Leon Spinks

Born in St Louis, Illinois, Leon Spinks was one of eight children brought up by his mother in the city’s notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project. Spinks would recall how his father, before abandoning his family, had beaten him as a boy and taunted him by saying: “You’ll never be nothing.” Those words would inspire Spinks to be a champion boxer.

Medic requested all releasable military files of Leon Spinks from the National Personnel Records Center. Only a basic summary of military service was sent. Medic queried Brenda Glur, Spink’s third wife, for copies of military documents she might have, but she did not reply.

Enlisting in the Marines in 1973, Spinks was said to have trouble adjusting to military structure, apparently fighting with his D.I.s He spent six months in boot camp, finally graduating from Platoon 3090 in December 1973. Assigned to box for the Marines, he became a three-time USMC champ, his trade mark gap-toothed smile the result of a head but while sparring. “I got headbutted, one or two got loose and they pulled them out,” he said.

During his enlistment Spinks won a bronze medal as a light heavyweight in the World Amateur Championships, a silver medal at the 1975 Pan American Games, and won Olympic gold in the 1976 light heavyweight division. He gained the reputation of being one of the best amateur boxers in the world, delivering 133 knockouts in three-years. Spinks was honorably discharged from the Marines in 1976.

On Feb. 15, 1978, in Las Vegas, in one of boxing’s greatest upsets, Spinks won a 15 round split decision over Muhammad Ali, becoming the heavyweight champion after only eight professional fights. He was the only man to take a world title from Ali.

With money and fame Spinks rode a dizzying carousel of hard partying, drink and drugs. On Sept. 15, 1978, Ali regained his title in a rematch; he had trained rigorously and adjusted his strategy in order to beat the younger man.

After fighting Ali—Spinks is believed to have earned less than $300,000 from the first bout and $3.5million for the rematch—Spinks lost to Larry Holmes for the WBC title in 1981, the fight stopped after three rounds. He then lost to Dwight Muhammad Qawi for the WBA cruiser weight crown in 1986. In 1995, at age 42, Spinks quit boxing. His pro record was 26 wins, 17 losses, three draws.

Unlike his brother Michael Spinks, who retired from boxing financially sound, Leon Spinks either squandered or lost his winnings to unscrupulous lawyers. After a series of low paying jobs, by the late 90s he was homeless, living in a shelter in East St Louis, a glassy-eyed, slurring shell of himself. Medical tests revealed brain damage from repeated punches during his boxing career.

Leon Spinks was married three times and divorced twice. His chaotic life settled when he married Brenda Glur in 2011. They moved to Las Vegas, where Spinks made money selling autographs and photos to fans. He died from prostate cancer on 5 February 2021.

In 1978 Spinks told Sports Illustrated, “My dad had gone around and told people I would never be anything. It hurt me. I’ve never forgotten it. I made up my mind that I was going to be somebody in this world. That whatever price I had to pay, I was going to succeed at something.”




The New York Times

Sports Illustrated