(AP) — Leon Spinks, who won Olympic gold and then shocked the boxing world by beating Muhammad Ali to win the heavyweight title in only his eighth pro fight, has died. He was 67.
Spinks, who lived his later years in Las Vegas, died Friday night, according to a release from a public relations firm. He had been battling prostate and other cancers.
His wife, Brenda Glur Spinks, and a few close friends and other family members were by his side when he passed away.
A lovable heavyweight with a drinking problem, Spinks beat Ali by decision in a 12-round fight in 1978 to win the title. He was unranked at the time, and picked as an opponent because Ali was looking for an easy fight.
He got anything but that, with an unorthodox Spinks swarming over Ali throughout the fight on his way to a stunning win by split decision. The two met seven months later at the Superdome in New Orleans, with Ali taking the decision this time before a record indoor boxing crowd of 72,000 and a national television audience estimated at 90 million people.
“It was one of the most unbelievable things when Ali agreed to fight him because you look at the fights he had up to then and he was not only not a top contender but shouldn’t have been a contender at all,” promoter Bob Arum said Saturday. ”He was just an opponent but somehow he found a way to win that fight.”
Spinks would lose the rematch to Ali in New Orleans and fought for the title only once after that, when he was stopped in the third round in 1981 by Larry Holmes. He continued fighting on and off into the mid-1990s, finishing with a record of 26-17-3.
Spinks, with a big grin that often showed off his missing front teeth, was popular among boxing fans for both his win over Ali and his easygoing personality. But he burned through his earnings quickly, and at one point after retiring was working as a custodian at a YMCA in Nebraska, cleaning locker rooms.
He later was part of a group of ex-fighters who had their brains studied by the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in Las Vegas. Spinks was found to have brain damage caused by a combination of taking punches to the head and heavy drinking, though he functioned well enough to do autograph sessions and other events late in his life.
“He was a good soul,” said Gene Kilroy, who was Ali’s business manager when he fought Spinks and became friends with the fighter.
Spinks won the light heavyweight division at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, beating Sixto Soria of Cuba in an upset to become one of five U.S. fighters to win gold. His brother, Michael, who would later become heavyweight champion himself, won the middleweight gold, and Sugar Ray Leonard took the welterweight title.