Sports heroes who served: Former Marine dethroned Muhammad Ali

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.

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, Calif., because he was said to have had trouble adjusting to military structure.

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

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, N.C., 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.

“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.

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. (
Marine Corps photograph by Matthew Sokol)

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

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, N.C., April 12, 2018.

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

“First thing that I want to say is that several years ago we inducted Leon into the Hall of Fame of the Marine Corps,” Bailey said. “One of the things that I remember him saying is that ‘I may not have been the best in certain aspects of the sport, but I was a Marine.’ He never lost sight of his foundation and how he came up in the Marine Corps. Leon is still a character, and he is still a massive man with his hands and shoulders.”

Bailey said he admired the grit and determination that Spinks had in the ring.

Marine Corps Sgt. Terry Jamerson watched Marine Corps Cpl. Leon Spinks spar at the gym at Camp Lejeune, N.C., after Spinks earned a gold medal in the Olympics that year. Jamerson found a piece of cardboard and got Spinks’ autograph. (Photograph courtesy of of Terry Jamerson)

“I could only imagine what it was like to be hit by him. Glad he was on our team,” he said. “I saw him numerous times fight, and he had something called the Spinks Jinx. He got into his boxing stance and double stomped his front foot, distracting his opponent. They would look and then his overhand right punch would hit them with the left hook taking them down. He had this unorthodox way of bouncing forward that would throw you off in the ring. There are a lot of world class boxers that represented the Marine Corps.”

The late Ken Norton, inducted in 2018 to the All-Marine Boxing 2018 Hall of Fame, maintained a strong friendship with Spinks after their boxing careers.
Norton also defeated Ali and reigned as the World Boxing Council’s heavyweight champion.

Spinks’ brother, Michael Spinks, won a gold medal in the middleweight competition during the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Both were inducted in the 2017 Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame.

The All-Marine Boxing Team was disbanded in October 2012, due to a change to the USA Boxing rule at the time that removed headgear during bouts.

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