Ten-Count for Leon Spinks
By Robert Ecksel on February 7, 2021
Spinks burned through money like there was no tomorrow. (Illustration: Robert Ecksel)
“When I was champion, no one would leave me alone. And then, when I lost, people still wouldn’t leave me alone.”—Former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks
Former undisputed world heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, the one-time Olympic gold medalist who started Muhammad Ali on his long goodbye when the two men fought on February 15, 1978, died Friday night after a long battle with cancer. He was 67.
Spinks won gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. He turned pro on January 15, 1977, and his record was an unimpressive 6-1 when he was selected to fight the reigning and defending champion. Spinks was a 10:1 underdog going into the fight, but his youth, he was 24 at the time, compared to Ali’s shopworn 36, was enough to give the upstart advantages which The Greatest failed to overcome that night.
Seven months later, Spinks fought a rematch with Ali at the Superdome in New Orleans, but not before the WBC stripped him of one of the two titles he won in his last fight. As incomprehensible then as now, it was a slap in the face harder that any of the punches Ali threw in their first meeting. It was also a lesson he could neither forget nor unlearn.
Like countless other fighters who were plucked from obscurity and showered with riches, Spinks, while he enjoyed himself and earned the nickname “Neon Leon,” was ill-equipped to deal with his newfound celebrity. He couldn’t handle the attention. He couldn’t control his drinking. He burned through money like there was no tomorrow. “Money?” he said. “You have it and then you don’t have it. You learn from your mistakes.” Leon’s younger brother agreed, but dealt less in generalities. “He got involved with backslappers and leeches,” said Michael. “What Leon went through was like a rush through the Twilight Zone.”
Ali regained the title by a unanimous 15-round decision, becoming the first three-time lineal heavyweight champion in history. He retired after the victory over Spinks, only to return two years later to suffer beatings at the hands of Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick.
Leon Spinks continued fighting into the mid-1990s, usually at cruiserweight and often as a curio instead a legend, his early glory fading with the years and his health, before calling it quits with a record of 26-17-3.