SAINT LOUIS, Mo. — Leon Spinks, the St. Louis native who went from growing up in the Pruitt Igoe housing project to defeating the legendary Muhammad Ali at the Hilton in Las Vegas for the world heavyweight championship after only seven professional fights, died Friday night after a years-long battle with cancer. He was 67.
Spinks developed his passion for boxing after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps for three years in the early 1970s. When he stepped into the boxing ring at Camp Lejeune for the first time, he knocked out his opponent in under 15 seconds.
Prior to Spinks’ induction into the All-Marine Boxing Alumni Hall of Fame in 2016, J. C. Davis, a Marine Corps assistant coach at the time, reflected on “Neon” Leon’s inaugural fight.
"I mean Leon did that combination, boom, boom, and this guy was out. I looked at the time and I looked at (head coach Art Redden) and I said, 'S---, we've got a champion,'" he told The Daily News in Jacksonville, Florida.
Spinks would go on to continue representing the U.S. in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, where he won a gold medal. He won his first medal, a bronze, during the 1974 AIBA World Boxing Championships in Havana. A year later, Spinks earned a silver medal at the Pan American Games in Mexico City.
Spinks and his trademark gap-toothed smile, however, became infamous in July 1978 when he defeated Ali in a 15-round split decision fight before a sold-out crowd of nearly 5,300 fans.
"You're a great fighter and a fine man," Spinks told Ali.
Ali replied: "Thanks. You ain't so bad yourself."
Ali outweighed the new champion, whose fight against "The Greatest" was his eighth professional bout, by 25 pounds.
In a rematch seven months later to the day, Ali defeated Spinks in a unanimous decision to regain the title at the Superdome in New Orleans before a crowd of 63,352 which, at the time, was the largest indoor attendance for a boxing match. The worldwide television audience was estimated at 2 billion people.
Spinks was inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame in August 2017 along with his brother Michael Spinks, Thomas Hearns and Ken Norton.
In all, Spinks fought in 46 professional fights, winning 26 of them. His last heavyweight title boxing match was in 1981 against Larry Holmes, who defeated him by technical knockout in the third round. Spinks continued fighting on and off into the mid-1990s
Spinks was hospitalized twice in Las Vegas in 2014 for surgery due to abdominal problems — the second time after complications from the initial surgery. He was diagnosed in May 2019 with prostate cancer that spread to his bladder.
Spinks is survived by his longtime companion, Brenda (Glur) Spinks, whom he married in 1999; sons Cory and Darrell; a brother; and a grandson. Another son, Leon Calvin, died in 1990 when he was shot in a car at the entrance to the Martin Luther King Bridge in East St. Louis, Illinois, while on his way back to St. Louis.