Famous Veterans: Leon Spinks, the Man Who Dethroned Muhammad Ali

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Leon Spinks takes a stance in the ring during a match with Ray Kipping. (Courtesy of John Mena)
Leon Spinks takes a stance in the ring during a match with Ray Kipping in Maryland Heights, Md., June 19, 1995. Spinks won in the eighth round. (Courtesy of John Mena)

In 1974, during his 1973-1976 service in the Marine Corps, Leon Spinks earned a bronze medal in the light heavyweight division at the inaugural World Amateur Boxing Championships in Havana.

He then won the 1975 Amateur Athletic Union title and was runner-up in the finals of the 1975 Pan American Games. In 1976, he clinched the gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the Olympic Games in Montreal.

Spinks gained the reputation of being one of the best amateur boxers in the world by registering 133 knockouts over a three-year period.

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When he enlisted in the Marine Corps, boot camp was 13 weeks long. However, he remained in boot camp for six months at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California, because he was said to have had trouble adjusting to military structure.

Leon Spinks, left, boxes in a match with Ray Kipping.
Leon Spinks, left, boxes in a match with Ray Kipping in Maryland Heights, Md., June 19, 1995. Spinks won in the eighth round. (Courtsey of John Mena)

But he and his drill instructors persevered, and Spinks finally graduated from Platoon 3090 in December 1973. He then joined the All-Marine boxing team at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, which was a good fit for his tremendous talent, energy and drive.

When Spinks stepped into the boxing ring at Camp Lejeune for the first time, Marine Corps assistant coach J.C. Davis, who became the first African American Marine Corps boxing coach in 1967, immediately knew he had an incredibly talented young man. Within just 15 seconds, Spinks knocked out his opponent.

Pvt. Leon Spinks, top row, second from left, graduating from boot camp.
Pvt. Leon Spinks, top row, second from left, graduating from boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, Dec. 12, 1973. (Courtesy of David Bearden)

"I mean Leon did that combination -- boom, boom -- and this guy was out," Davis said then. "I looked at the time, and I looked at [the head coach], and I said, 'S---, we've got a champion.'"

Marine Corps Sgt. Terry Jamerson, stationed at Camp Lejeune in 1976, watched Spinks spar at the gym. After Spinks knocked out his sparring partner, "he looked at me and said, 'Would you spar with me? You look big enough,'" Jamerson said. "I told him that I am not an idiot and would only watch. I got his autograph that day."

On Feb. 15, 1978, in Las Vegas, in one of boxing's greatest upsets, Spinks won a split decision over heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali after going 15 rounds. Spinks became the heavyweight champion after only eight professional bouts, and he was the only man ever to take a world title away from Ali in the ring, as Ali's other losses were either in nontitle bouts or in world title fights where Ali was the challenger.

On Sept. 15, 1978, Ali regained his title in a rematch.

Leon Spinks, center, with his wife, Barbara standing behind him.
Leon Spinks, center, with his wife, Barbara standing behind him. accepts his nomination into the Jacksonville-Onslow Sports Commission Hall of Fame next to Michael Cline in Jacksonville, N.C., April 12, 2018. (Matthew Sokol/Marine Corps)

Spinks is a 2016 All-Marine Boxing Hall of Fame member. He was also inducted into the Jacksonville-Onslow Sports Commission Hall of Fame in Jacksonville, North Carolina, April 12, 2018.

Retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Ronald L. Bailey attended the 2018 induction and watched his friend get inducted.

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