer in the world, wining all but seven of his fights and registering 133 knockouts over a three-year period.
At the 1974 World Games in Cuba, Spinks captured the bronze medal as a light heavyweight. He collected the silver the following year at the Pan-American Games, then won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada.
World Heavyweight Champion
Spinks made his professional debut on January 15, 1977, in Las Vegas, Nevada, knocking out Bob Smith in the fifth round for the victory. He was 6-0-1 as a pro and had boxed just 31 rounds when he got the call to fight his boyhood idol, Muhammad Ali.
Ranked as one of the greatest upsets in boxing history, Spinks won the undisputed world heavyweight championship from Ali with a 15-round split decision on February 15, 1978.
"He wasn't in great condition," Spinks later said of Ali. "[He] ran out of gas and I could've gone 20 [rounds]. I just know one thing—I went with one thing my mother taught me. When a man hits you, hit him back."
Just two months later, Spinks was stripped of the World Boxing Council title for refusing to defend his belt against the No. 1 contender, Ken Norton. Spinks, who still retained his World Boxing Association crown, chose to fight Ali again for a bigger payday.
But the rematch did not go like the earlier fight. For the September 15, 1978, matchup in New Orleans, the 36-year-old Ali showed up in top shape and beat Spinks in a 15-round unanimous decision.
For Spinks, there were other losses that came outside the ring. Still undisciplined, the former champion clouded his training with drugs and alcohol. Ultimately, he sputtered away an estimated $5 million in winnings.
Spinks initially retired in 1988 and took a job as greeter at National Football League coach Mike Ditka's restaurant in Chicago. Financial problems forced his return to the ring in 1991, but he was a shell of the fighter who had once dethroned Ali. Finally, in 1995, a weathered and beaten Spinks hung up his gloves for good with a professional record of 26 wins, 17 losses and three draws.
Spinks's monetary troubles continued after his final retirement. For a period, the former champ was homeless and living in a shelter. He later found work as a weekend custodian at the YMCA in Columbus, Nebraska, while batting the onset of dementia.
Three of Spinks's sons have followed him into the ring, including his youngest, Cory, who was born just days after his father's upset of Ali and went on to become a light-middleweight and welterweight champion.
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