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Leon Spinks, who beat Muhammad Ali in historic upset in 1978, dies at 67

Leon Spinks, who unexpectedly defeated Muhammad Ali to win the world heavyweight boxing championship in 1978, only to lose his title seven months later and become something of a cautionary tale for the dangers of his sport, died Feb. 5 in Henderson, Nev. He was 67.
The death was announced by a publicity company, Firm PR. He had battled prostate cancer and other ailments for several years.

During the seven glorious months that he held the heavyweight crown, Mr. Spinks tasted the greatest success his brutal sport had to offer. He had fought in the Marine Corps, he had won a gold medal at the Olympic Games in 1976, but he was not considered a leading contender for the heavyweight title when he stepped into the ring against Ali in Las Vegas on Feb. 15, 1978. It was only his eighth professional fight.

Mr. Spinks was 24 at the time and had grown up in poverty in St. Louis idolizing the man he was fighting for the title. Ali was 36 and already a legend in the sport.

That night in the ring, Ali was sluggish and, at 224 pounds, a little overweight. But no one expected the reigning champion to have much trouble with the unproven and unpolished Mr. Spinks, whose smile outside the boxing ring revealed a huge gap where his front teeth had once been.

Ali was careless in the early rounds as the lean, 197-pound Mr. Spinks built an early lead. Later in the fight, Ali tried to knock out his inexperienced challenger, but Mr. Spinks summoned an inner determination. Amid the punches he was absorbing and delivering, he said he had a momentary flashback to his childhood.

“My dad had gone around and told people I would never be anything,” he told Sports Illustrated after the fight. “It hurt me. I’ve never forgotten it. I made up my mind that I was going to be somebody in this world. That, whatever price I had to pay, I was going to succeed at something.”

He battled back, shaking off Ali’s desperate punches and fighting with a renewed strength, despite his near exhaustion. In the end, after 15 rounds, the judges awarded Mr. Spinks a victory by split decision. It was one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history.

“I recall thinking,” Ali said after the fight, “that kid is a tough son of a bitch.”

After the fight, Mr. Spinks praised his opponent, saying of Ali, “He’s still the greatest, I’m just the latest.”

Exulting in his unlikely victory, Mr. Spinks wore the championship belt around his waist in his hotel room, then used his earnings to buy two Cadillacs, a Lincoln Continental, two houses and thousands of dollars of jewelry. One of his bodyguards later became known as the actor Mr. T.

Mr. Spinks signed a contract to meet Ali in a rematch seven months after their first fight.

“He’s still my idol,” Mr. Spinks said of Ali. “He always will be. But in the ring, when he throws a punch, I get to throw a punch back. In the ring he’s just another guy between me and me doing my thing.”

Training halfheartedly, Mr. Spinks drank late into the night, cavorted with women who were not his wife — he was then on the first of his three marriages — and burned through his cash.

“People don’t like the way I spend and spend my money, and that hurts me,” Mr. Spinks told Sports Illustrated. “They don’t understand that I ain’t never had nothing, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

The fight took place in New Orleans before a crowd of 63,000, with 2 billion more people watching telecasts around the world. Mr. Spinks lost the one-sided bout by unanimous decision. It was the third time Ali had won the heavyweight title, securing his legacy as the preeminent boxer of his era.

Mr. Spinks received $3.75 million for the rematch, but it was the end of a dream, and the beginning of a long, steep descent. He would never wear the championship belt again.

In 1979, he was knocked out in the first round of a fight in Monte Carlo by South African Gerrie Coetzee. Afterward, Mr. Spinks broke into a closed hotel bar, doing so much damage that his manager received a bill for $12,000.

Two years later, Mr. Spinks had climbed back into contention and met Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship. The fight was stopped in the third round, with Mr. Spinks being helplessly pummeled.

Later that year, he was robbed in Detroit, with the muggers taking his $45,000 fur coat — and his false front teeth. Still, he fought on, losing weight to compete in the cruiserweight division, only to lose a title bid to Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1986.

By then, Mr. Spinks was the forgotten member of the Spinks family. In 1985, his younger brother, Michael, the onetime light-heavyweight champion, defeated Holmes for the heavyweight title, avenging his brother’s loss of four years earlier.

Michael Spinks held the heavyweight title for three years before losing to Mike Tyson in a brutal, one-round knockout in 1988. Michael Spinks never boxed again, but his older brother fought on, searching for a big payday and hoping to recapture the moment of glory he had known in 1978.

He kept returning to the ring into his 40s, long after his speech had begun to slur. He lost his final fight to a little-known opponent in 1995, ending his career with a record of 26 wins, 17 defeats and 3 draws.

Mr. Spinks briefly tried professional wrestling, racked up one drunk-driving arrest after another, moved to Detroit, later to Chicago and then, when his money ran out, stayed in a dank room at a boxing gym.

By 2005, he was living in Columbus, Neb., the hometown of his third wife, and supporting himself by unloading trucks and working as a janitor at the YMCA. “Well I’m still breathing, still making money,” he said. “I ain’t giving up on life.”

Leon Spinks Jr. was born July 11, 1953, in St. Louis, the oldest of seven children. His father abandoned the family, and Mr. Spinks did not finish high school. He took up boxing at a young age, then served in the Marine Corps, where he lost his front teeth in a boxing match. (He later lost two more teeth.)

As the culmination of a 185-bout amateur boxing career, he won the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.

His marriages to Nova Bush and Betty Wilson ended in divorce. He had three sons from an earlier relationship with Zadie Mae Calvin, all of whom became boxers. One of his sons, Leon Calvin Spinks, was shot to death in 1990.

Mr. Spinks occasionally appeared at autograph signings and was part of a 2009 documentary, “Facing Ali,” featuring interviews with Ali’s opponents. He lived near Las Vegas in recent years.

Survivors include his wife, the former Brenda Glur; two sons from his relationship with Calvin, Darryl Calvin Spinks and Cory Spinks, who was the undisputed welterweight champion from 2003 to 2005; his brother, Michael Spinks; and other siblings. A grandson, Leon Spinks III, was a professional light-heavyweight boxer.

“What I wanted was to make the Spinks name stand up and mean something,” Mr. Spinks told the New York Times in 1981. “Well, I can tell my grandkids that, hey, one time at least, we used to be the tops.”

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