Former world heavyweight champion and Olympic gold medallist ‘Neon’ Leon Spinks has been remembered as a gentle soul with a million-dollar smile after passing away on Friday at the age of 67.
His wife Brenda was at his side when he lost his five-year battle with cancer, according to a statement from The Firm PR provided to Las Vegas television station KVVU.
“His final fight was fought with the same skill, grace and grit that had carried him through so many lifetime challenges,” the statement read.
“Leon fought his battle with numerous illnesses resiliently, never losing his trademark smile. Showing true Spinks determination, he never threw in the towel.”
Spinks finished his career with a record of 26-17-3 (14) in 1995 but could never recapture the early career form that saw him dethrone the great Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight championship over 15 rounds at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas in 1978 in what was just his eighth pro fight.
Former world heavyweight champion George Foreman said he was shocked when they matched the novice Spinks with the experienced Ali.
“It was considered a mere joke,’’ Foreman said to USA Today Sports. “Why in the world would they put (Spinks) in the ring with Muhammad Ali with such a short boxing career?
“He beat the devil out of Muhammad, from pillar to post, even Muhammad was surprised.
“(Spinks) was legitimate, and he has his rightful place in the history of heavyweight boxers.’’
Spinks’ life was filled with tragedy, including drug and alcohol abuse, financial problems and the murder of one of his sons, but he never let those difficulties define him.
“I can’t even say he had a life of tragedy when in reality he had the greatest gift, the smile,’’ Foreman said.
“He could have let it be his story. But that was not his story at all.
“I was at the Boxing Hall of Fame and I said, ‘Wow.’ He was there and made everyone feel good about being there.
“Always willing to stop and give you a smile and not hold onto your ear. And especially not complain. Never any complaints.’’
Spinks would go on to lose his immediate rematch with Ali, also on points over 15 rounds, but he had already cemented his fame.
“The smile,’’ Foreman said. “No one took that away from him.’’
Tributes have been flowing across social media for the universally revered Spinks after the news of his death broke.
Ring announcer Michael Buffer: “Leon Spinks who I knew in his later yrs was a gentle soul who bravely battled health issues – let’s never 4get his 15 Rd win over Ali, his Olympic Gold medal & his service in the US Marines! His son Cory was undisputed WeltWt Champ! R.I.P. Leon w/love+respect.”
Promoter Lou DiBella: “Rest In Peace, Neon Leon, a heavyweight champion and a nice man. Condolences to @MikeSpinksjinx and the Spinks family. Rest In Peace and Power, Leon Spinks.”
WBO super featherweight champion Jamel Herring: “You no longer have to suffer anymore. Rest easy Marine… my condolences go out to the Spinks family. Leon was a good man.”
Trainer Freddie Roach: “Rest In Peace, Leon Spinks. Condolences to the Spinks family.”
Unified featherweight champion Amanda Serrano: “May you Rest In Eternal Peace Leon Spinks.”
Matchmaker Ron Katz: “Saddened to hear my old buddy Leo Spinks passed last night. We had a few good times together including the last time I saw him and brother Michael out here on LI in 2019. He will be missed RIP.”
Trainer Kevin Cunningham: “R.I.P ‘Neon’ Leon Spinks, Olympic gold medalist and undisputed heavyweight champion!”
Actress and avid boxing fan Rosie Perez: “Ugh. Very sad news. He suffered way too long. May his soul Rest In Peace. A real nice guy and an amazing Champ. My heart goes out to his brother @MikeSpinksjinx and his family.”