Boxing legend Leon Spinks died at the age of 67 on Friday night in a Henderson, Nevada, hospital near his home after battling with prostate cancer for several years, according to family friend Joe Bernal.
Spinks served in the Marine Corps before he rocketed to international fame in 1978 when he beat Muhammad Ali in a split decision to earn the undisputed world heavyweight title in what was considered one of the biggest upsets in boxing history.
“It was considered a mere joke,’’ fellow boxing great George Foreman told USA TODAY Sports when reflecting on that historic bout. “Why in the world would they put (Spinks) in the ring with Muhammad Ali with such a short boxing career?
“He beat the devil out of Muhammad, from pillar to post, even Muhammad was surprised.
“(Spinks) was legitimate, and he has his rightful place in the history of heavyweight boxers.’’
Spinks’ gap-toothed smile became his trademark as he burst on the scene as an amateur. Fighting alongside his brother Michael and a charismatic light welterweight by the name of Ray Leonard, they became most successful U.S. Olympic boxing team in history.
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.
Leonard, who got to know Spinks when they were members of that 1976 U.S. Olympic team, recalled their time together fondly.
“Personally speaking, he was one of the nicest guys,” Leonard told USA TODAY Sports. “He was a great guy to be around. Funny and hard working. He was all those things.’’
Fresh off his Olympic success, Leon Spinks turned professional the following year. In just his eighth pro bout, he squared off against the legendary Ali for the undisputed heavyweight title.
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.
He had one more heavyweight title fight – in 1981 – but lost to Larry Holmes in a third-round TKO.
Spinks retired in 1995 with a record of 26-17-3. He was named to the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame in 2017.
REWIND: Spinks fought cancer like an opponent in the ring