By: Sean Crose
He bounced out into the ring in a crimson robe, the very picture of confidence. Though his record was a mere 6-0-1, Leon Spinks was ready for his chance to shine. Rather than looking somber and nervous, the man with the gap toothed smile appeared…happy. Perhaps, some may have felt as they witnessed the moment live on television, Spinks was merely thrilled to be facing a fighter the world had come to know as “The Greatest.” Perhaps the young man from Saint Louis, who had only been a professional fighter for a single year, was just content to cash a check and to appear as a name on another fighter’s legendary resume.
If these were the thoughts going through people’s minds on the night of February 15th, 1978 however, those thoughts were terribly misguided. For the former Olympic star was determined to shock the world that night at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas. Yes, young, inexperienced Leon Spinks was determined to wrest the heavyweight championship of the world from the legendary Muhammad Ali.
To be sure, Ali paced about the ring before the introductions looking relaxed to the point of disinterest. He was thirty six years old at the time, Ali was. What’s more, he had battled a murderer’s row of opponents over the years – sometimes in brutally grueling fashion. Liston. Frazier. Foreman. Norton. Shavers. Such names take their toll. Such battles leave their marks. Still, Ali had held the WBC and WBA title belts, as well as the lineal title (for the man who beat the man who beat the man…) since besting George Foreman way back in 1974. In short, the world had good reason to feel the defending champion would emerge from the battle with Spinks victorious.
Yet Spinks let it be known from the opening bell he meant business. For the 24 year old immediately put Ali on the ropes and went to the body. What’s more, Spinks continued to do so for the first three rounds. Ali looked to be employing the same tactic he did against Foreman, when he allowed the hard hitting Texan to punch himself out. Unlike Foreman, though, Spinks didn’t allow the energy to drain out of him. It was to be a long night.
By the midpoint of the fight, there was no doubt that the great Ali had finally arrived in the ring. In a remarkable feat to witness, the man showed he was still able to float like a butterfly. Unfortunately for Ali, Spinks remained in the fight, moving forward, throwing with bad intentions, and employing very impressive discipline. Unlike many Ali opponents, Spinks didn’t seem to have Ali living rent free inside his head. A former U.S. Marine, Spinks wasn’t an easy man to break.
Still, had the fight been a twelve rounder, as title fights are today, Ali may have held onto his belts. This was 1978, however. Heavyweight title bouts went the full fifteen. And Spinks, with true Marine Corps determination, was going to battle gamely through every last second of the bout. Ali fought like a warrior, but despite a nip and tuck battle that ended in an explosive 15th and final round, the defending champion couldn’t best the determined rising star. Leon Spinks, who no one had given much of a chance to, who had served his country as a Marine and as an Olypian, who had eaten breakfasts of beer and eggs in preparation for the fight of a lifetime, walked out of the ring that night with a split decision victory – and the heavyweight championship of the world, as well.
Ali would go on to regain his titles from Spinks in their rematch months later. What’s more, Spinks would never regain the glory he briefly attained that night when he first won the heavyweight crown. Yet, in truth, he didn’t have to. For Spinks, who died from cancer today at the age of 67, achieved one of the greatest upsets in all of sports. That in an of itself will always be something worth celebrating.
Rest In Peace.