A Forgotten American Champion

African American boxer Leon Spinks died on February 4, but during Black History Month the former heavyweight champion of the world didn’t get much love. Spinks’ storied career might explain the exclusion. 

Born in St. Louis on July 11, 1953, Leon Spinks was raised in poverty. He dropped out of high school and in 1973 joined the U.S. Marines. In the Corps, Spinks became a promising amateur boxer with a brawling style. With more than 100 bouts to his credit, Spinks won the AAU title, lost in the 1975 Pan American Games, but still won a spot on the U.S. team for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. 

Fighting as a light heavyweight, Spinks defeated Abdel Latif Fatihi of Morocco, Anatoliy Klimanov of the USSR, Ottomar Sachse of East Germany, and Janusz Gortat of Poland en route to the final. There he faced Cuba’s Sixto Soria, a polished, experienced boxer and the heavy favorite to take the gold medal. Spinks staggered Soria with a right in the first round, and in the second, Spinks knocked the Cuban’s mouthpiece right out of his face. For those who missed it, hear Howard Cosell call the action in the third round. 

Soria is “still punching and his hands are quick,” Cosell said. “He’s coming on. He staggered and hurt Spinks. Spinks is without boxing skills. Remarkable to see the way the Cuban is coming back. What a fight! Don’t talk to me about the officials. Oh, the right! Caught Soria flush in the face! Down he went!” 

Leon Spinks, supposedly with “no boxing skills,” took his place with American gold medal winners Floyd Patterson (1952), Cassius Clay (1960), Joe Frazier (1964), and George Foreman, who won his gold in 1968. The five American gold medals in 1976 were the most in U.S. amateur boxing history. Spinks finished his amateur career with a record of 178–7 with 133 knockouts. 

Spinks turned pro and won six of his first seven fights but nobody considered him a contender for the heavyweight crown. By this time, Cassius Clay had become Muhammad Ali, and he was coming off a tough match with Ernie Shavers. Instead of again facing Ken Norton, who had defeated him, Ali opted for what he thought would be an easier match with Spinks, unranked and a huge underdog. 

The two met in Las Vegas on February 15, 1978, and “In that fight, everything clicked,” promoter Bob Arum explained. Leon Spinks “came in with a game plan and he beat Ali. It wasn’t that Ali wasn’t at his best, but Leon shocked everybody with how good Leon was.” At the age of 25, Leon Spinks was now heavyweight champion of the world, but as he said, “I’m not the greatest, just the latest.” 

Seven months later at the Superdome in New Orleans, Ali outpointed Spinks before a record indoor boxing crowd of 72,000 and an estimated 90 million watching on television. After that, Spinks fought for the title only once, losing to Larry Holmes in 1981 before finishing his career in the mid-1990s with a record of 26 wins—14 by knockout—17 losses and three draws.  

Out of 61 professional bouts, Muhammad Ali won 56, including 37 knockouts. His only losses came to Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, Trevor Berbick, and Leon Spinks. That victory alone should make Spinks a staple of Black History Month, and the same goes for his gold-medal victory over Sixto Soria. 

Spinks quickly burned through his money but was hardly the first athlete to do so. Later in life, he fell on hard times, but perhaps the inattention following his recent departure derives from what Leon Spinks did not do. 

After knocking out the Cuban, Spinks did not mount the Olympic podium and raise that same fist in anger against the United States. Spinks did not appoint himself a spokesman on political and social issues. Leon Spinks is not on record that the United States is an inherently racist country, as it is currently fashionable to say, especially during Black History Month.

Actor Morgan Freeman is on record that Black History Month is “ridiculous” because it relegates his history to a single month. For Freeman, “black history is American history,” and that also suited American boxer Leon Spinks.  

He won an Olympic gold medal for the United States and defeated the great Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world. He knew he wasn’t the greatest, but for those feats alone, Leon Spinks should be remembered as a great American boxer the whole year-round. 


About Lloyd Billingsley

Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party and other books including Bill of Writes and Barack ‘em Up: A Literary Investigation. His journalism has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Spectator (London) and many other publications. Billingsley serves as a policy fellow with the Independent Institute.

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

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