On Saturday night, the boxing world lost Leon Spinks at the age of 67. Considering the amount of punishment Leon absorbed in the ring and his personal demons outside the ring, it was a major miracle that he lived that long. Despite the fact that he has long suffered from both physical and financial difficulties, Leon managed to always be in a jovial mood when approached by boxing fans. Whenever I see Shawn Porter fight, I see the same energy and hunger that Leon possessed in winning the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. It was that same energy that was the key in upsetting Muhammad Ali the night of February 15, 1978 in Las Vegas.
I remember Leon’s first fight with Ali like it was yesterday. The fight occurred on a Wednesday night and aired nationally on CBS. It was a school night and normally I’d have to be in bed by 9 p.m., but my parents allowed me to stay awake to watch the fight. Matter of fact, it was one of the rare occasions that I watched a fight with both of my parents. My mother absolutely abhors boxing. Even today, she doesn’t understand my love affair with the sport. However, the one fighter she has always been fascinated with was Muhammad Ali. That night, over 70 million people in the United States alone tuned in to CBS to see what was supposed to be an easy victory for the past-his-prime Ali versus a fighter in Leon who only had seven pro fights under his belt. Leon had other plans.
Leon had looked less than impressive in his previous two fights. He looked very lackluster in getting a gift eight-round draw versus Scott LeDoux and then barely defeated Alfio Righetti via 10-round decision. Ali’s last fight was a life and death struggle against one of the biggest punchers in boxing history, Earnie Shavers. Ali took an ungodly amount of punishment in that fight before coming on strong late in the fight in securing a 15-round decision. Since regaining the world heavyweight title from George Foreman on October 29, 1974, Ali had engaged in one too many wars. My father was hoping this Spinks fight would be his last as his next fight would be against Ken Norton for a fourth time. My father felt a fourth fight versus Norton wouldn’t end well for Ali. Leon made sure that fourth fight would never happen.
The first eight rounds saw Ali do absolutely nothing but lay up against the ropes and employ his rope a dope strategy. Ali took an incredible amount of liver shots that night as the 6’1, 197-pound Spinks battered Ali’s body with hook after hook. Legendary trainer Georgie Benton had instructed Leon to just dig to the body like Joe Frazier did in all three of his fights with Ali. This, in theory, would slow Ali down in the latter stages of the fight when the champ would attempt to make his comeback against the young challenger who had never gone past 10 rounds before. Benton was right on the money with his strategy. While Ali rallied feverishly between rounds nine through fourteen, his punches lacked the firepower needed to put away an extremely exhausted Spinks. In an incredible 15th and final round, it was Leon who had Ali in serious trouble right before the final bell sounded. Both my parents and I sat in silent disbelief. Spinks won by split decision (how judge Art Lurie scored the fight for Ali was criminal) and at 24 was the heavyweight champion of the world. It would also be the last time he would ever win a significant fight.
Instead of fighting Norton next, Spinks fought Ali exactly seven months later in a much more lucrative rematch in front of over 63,000 fans at the New Orleans Superdome. The WBC stripped Spinks of their version of the heavyweight title and awarded it to Norton. An additional 90 million people in the United States watched the fight on ABC. Leon was completely listless that night as he had spent his new worldwide fame and money by indulging in drugs and women instead of training. Ali had one last decent fight left in him and boxed his way to a comfortable 15-round decision. Leon fought for another 17 years and lost 16 of the 37 fights he engaged in during that time span.
Despite his fall from grace and his life spiraling out of control, the night of February 15, 1978 will always be the defining moment in the legacy of Leon Spinks. It was the night that a young man who grew up in a poverty stricken St. Louis environment and served in the United States Marines while winning an Olympic gold medal, defeated the biggest icon in sports history. That night can never be taken away from him. I was nine years old at the time. I cried so much that night seeing Ali lose that I couldn’t sleep. I also shed a tear when Leon died this past Saturday.