Spinks, then 24, pulled the upset in a split decision to win the title. However, he lost a rematch with Ali seven months later by unanimous decision.
While Spinks had numerous wins under his belt before debuting professionally in 1977, he cemented his place in boxing history by upsetting the legendary Muhammad Ali on Feb. 15, 1978 in Las Vegas. In what would become one of boxing’s most memorable victories, Spinks became the heavyweight champion.
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All three fighters won gold at the 1976 Summer Games, as did countrymen Howard Davis and Leo Randolph. Teammates Charles Mooney won silver and John Tate bronze.
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Spinks won gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. But he rose in prominence when he beat Muhammed Ali for the heavyweight title in 1978.
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Among the notable people in Spinks’ entourage was Lawrence Tureaud, who would later be known as the actor Mr. T and served as bodyguard for the champion.
But Leon truly cemented his place in history on February 15, 1978, in Las Vegas, Nevada, when he shocked the world by beating Muhammed Ali, to become the undisputed World Heavyweight Boxing champion Leon entered that fight with only seven prior professional fights, weighing only 197 pounds and being outweighed by over 25 pounds.
His final fight was fought with the same skill, grace and grit that had carried him through so many life challenges.
Leonard, who got to know Spinks when they were members of that 1976 U.S. Olympic team, recalled their time together fondly.
Spinks would lose the rematch to Ali in New Orleans and fought for the title only once after that, when he was stopped in the third round in 1981 by Larry Holmes. He continued fighting on and off into the mid-1990s, finishing with a record of 26-17-3.
There wasn’t much money left for him to enjoy. In 2005, he was “nearly broke” and working in Columbus, Nebraska, as a part-time janitor at a YMCA, according to an article published in the New York Times. He spoke of spending time in an East St. Louis, Illinois, homeless shelter. He was in the early stages of dementia.
Arum was in the dressing room with Ali after the fight, and said Ali directed him to sign Spinks to a quick rematch. The two fought seven months later in a prime-time fight on CBS that set television viewing records at the time, with nearly half the country tuning in.