Happy Birthday, Leon Spinks - Former Heavyweight Champion Of The World

leon spinks10.07.07 - By James Slater: Though he was talented enough to capture both an Olympic gold medal and the heavyweight championship of the world, Leon Spinks, who turns fifty-four this Wednesday, is a man known to most fans as a somewhat tragic figure.

Known as “Neon Leon” during his most famous years, Spinks was a guy who soon lost both his money and then, seemingly, his way. Not too long ago, there was an article published in a British newspaper that told the tale of how Leon was now reduced to cleaning out toilets somewhere in the U.S for a living. This pretty much sums up how things went from bad to worse for “Neon Leon.” Like his brother Michael, Leon was able to capture a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics held in Montreal.

The two brothers soon turned pro, but it was older sibling Leon who triumphed as a paid athlete first. Making his debut in January of 1977 at the age of twenty-three, Leon stopped a guy named Bob Smith in five rounds in Las Vegas. No-one knew it at the time, but a shot at the world title would be his a mere six more fights down the road. And not just against an “ordinary” heavyweight champ, but against “The Greatest” himself, Muhammad Ali! Even more shockingly, as history tells us, Spinks actually won.

In only his eighth fight, in a career that included a draw with Scott LeDoux, Leon shocked the world with a fifteen round points win over the thirty-six year old Ali. The fight was somehow scored a split decision, but to all observers except judge Art Laurie, who ludicrously scored the fight in Ali’s favor, Spinks’ hand being raised at the end was a formality. Ali had looked tired, disinterested and old during most of the contest. Okay, Ali was past his best and everyone knew it, but to have lost to such a novice was nevertheless a huge upset. Leon was the new king at age twenty-four. Pretty soon his gap-toothed smile was known to all.

In hindsight, winning the biggest prize in sports when so young and inexperienced wasn’t such a good thing for Leon. Unprepared for the responsibility and pressure being heavyweight champ brought with it, things went bad for him almost as soon as he’d finished celebrating. In fact, maybe he didn’t stop celebrating. Certainly, going into the rematch some seven months later, Spinks was not a finely tuned athlete. Reports of him having broken training camp so as to continue drinking and partying were all over the media going into Ali-Spinks II. While for his part, Ali had rededicated himself to vigorous training one more time. Leon lost his title in his very first defence via a unanimous decision. Ali made boxing history by becoming a three-time king at his expense. He didn’t know it at the time, but Leon would never again wear the heavyweight crown. Indeed, it was all pretty much down hill for “Neon Leon” as soon as he left the New Orleans Super dome on September 15th, 1978.

Next up, in June the following year, Leon was obliterated by the man with “The Bionic right hand,” in South Africa’s Gerrie Coetzee in a bout held in Monaco. Three times Leon was sent crashing to the canvas, and the match was stopped at two minutes and three seconds of the very first round. Was this the same man that had just beaten (an admittedly old) Muhammad Ali? Indeed it was. Yet more bad fortune awaited the likeable Spinks, however. After decent wins over the likes of Alfredo Evangelista (who had fought Ali for the title back in 1977, going the full fifteen rounds) and Bernado Mercado, Leon was thrown in with the new Heavyweight boss in Larry Holmes. And while the wins over Evangelista and Mercado proved that Leon always could fight more than a bit, he was no match for the undefeated “Easton Assassin.” Stopped in three easy rounds by Larry, Leon’s heavyweight career was over - for the time being at least.

A drop down in weight to the new cruiserweight division saw Leon get one final crack at world glory. After a successful debut at 190 pounds ( a win over one Ivy Brown) followed by another points victory in his new weight class, Leon met former 190 pound champ and future cruiserweight standout Carlos De Leon. He was TKO’d in six rounds in March of 1983. But then, after five more wins - some at 190 pounds, some above - Leon was given his last shot at a world championship. He met WBA junior heavyweight king Dwight Muhammad Qawi. Leon was no match for “The Camden Buzz Saw.” In a fight held one year after his loss to De Leon, Spinks was again stopped in six rounds. He showed bravery - something Leon was never short of - but he was quite badly beaten up by the future hall of famer. The high profile “glory days” such as they were, were well and truly over for “Neon Leon.”

Though he would soldier on in another twenty-one fights, spread out over a further nine years in the ring, Leon was never again world title material. In fact, some of his further fights were not even sanctioned bouts. This was the case when he met and, in something that would soon become a rarity, defeated Jeff Jordan in early 1987. Mostly, though, Leon fought recognizable names and was beaten by them. Men like Jose Ribalta, Ladislao Mijangos ( a future George Foreman comeback victim) and, in a quite brutal and entertaining fight, Randy “Tex” Cobb defeated the former heavyweight champ. At one point, Leon was winless six fights in a row.

Following a three year break, Leon attempted a comeback in 1991. He managed to win five in a row. But when you understand that these men had a combined ninety-six losses between them, you realize that Spink’s momentum meant very little. In any case the comeback went nowhere and a further five defeats awaited him throughout the remainder of the ’90’s he fought in. Most humbling, aside from his defeats when attempting to fight in martial arts and wrestling contests, which was something Leon tried his hand at in the 1990’s, was a 1994 loss to a guy making his pro debut, in Johnny Carlo. How far Leon had fallen.

Perhaps more disturbingly, was the comparison factor with he and his brother Michael, and his career. Unlike Leon, Michael had kept his feet on the ground all the time. Having triumphed at both light-heavyweight AND heavyweight (avenging his brother’s loss by making history in beating Larry Holmes, of course) Michael never succumbed to the partying urges that so helped to ruin his older brother. If only Leon had been more like Michael. Then perhaps we would not be reading about some of the bad fortune that befell the likeable former champion - tales that tell of how he once had to find world in a McDonald’s restaurant, for another example.

Then again, maybe he was always destined to wind up broke and trying to fight when having nothing left whatsoever. Larry Holmes, in his autobiography, writes how he always knew Leon would “wind up driving a Cadillac with cornflakes for brains and X amount of dollars in his pocket.” Just as he seemingly predicted the bad fortune that lay in store for another heavyweight king in Mike Tyson, Larry was proven, at least to a degree, to have been correct.

The man who first made his name in Montreal by capturing gold and then in Las Vegas by besting Ali finally ended his boxing career after a points loss to the then 12-3 (11) Fred Houpe in December of 1995. At least Leon can take pride in the fact that he wasn’t knocked out in his final ring appearance, as he sadly had been nine times previously. Leon’s final ring record reads 26-17-3(14). He reigned as heavyweight champion from February 15th, 1978 to September 15th, 1978.

Happily, as we know, Leon has been somewhat back in the limelight just recently. With his son, Cory, Leon has seen the family name up in lights once again. Going by the nickname of “The Next Generation,” Cory has made the number of world champions named Spinks grow to three. For Leon, both working with and providing his son with inspiration, recent times have surely been a lot more prideful than have previous years.

To the now middle aged former champ - the man who was known as “Neon Leon,” and who reaches his fifty-fourth year tomorrow - we can only say happy birthday. Best wishes, Leon.

Article posted on 11.07.2007

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