Leon Spinks’ legacy will always be defined by the night he defied the odds to dethrone the great Muhammad Ali… but after his untimely death at 67, JEFF POWELL remembers the lovable, larger-than-life character he was outside the ring
- Former heavyweight world champion Leon Spinks died on the weekend aged 67
- Spinks was the only man to ever to beat Muhammad Ali when he was champion
- As a man, he was funny, lovable and always seemed to have a smile on his face
Neon Leon was holding court in the bar at Sardi’s, the historic Broadway restaurant where Frank Sinatra once escaped being slain by drive-by machine-gunners as he dined at one of the window tables.
Vincent Sardi, one of the long line of family proprietors, was telling us the story of Sinatra’s miraculous survival amid a hail of bullets and shattering glass.
He finished his tale of what was taken to be an attempted mob hit on Ol’ Blue Eyes by explaining: ‘That’s why we replaced those see-through windows onto the street with this opaque glass.’
Leon Spinks, pictured in 2018, tragically passed away from prostate cancer at the age of 67
Spinks was the only man to ever defeat the great Muhammad Ali when he was a champion
Leon Spinks guffawed through the trademark gap in his front teeth and shouted: ‘Thank God for that, man. There’s still some people out there not too happy that I beat Muhammad Ali.’
Then, just in case it had slipped our minds, he reminded us: ‘I am the only man ever to beat The Greatest when he was the world heavyweight champion.’
That he was in life, since the other times Ali lost his championship came with officialdom stripping him outside the ring.
That Neon Leon remains in death, untimely suffered this weekend from prostate cancer at only 67.
Spinks rocked Ali and the boxing world on to its feet with his famous victory in 1978
Our own Jeff Powell remembers reminiscing with Spinks about that glorious night in Sardi’s
That is his proudest but not his only legacy. The Spinks humour echoes on, just as his laughter reverberated around the thousand caricatures of famous customers which adorn the walls of Sardi’s. His own included.
He chuckled as he recounted the Las Vegas evening 43 years ago this week when he rocked the world as well as Ali onto its heels by claiming a split decision and the undisputed heavyweight championship in just his eighth professional fight.
‘No-one gave me a dog’s chance,’ said Spinks. ‘But this puppy was barking fit and Muhammad was taking me as a warm-up stroll in the park before his next big fight. Boy did we have some fun at the Hilton that night.’
But then this large and loveable personality enjoyed himself pretty much wherever he went, with no hesitation about making jokes at his own expense.
Spinks had a large personality and always seemed to have a smile on his face
As he did on that rare visit to New York with his wife while his personal fortunes were at a low ebb. ‘That’s me,’ he said mischievously, with a hint of many an old boxer’s slurring. ‘From king of the world to the trailer park.’
Mercifully, things were never quite that bad. With the loving Barbara as his prop at the bar and his support to the end he fought all but the final hospitalised round of his last fight, five years against cancer, in a cosy home round the corner from the Vegas scene of his greatest glory.
This son of St Louis had won Olympic gold at the 1976 Games in Montreal at light-heavyweight and then bulked up for his surprise shot at Ali, which proved to be the summit of his career.
The long, steady decline began in his next fight, a fleeting seven months later. A profitable but more predictably losing rematch against Ali in the New Orleans Superdome, which Spinks took even though it meant being stripped of his WBC belt for declining a mandatory challenge from Ken Norton.
His career steadily declined after Ali fight and was brutally KO’d by Dwight Muhammad Qawi
Although Mr Neon continued to light up the ring with his courageous attacking style his record petered away to 26 wins, 17 losses, three draws and retirement at 42.
The defeats included brutal KOs in his last two world title shots by the great Larry Holmes at heavyweight and then the ferocious Dwight Muhammad Qawi down at cruiserweight.
But it seemed Spinks only ever stopped smiling through those four missing teeth when one of his two sons, Leon Calvin, was tragically shot to death while driving through East St Louis and when his brother Michael, also a world heavyweight champion, suffered his only defeat in a record 91 seconds at the iron fists of Mike Tyson.
At the end of our rousing late night out in theatre-land we all joined in this lusty adaption of a lyric from the crooner’s songbook: ‘We’re lunching at 21, we’re dining at Sardi’s.’
He enjoyed himself wherever he went and never hesitated to make jokes at his own expense
Sinatra would have done it better, his way, but he was no longer with us. Vincent Sardi is long gone, also.
Those two fabled Manhattan restaurants are closed at the moment by Covid. The 21, sadly, unlikely to re-open.
Hopefully the green neon sign above the front door to Sardi’s will be switched on again soon.
Not only as a landmark in its own right but also in glowing memory of the last time Leon Spinks took a large, albeit crooked bite out of the Big Apple.
Defeating the Greatest is his proudest but not his only legacy. The Spinks humour echoes on
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