Leon Spinks, Heavyweight Champ Who Beat Ali, Dies in Southern Nevada

Posted on: February 7, 2021, 02:08h. 

Last updated on: February 7, 2021, 03:10h.

Former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, who rocketed to fame by beating Muhammad Ali at a Las Vegas casino, died Friday. He was 67. 

Leon Spinks
Leon Spinks rejoices in the ring at the Las Vegas Hilton after beating Muhammad Ali in 1978. Spinks died Friday night in Henderson, Nevada. (Image: The Guardian)

In recent years, Spinks suffered from prostate cancer. More than a year ago, the Spinks family reported it had spread to his bladder, according to the New York Times. Spinks, a former Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist, died in a Henderson, Nevada, hospital.

Spinks was 24 years old and only had a 6-0-1 professional record when he faced Ali at the Las Vegas Hilton on Feb. 15, 1978. The hotel-casino, just east of the Las Vegas Strip, now is the Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino.

At the time, Ali held the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council heavyweight titles. He was the overwhelming favorite to win. He outweighed Spinks, 224 to 197 pounds.

However, Ali was 36 years old and considered past his prime. Spinks beat Ali in a 15-round split decision. This was the only time Ali lost a title in the ring.

“It wasn’t that Ali wasn’t at his best, but Leon shocked everybody with how good Leon was,” promoter Bob Arum said in a story published on the ESPN website.

Ali said Spinks “had the will to win and the stamina.”

He hit pretty hard,” Ali said.

Later that month, Spinks appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, flashing a gap-tooth smile above the word “Leon!” 

Seven months later, Ali defeated Spinks in a title rematch at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans before more than 63,000 fight fans. The bout was televised on ABC.

Here’s a video of the original Spinks-Ali fight.


‘Going to be Somebody’

Spinks had grown up poor in St. Louis and was bullied as a frail child who had asthma, the New York Times reported.

He became involved in boxing at 13 and dropped out of high school during his junior year to join the Marine Corps. He later said the Marine Corps made him a man.

After Olympic success in the 1976 Montreal Games, Spinks embarked on a professional career. His first pro fight was Jan. 15, 1977, at the Aladdin hotel-casino in Las Vegas. That site now is the location of the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino on the Strip. In his debut, the 195-pound Spinks beat 185-pound “Lightening” Bob Smith in a fifth-round technical knockout.   

A year later, Spinks would defeat Ali at the nearby Hilton. That night he told Sports Illustrated his father had gone around telling people he would “never be anything.” 

 “I made up my mind that I was going to be somebody in this world,” Spinks said.

Hall of Fame

Spinks last fought in December 1995, losing in St. Louis to Fred Houpe, a 45-year-old boxer who had gone 17 years without a fight before then, according to the New York Times.

Spinks was 42 when he retired with a record of 26-17-3. The final decades were difficult financially. He cleaned locker rooms and bathrooms at a YMCA in Columbus, Nebraska. He unloaded McDonald’s trucks.  After moving to Southern Nevada, he could be seen at sites such as Planet Hollywood, selling autographed pictures for $50 each.

Asked at an autograph session if Ali was the toughest person he ever faced, Spinks smiled. He respectfully said no, the toughest person he ever faced was his mom.

In 2017, Spinks was inducted in the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame. His brother, Michael, and a son, Cory, also were champion boxers.

Spinks is among several well-known people connected to Las Vegas who died recently, including Siegfried Fischbacher of the Siegfried and Roy entertainment duo.

In December, Dawn Wells, star of the 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island and a former Miss Nevada, died in Los Angeles. Also in December, popular singer Phyllis McGuire died in Las Vegas.