Olympic gold medalist and former heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks died at a Henderson, Nevada hospital late Friday evening, with his wife Brenda by his side. Spinks had been battling numerous health problems but ultimately succumbed to prostate cancer.
Spinks took home Olympic gold for the United States at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and turned pro just one year later. By 1978 and in just his eighth professional fight, Spinks took on Muhammad Ali for the WBA and WBC heavyweight titles. In a massive upset, Spinks defeated Ali by 15-round split decision and became the only man to ever dethrone Ali as heavyweight champion.
When Spinks opted to rematch Ali instead of face Ken Norton, the St. Louis native was stripped of his WBC title. Ali would later take the WBA title back by unanimous decision in front of an estimated 90 million television viewers on ABC and 63,000+ in New Orleans’ Superdome. It proved to be the final win of Ali’s career.
Unfortunately for Spinks his career really never recovered from losing to Ali. A brutal first-round thrashing vs. Gerrie Coetzee soon followed, and after stopping contender Bernardo Mercado in 1980, he was stopped in three by Larry Holmes in 1981. Clearly undersized as a heavyweight — Spinks often weighed in the 194-210 lbs range — Spinks dropped to cruiserweight and returned to his winning ways. That came to a halt when he was dominated by WBA champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1986. It was his last major title bout and one of his last relevant fights of his career.
Spinks also carved out a career in professional wrestling, notably competing against Antonio Inoki in New Japan Pro Wrestling and winning the Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling title in 1992.
In 1995, Spinks retired from boxing with a record of 26-17-3 (14 KOs). Sadly, among his many health problems was a dementia diagnosis. Doctors detected shrinkage in his brain in 2012 and surmised that the accumulation of punches he absorbed throughout his career was the most likely cause.
Spinks’ brother Michael was a world champion at light heavyweight and heavyweight, while Leon’s son Cory was an undisputed welterweight champion and also won titles at junior middleweight in the 2000s.
Leon Spinks was 67 years old.