One year before he met Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world, young Leon Spinks said, he was riding in a car with his idol and kidding him.
“I told him I had broken into his house, tried on his championship belt and it was a perfect fit,” Spinks once recalled. “And then I also tried on his crown, but that it was a little big.”
Considering Spinks at the time was an uneducated, often unintelligible product of the St. Louis projects, it’s hard to be sure that story is true. But what is known is that on Feb. 15, 1978, in Las Vegas, a gap-toothed Spinks authored one of the biggest upsets in boxing history by winning Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title in a 15-round split decision.
For exactly seven months, Spinks was king of the world in boxing circles — and acted like it. He partied hard but didn’t train hard for the obligatory rematch, so it was no surprise when Ali regained the title in a 15-round unanimous decision Sept. 15.
Afterward Spinks disappeared from boxing’s increasingly dim spotlight as quickly as he had emerged. At age 27 in 1980, he failed to land a punch against an opponent making his professional debut. In the years since, he has been regarded as a fluke champion noted mostly (if at all) as the brother of former heavyweight champion Michael Spinks and father of current IBF super welterweight champ Cory Spinks.
But nobody can deny what he accomplished in the ring 30 years ago this week, albeit with a large helping hand from Ali himself.
Ali, then 36 and obviously over the hill, had considered retirement after winning a brutal fight against Earnie Shavers five months earlier. Then the champ’s huge ego got in the way. Calling Spinks’ manager, Butch Lewis, Ali bellowed, “I want your boy bad! I beat [Floyd] Patterson, [George] Foreman and [Joe] Frazier, who also won [Olympic] gold medals! I’m gonna beat ‘em all before I retire!”
Trouble was, Ali didn’t take Spinks seriously. Leon had fought just seven times as a pro after collecting Olympic gold as a light heavyweight in Montreal in 1976, and Ali must have expected an easy night. He was a bloated 242 when he started training — by the fight he was down only to 236 with rolls of fat peeking over his trunks — and sparred just 24 rounds before the bell rang. Las Vegas oddsmakers installed him as a 5-1 favorite, and there was little money on Spinks.
Boxing history reveals that few bouts are won without hard preparation. Spinks, an ex-Marine, was hungry for a victory that would give him financial security for the first time. And as Foreman had noted after watching him in the Olympics, “Leon is not a boxer, but he’s the best street fighter I’ve ever seen.”
When Ali entered the ring, Spinks joined in the applause — and then began to make his waddling rival look foolish. He ignored Ali’s famous “rope-a-dope” tactics, cut off the ring, constantly pounded the older man to the body and survived a late comeback attempt by the fading lion.
Ali knew his title was slipping away. Awaiting the start of the ninth round, he lamented to trainer Angelo Dundee, “He’s young, soooo young.”
After the fight, Ali was both gracious and honest, saying, “I messed up. I was lousy. But I don’t want to take anything away from Spinks. He fought a good fight and never quit. He made a fool out of everybody, even me.”
Despite Ali’s courageous effort in regaining the title — he trained hard this time, while Spinks didn’t — his best days were behind him. He finally retired in 1980 after taking a fearful pounding from Larry Holmes, one of many late in his career that likely contributed to the onset of Parkinson’s syndrome later in life.
“If I had to pick a spot to tell him, ‘You’ve got all your marbles — don’t go on,’ it would have been after the fight with Frazier in Manila [in 1975],” ring doctor and TV analyst Ferdie Pacheco said. “After that, he began to take bad beatings.”
Meanwhile, few champions savored a title as briefly as Leon Spinks. Years later, perhaps ruefully, he said, “I wanted the name of Spinks to mean something besides dirt. I wanted to be a somebody.”
And in the final reckoning he was — a somebody who didn’t know how to handle success.