Leon Spinks passed away on February 5 due to prostate cancer at the age of 67. On February 15, 42 years ago, he starred in one of sports’ larger-than-life upsets over one of the most unforgettable boxers to have ever stepped into a ring. If you compile your own Tale of the Tape retrospective, without any context, it wouldn’t make any sense. But when you watch Leon Spinks’ seemingly improbable outboxing of Muhammad Ali on this date in 1978, it’s a tale that tells itself.
Perhaps Ali, who was 36 at the time of the fight, underestimated the 1976 Olympic Gold Medalist, who had 50 fewer pro fights than the champ and was 12 years his junior at just 24 years old. Watching the much-younger Spinks outwork, outland, and outclass Ali, then the WBC and WBA World Heavyweight Champion, you could see the classic unfolding of an ambitious challenger outpointing a legendary titleholder who owned the division for the better part of two decades. Still, it was clear that Ali was nearing the end of his once-illustrious career. So much so, in fact, that longtime Ali cornerman and physician Ferdie Pacheco, who was on commentary, reiterated his desire for Ali to retire during Round 1 of the bout.
Ali, at 55 wins and 2 losses, with 37 knockouts, ventured into the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas as a 10-1 favorite. His idiosyncratic glow was still vibrant upon entry, but it was clear he wasn’t quite the same Ali who dethroned Sonny Liston in 1964, who devoured George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, and who derailed Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila in 1975. He was even 17 months removed from defeating Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium in 1976. But even still, Spinks (6-0-1, 5 KOs) wasn’t supposed to arrive so emphatically. The challenger was four months removed from a draw with heavyweight journeyman Scott DeLoux, who entered his bout with Spinks, who was 5-0 at the time, with a record of 21-6-1, with 13 KOs.
Spinks weighed 27 pounds fewer than Ali’s 224 on that night. Numerically, his split decision victory is not in a historical context matching Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson, the 31-year-anniversary of which passed last Thursday. But Spinks defeating Ali remains an instrumental piece in the list of the 20th century’s biggest sports upsets. And it came at a time when boxing was still one of the most popular sports in America, with the fight airing on CBS for millions of viewers.
“In that fight, everything clicked,” Top Rank promoter Bob Arum said of the bout. “[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.”
Perhaps it gets unfairly lost in the context of historical upsets because Ali immediately won their rematch seven months later — Ali winning the heavyweight title an unprecedented third time. The loss not only ended Spinks’ time as champion, but was the final victory of Ali’s historic career.
Spinks’ career lasted another 17 years, though he only earned one other heavyweight title shot, losing to Larry Holmes in 1981 by TKO in Round 3. (He also lost a cruiserweight title shot to Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1986.)
It wasn’t Douglas-Tyson, Ali-Foreman, or Andy Ruiz versus Anthony Joshua in terms of upsets. However, it still deserves its place and remembrance as one of the incredible feats in heavyweight boxing history, and perhaps in all of sports.