Remembering former champ Leon Spinks' days in the suburbs

Leon Spinks, the former boxing champ who died Friday night at 67, is best known for his stunning upset of Muhammad Ali to claim the heavyweight title in 1978.

What far fewer know is that after his days in the ring were over, the Olympic gold medalist called the suburbs home.

Spinks lived in Carol Stream in the 1990s and early 2000s. Back then he was a regular at Erik's Boxing and Fitness, where he was helping his son, Tommy, pursue a professional boxing career.

Leslie Ferrone, who co-owned and trained at the now closed gym, described Spinks as a great guy and "gentle giant."

"Leon was very approachable and always had a good word. He was very encouraging," she said. "He actually helped me to work on the speed bag. He was like, 'Anybody who you don't really like, picture their head up there.' And I pictured my boss' head and never missed the bag again."

Spinks typically downplayed his fame, Ferrone said, but was always willing to sign autographs and talk with fans.

"I never got the impression that he was comfortable in the limelight. He didn't want full attention on him," she said. "With his time, he was definitely charitable."

Gym owner Eriks Jekabsons recalled having boxing discussions with Spinks over cups of coffee.

"He was a great guy. He was very nice, very positive always," Jekabsons said.

After winning the heavyweight crown in 1978, Spinks lost to Ali in a rematch just seven months later. From there, he faced struggles in and out of the ring.

When he talked with the Daily Herald in 2001, the then 48-year-old Spinks was living in a small apartment in Carol Stream with his then wife, Betty, son Tommy, 28, and 12-year-old grandson, Leon III.

"I like coming down to the gym and working with my son," Spinks said at the time. "I like being around the young boxers. They remind me of myself."

While Spinks' battles with addiction and minor run-ins with the law were well documented, his knowledge, demeanor and famous toothless grin were welcome around Erik's, Ferrone told the Daily Herald in 2001.

When he wasn't helping aspiring boxers, Spinks was also working with his wife back then to establish L&B Spinks Organization. The charitable foundation sought to help first-time criminal offenders and poor single parents.

The organization received nonprofit status from the IRS in 2002, but information about its current status was not available.

Spinks and Betty would later divorce, and he moved to Las Vegas, where he was frequently spotted at boxing events. He was inducted into the Nevada Boxing Hall of Fame in 2017.

His wife, Brenda Glur Spinks, and a few close friends and other family members were by his side Friday when he died after months of battling prostate cancer.

• Daily Herald wire services contributed to this report

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