Leon Spinks is an Olympic gold medalist, World Heavy Weight Boxing Champion, and U.S. Marine. He was born on July 11, 1953, in St. Louis, Missouri. He dropped out of high school, making it to the 10th grade before joining the Marine Corps, in 1973. The undisciplined 20-year-old didn’t adjust well to military structure and frequently fought with his drill instructors. His boot camp experience lasted six months, because he was recycled during training.
Eventually, Spinks made peace with his new life, graduated boot camp and joined the All-Marine boxing team. Within seconds of Spinks stepping into the ring for the first time as a Marine Corps boxer in the Area II gym aboard Camp Lejeune, coach J.C. Davis knew he had a rising star.
At the 1974 World Games in Cuba, Spinks captured the bronze medal as a light heavyweight. He collected the silver the following year at the Pan-American Games, then won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Canada.
By 1976, he was arguably the best amateur boxer in the world, wining all but seven of his fights and registering 133 knockouts over a three-year period.
Corporal Spinks was discharged from the Marine Corps and made his professional boxing debut on January 15, 1977, in Las Vegas, knocking out Bob Smith in the fifth round for the victory. He was 6-0-1 as a pro and had boxed just 31 rounds when he got the call to fight his boyhood idol, Muhammad Ali.
Ranked as one of the greatest upsets in boxing history, Spinks won the undisputed world heavyweight championship from Ali with a 15-round split decision on February 15, 1978.
Just two months later, Spinks was stripped of the World Boxing Council title for refusing to defend his belt against the No. 1 contender, Ken Norton. Spinks, who still retained his World Boxing Association crown, chose to fight Ali again for a bigger payday, but the rematch didn’t go like the earlier fight; Ali showed up in top shape and beat Spinks in a 15-round unanimous decision.
For Spinks, there were other losses that came outside the ring, the former champion clouded his training with drugs and alcohol, which led to him losing an estimated $5 million in winnings.
Spinks initially retired in 1988 and took a job as greeter at National Football League coach Mike Ditka‘s restaurant in Chicago. Financial problems forced his return to the ring in 1991. Finally, in 1995, a weathered and beaten Spinks hung up his gloves for good with a professional record of 26 wins, 17 losses and three draws.
Spinks’s monetary troubles continued after his final retirement. For a period, the former champ was homeless and living in a shelter. He later found work as a weekend custodian at the YMCA in Columbus, Nebraska, while battling the onset of dementia and suffering from a traumatic brain injury because of his years in the ring causing him to slur his words.
During the 1990s, Spinks worked for Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling, winning its world title in 1992, making him the only man to hold titles in both boxing and wrestling. In the late 1990s, Spinks was a headliner on a year long touring autograph show.
In 2009 Spinks was featured as part of the 2009 documentary Facing Ali, in which notable former opponents of Ali speak about how fighting Ali changed their lives.
As of 2012, Spinks lives in Columbus, Nebraska, with his wife, Brenda, and his service dog, a black lab named “Sammy.”
In April 2016, Spinks was inducted in the Marine Corps Boxing Hall of Fame, at a ceremony held at Goettge Memorial Field House on Camp Lejeune.
Three of Spinks’s sons have followed him into the ring, including his youngest, Cory, who was born just days after his father’s upset of Ali and went on to become a light-middleweight and welterweight champion.
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