Heavyweight stunned world by beating champion in 1978 I am the latest but he is the greatest, rookie fighter joked By Gareth A Davies boxing correspondent
Leon Spinks, who shocked the world with his win over Muhammad Ali in 1978 in his eighth professional fight, has died at the age of 67.
Spinks, originally from St Louis but often seen in recent years signing autographs at major fights in Las Vegas, had been battling prostate and other cancers for five years.
He had a remarkable rise to fame.
Having served in the United States Marine Corps and represented his country at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal – where he won a gold medal in the light-heavyweight division – the 24-year-old was fasttracked into a contest with Ali after six victories and one draw.
To the amazement of the fight world, Spinks claimed a 15-round points victory over a sluggish opponent in Las Vegas in February 1978. The win earned the famously toothless smiler the standing of undisputed heavyweight champion.
Spinks was the only opponent ever to take the world title away from Ali in the ring. Ali had taken the young challenger too lightly, and was reputed to have sparred fewer than two dozen rounds in preparation for the fight. Ali weighed in at 224lb, with Spinks 27lb lighter.
Spinks landed 419 punches on the champion, more than any other foe
Ali’s purse was $3.5million, while Spinks received $320,000. “I was very serious during the fight, but I also had a lot of fun,” Spinks said after his victory. “He kept saying things to me, trying to make me mad, but all he did was make me laugh. It was like he was telling me jokes. One time he called me a dirty name. I said, ‘Oh, Ali, how could you say such a thing?’ Can you imagine your idol calling you a dirty name? I’m the latest, but he’s the greatest.”
Ali was to give the media one of his famous quips post-fight. “I let him rob my house while I was out to lunch,” said the deposed champion.
The rematch seven months later was a major event. It brought a record indoor boxing crowd at the time of 72,000 to the Superdome in New Orleans, with a US TV audience estimated at 90 million. Ali, better prepared and focused, used his skills to defeat Spinks by a wide unanimous points decision to reclaim his world titles.
Thereafter, Spinks’s boxing career faded. Larry Holmes stopped “Neon Leon” in three rounds in 1981 in a challenge for the World Boxing Council belt in Detroit, and then, moving down a division to cruiserweight, Spinks fought Dwight Muhammad Qawi for the World Boxing Association belt in 1986, losing by sixth-round stoppage.
Spinks’s 46-fight career ended in December 1995 with 26 victories, 17 losses and three draws.
An affable character who had fallen on hard times in recent years, at one point he worked as a janitor in Nebraska. But he will forever be remembered for the night “The Latest” beat “The Greatest”.