No. 35: LEON SPINKS (champion 1978)
Like Jim Braddock, James 'Buster' Douglas or Hasim Rahman, Leon Spinks was a heavyweight who succeeded in reaching the peak of greatness for just one memorable night, before gradually fading into obscurity and a fog of wasted potential. His split-decision points victory against reigning champion Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas in February 1978 was one of the most unexpected upsets in boxing history. Sports Illustrated commented in their feature article covering the fight that Spinks wore the world championship belt like it had "been there all his life" and "as if he planned never to take it off". Famous last words: Leon lost the crown in his first defence, a rematch against Ali, just seven months later.
Spinks scores higher in this category than some other fighters who similarly failed to mount a single successful defence of the Heavyweight Championship, purely because of the momentous nature of his victory against one of the greatest boxers of all time. Remarkably, before facing Ali, Spinks had only participated in seven professional contests, winning six and drawing one, making him by far the most inexperienced boxer to ever win the title. Securing a gold medal in the Light-Heavyweight category during the 1976 Olympic Games also boosts his legacy.
Spinks' title reign was short-lived and, Ali aside, he struggled to secure wins when he was matched with top-quality opponents; Gerrie Coetzee, Larry Holmes and Carlos De Leon were among the many men to beat Spinks, while among few wins of real note were victories against Bernardo Mercado and Alfredo Evangelista.
Against Ali the first time around, Spinks fought tirelessly, throwing punches with joyful abandon, including some particularly effective short hooks to Ali's body and head and some rapid uppercuts. A correct and well-schooled fighter with decent speed, Spinks' didn't lack for skill, but had problems applying his abilities consistently. A relatively small heavyweight, he was also prone to be outmuscled or overpowered by bigger men, particularly given his suspect chin and punch resistance.
Against Ali, Spinks showed almost super-human determination, particularly when the reigning champion rallied in the later rounds. Such fortitude wasn't always on display in the rest of his career though - Spinks was KO'd nine times in his 17 defeats.
Spinks scores comparatively highly here, such was the momentous nature of his victory against Ali and the hype surrounding their rematch, which attracted over 60,000 spectators to the Superdome in New Orleans. Only Frazier and Holmes, along with Spinks, beat Ali in his incredible 27 lineal title fights, so Leon's place in the sport's history is secure.
Boxiana verdict: Spinks may not have been a great heavyweight champion, but that incredible upset victory on 15 February 1978 is writ large in boxing folklore, as is the image of his middle-teeth-missing grin of delight on becoming champ, immortalised on the cover of Sports Illustrated in all its glory. Sadly, Spinks was robbed of the millions he made from the Ali contests by a combination of poor lifestyle choices, hangers-on and unscrupulous 'advisors'.
Total marks (out of 50): 23
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N.B. For the purposes of consistency, this series of articles uses the fight records found on BoxRec. I'm aware that, particularly in the era of newspaper decisions, no contests etc there are possible different interpretations / statistics quoted in different sources. Any queries, check BoxRec and then contact me if you have a further query.
Luke G. Williams