Leon Spinks, former world heavyweight champion, dies aged 67

American claimed a famous upset win over Muhammad Ali in February 1978

Leon Spinks shocked the boxing world with his win over Muhammad Ali in February 1978. Photograph: Getty Images

Leon Spinks shocked the boxing world with his win over Muhammad Ali in February 1978. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Former world heavyweight champion Leon Spinks has died, aged 67.

The American, who in just his eighth professional fight claimed a famous upset win over Muhammad Ali in February 1978, was plagued by health issues in his later years and was diagnosed with advanced stage prostate cancer in 2019.

Spinks’s management, The Firm PR & Marketing, said in a statement the former US marine died on Friday evening in Henderson, Nevada, with his wife Brenda Glur Spinks by his side, and with “only a few close friends and other family” allowed to be present due to coronavirus restrictions.

“Leon fought his battle with numerous illnesses resiliently, never losing his trademark smile. Showing true Spinks determination, he never threw in the towel,” the statement said.

“His final fight was fought with the same skill, grace and grit that had carried him through so many lifetime challenges.”

Split decision

Spinks won gold at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal then rose to greater prominence a little more than 18 months later, given the nod via split decision to stun Ali and claim the WBC, WBA and lineal heavyweight titles.

In one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport, Spinks defied his 10-1 underdog odds with bookmakers to prevail after 15 rounds, winning 145-140 and 144-141 on two scorecards while a third went in favour of Ali 143-142.

His reign lasted exactly seven months as a sharper and fitter Ali gained revenge in an immediate rematch in September 1978, becoming the first ever three-time lineal heavyweight champion after a wide points win.

There would be no trilogy bout and though Spinks did get another opportunity for heavyweight glory in June 1981, there was no fairytale result this time as he was beaten up and stopped inside three rounds by Larry Holmes.

Spinks then dropped down to cruiserweight but was defeated by WBA champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1986. He boxed on for another nine years and finished with a modest record of 26 wins, 17 defeats and three draws.

Gap-toothed grin

Well-known for his gap-toothed grin, Spinks’s battles in the ring contributed to his ill-health in later life. It was found he had shrinkage in the brain in 2012 before his cancer diagnosis was confirmed a few years later.

His son Cory is a former undisputed welterweight champion who also won a world title in the light-middleweight division.

Spinks’s younger brother Michael, meanwhile, reigned as undisputed light-heavyweight champion for a period in the 1980s, before moving up to heavyweight, where he won the IBF title and avenged Leon’s loss to Holmes.

The Firm’s statement added: “Leon built a life defined by incredible strength and will to match. He was a supreme and powerful athlete, but he was also a loving husband to his wife Brenda, loving father and step-father to his sons. He was a devoted grandfather and a friend to those who knew him.”

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