How many professional bouts must a boxer fight before he gets a crack at the world championship? For ‘Neon’ Leon Spinks, the answer is eight. Following the shortest professional buildup in history, Spinks fought for – and won – the Heavyweight Championship of the World. And whom did he beat after these eight fights? Muhammad Ali.
Spinks’ quick prowess is less surprising when we look at his amateur record. A former marine and bronze medalist in Havana’s 1974 World Amateur Boxing Championships, he went on to represent the U.S. in the Olympics in 1976. He and his brother, Michael, both won gold medals. When Michael later became the first man to beat Larry Holmes, the Spinks family became the only pair of brothers to win world boxing championships until the Klitschkos, a decade later.
But Spinks’ meteoric early success was a classic case of too much too soon. Keeping his title for only seven months before his star waned and fell, he lost it back to Ali in their rematch. He went on to lose 44% of all his remaining fights, including to Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb, Shane Sutcliffe, and Larry Holmes (his final championship bid). Eight of his losses were by KO or TKO.
The former Heavyweight Champion of the World now has dementia, at age 59, likely brought on by repeated concussive blows to the head. Having lived in homeless shelters and less than modest apartments in small town Nebraska, he has worked janitorial jobs in high schools and the YMCA. At one point, he was reduced to working at a local McDonald’s.
Along with his old rival, Ali, Spinks is now taking part in a long-term study of brain damage that offers free MRI’s to boxers, both active and retired. “I hope they can help me,” he says. Let us all hope so.