“But I ask Mr. T, ‘Where’s Leon?’ And Mr. T says, ‘I don’t know.’Butch Lewis, speaking to Thomas Hauser, ‘Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times’
Leon Spinks was The Heavyweight Champion in 1978. He was Olympic Champion in 1976.
Two facts that are indisputable. Representing two mountains tops few stand upon. It was rarified air Leon Spinks was breathing for a time. Grinning through much of it. A young man with the boxing world in the palm of his hand and the rest of it knocking at his hotel room door. He met most of both with love and that unique smile of his. Boxing taught him to trust few of them and his fame was a blessing and a burden in the days beyond 1978.
He will be remembered always, not as the greatest or for enduring greatness, but because for a night in 1978 he ‘put it on Ali’ for 15 rounds and won the title, back when it was still referred to, and was, THE title.
As a child of 73, Spinks’ career, personality and story was something relived in hindsight, compiled from column inches and chapters in books about other people. For too long he was the asterisks to the career of a hero rather than one in his own right. It was a fate that befell many who operated in Muhammad Ali’s orbit, Cooper, Liston, Holmes, Berbick, all defined to smaller and larger extent by the performance of Ali when they fought him rather than anything else they achieved.
Some fighters fall between the cracks of our attention. They may fight in a division we neglect, possess a style that doesn’t chime with our preferences or, more simply, fall in an era before our own.
Leon Spinks, tended to fall between those cracks, never front and centre in my own pilgrimage through boxing history. To slip by. As he so often did for those charged with keeping him on the straight and narrow.
Leon’s victory against Ali, his greatest, is always caveated by Ali’s age and the immediate rematch, in which the young champion relinquished the belt, used to discredit the first result. As though his victory was an accident. A fluke and therefore unworthy. There were circumstantial factors. But they exist in any fight. It is easy to overlook that only five months earlier Ali had beaten a prime Earnie Shavers over 15 rounds. However in decline Ali was, and there is no scientific algorithm to determine what percentage of his best remained, Leon out punched Ali, ignored Ali’s tactical attempts to sap his energy as he had with Foreman, and then matched the veteran’s last round rally.
In his 8th fight.
There was opportunism, cynicism and a few other isms at work in making the match. But Leon trained, showed up and beat the stuffing out of the champion. Not many get there. The fact it was preceded just two years earlier by an Olympic Gold medal, a triumph which puts him in the exalted company of Frazier, Foreman and Lewis, to name but three, underlining the speed of his rise and his ability too.
Leon achieved incredible things. A fun-loving, live for today character in the good times and those less so.
He won’t be forgotten.