It shouldn’t be so, but when I think back on Leon Spinks, who died from cancer on Feb. 5, 2021 at age 67, I fixate on a portion of the day he was to fight Muhammad Ali at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana, a sequel to their initial clash, which made Spinks world famous and provided the text for his tombstone.
Anyone reading this probably knows that Spinks pulled off a shocker for the ages when with just seven pro fights on his resume, he met Ali on Feb. 15, 1978 in Las Vegas, and scored a decision win after 15 rounds. And that Spinks battled Ali in a rematch, on Sept. 15, 1978 in Louisiana, with “The Greatest” regaining his heavyweight championship, for the third time. And my guess is you know Leon’s nickname was “Neon Leon,” that he pretty much never turned down an opportunity to get his groove on, and party hearty. Even, it was said, on the day of a fight…
Mr T, whose celebrity mushroomed when he appeared as James “Clubber” Lang in the 1982 film Rocky III, spent a few years as a “bodyguard” for Spinks. The stern looking man with the Mohawk wrote in his autobiography that he saw Spinks drinking beer and snorting cocaine the day of the rematch fight.
John Florie and Ouisie Shapiro wrote a book on Leon and his little brother Michael called “One Punch From the Promised Land.” In that publication, they write that T saw Leon partying it up at about 5:15 or so Vegas time. He didn’t finish up, wipe his nose, gargle some Scope and head to the Superdome, though. “An hour before the opening bell was due to ring at the Louisiana Superdome, (Leon’s first wife) Nova found her husband in a hotel room across town sprawled out in bed, drunk. He wasn’t alone.”
And of course, when a bold-face name passes away, recollections of their time on earth are shared. And human beings as they are, sometimes the accounts differ, according to the teller. Nova shared her memories on the day of the Ali-Spinks sequel in her 2016 autobiography, “The Spinks Jinx: The True Story of My Life With Boxing Champ Leon Spinks.” She has a different recollection of the sequel fight night. At 3:30 PM in New Orleans, she left the rental house that Spinks had in addition to a hotel room. Leon asked her to go to the hotel to get a suit for him, so she did. She keyed open his room and was disappointed to see a bunch of hangers-on in there, having a grand old time. Nova had words with a lady that she figured Leon had been dabbling with, got the suit, and went to the Superdome.
“I didn’t usually go into Leon’s dressing room before a fight, but I did have to take him his suit, so I went,” she said. And she found hubby in the bathroom of his Superdome locker room. “I found Leon alright,” she said, “standing in the shower stall with a cocaine spoon in hand, pushing powder up his nose.” She tiptoed out without alerting him to her presence. It is agreed that nobody thought to bring Leon’s protective cup to the Superdome, so Mike Rossman’s just used protector was snagged and handed to Leon to pull on. Joe Louis’ cup for good luck wouldn’t have changed Leon’s luck; Ali took the rematch seriously and trained hard for it. And Leon took opportunities to suck on the nectars that fame and fortune offer and didn’t.
That milieu, that lunacy and frenzy in Louisiana leading into the sequel bout really shouldn’t be the imagery that pops to mind when I think about Leon, and what he meant to boxing. But it’s sadly fitting, maybe. The tabloid spice level is off the charts, so it fits that era well. Right, the “Me Decade,” when well-earned late 60s cynicism hardened into a blowback collective mindset that accepted a diminishment of communities and socialistic hippie impulses and exchanged it for unapologetic servitude to self? And no matter the exact sequence of when and where Leon misbehaved before the rematch with Ali, the behavior exhibited serves in potent fashion to encapsulate a crucial essence of the guy and how I assess his time on the planet. Leon Spinks came from a fucked up place, strove to elevate himself out of a pre-destined life arc, largely succeeded at that, but kept getting pulled back into patterns of thinking and behaving that moved him closer to the existence that a lesser man would have lapsed into.
THE SPINKS START
Leon Spinks Sr was 16 and his wife Kay was 18 when baby Leon the future boxer was born, quite prematurely, in a St. Louis hospital on July 11, 1953.
There was no obvious indication out of the gate that the child would be destined to pull off an upset for the ages, despite being dissed and dismissed as merely a stay busy task for Muhammad Ali when they battled on Feb. 15, 1978. And where Leon Jr grew up, and in the circumstances he lived in, the smart money was not going toward a bet that he’d grow up and flourish, and leave a legacy that will stand up as long as Ali’s does.
As well it should, because what Leon Spinks managed to do, by simply even making it a healthy weight, and getting into the Marines and winning a gold medal at the Olympics and then turning pro and defeating Muhammad Ali with just seven pro fights under his belt, probably hasn’t received the level of praise that it should’ve, since we learned on Feb. 5 that he’d passed away.
I wish now I had gone out of my comfort zone, and covered Leon’s battle with cancer. In December 2019, he got admitted into a Vegas hospital. He’d been diagnosed with prostate cancer earlier in the year, and now his bladder was affected. Wife Brenda (below, with Leon) sure looks like a saint, standing by the man.
He came home from the hospital in March 2020. Dementia made caring for him harder, so it was suggested that medical marijuana usage might make him more compliant, we learned from a USA Today story. No huge surprise, Leon showed stubbornness that served him well in the ring in fighting cancer. On Feb. 5, at home with wife Brenda and a select few, nodding to COVID restrictions, Leon Spinks passed away, at 67 years old.
I won’t do the job justice, in trying to properly sum up his life, because I’d need a book to touch on all the elements that move us toward understanding why it’s a modern miracle that the Spinks boys made it out of St. Louis and escaped the well-trod path reserved for people relegated to a dumping ground. Michael and Leon ducked and moved and slid and slipped and didn’t become get compiled into a stat set about the ravages of drug addiction, mental health battles and mass incarceration which stay at stubbornly high medals despite well intended but wholly insufficient projects like Black History Month.
It’s tempting and necessary to come forth with critiques and prescriptions during Black History Month, if you lament the lack of progress made in America in terms of racial equality; but I’m going to zag, and instead work to give proper credit to Leon Spinks, for soldiering on and doing better than could be expected despite being dealt a non-stellar hand. Leon and his mom, Kay Spinks, let’s fold her in warmly. She held a family together, and instilled laudable values into Leon, which continue to resonate positively in the lives of little boys who saw him get gold in Montreal, and then shock the world against Ali, and thought to themselves, “I could do that, too.”
You have all heard the argument, very often put forth by people with advanced degrees and secure jobs and homes they’ve purchased that boxing is too savage, and being such civilized folks, we should ban the practice. But are the same people ever considering the absurdity of the rising costs of secondary schooling, post high school? Or even able to grasp that loads of people aren’t suited to keep on schooling, that the three Rs as presented in our schools are too often presented in stultifying boring fashion that it’s no wonder more youngsters don’t ditch the whole dreadful monotonous exercise by age 16?
Leon didn’t bitch about it, he didn’t make an issue of where he came from too much, but for him there wasn’t as much nurturing and structure as a kid would like. His dad left before the future heavyweight titlist and most famous gap-toothed being in America for a time, turned four.
Mom Kay got by mostly with a monthly welfare check, and her faith, which she sought to pass on to the kids, because she knew that foundational spirituality could provide a warm blanket of soothing in a too-cold world.
“I remember I stayed with (my dad) one time and I did something,” Leon told a reporter, after his winter of 1978 triumph over Ali, who was 36 and thought he’d been booked with a soft-ish touch, who he could handle even if in subpar condition. “What I did? I did something. When I did it, he hung me on a nail and hit me across the face with cord of some kind. A cord or belt. It put a mark on my face. He told me he was sorry. But ever since then I didn’t like him.”
And so you’d have understood it if Leon Spinks would not be remembered as anything more than the ill-fated older brother of Hall of Fame light heavyweight Michael Spinks (31-1 record, fought 1977-1988, won light heavyweight and heavyweight titles). It would be even more understandable if you had a handle on where Leon grew up.
WHERE THE FIGHT STARTED
Pruitt–Igoe consisted of 33 11-story apartment buildings on a 57-acre site, on St. Louis’s lower north side. The complex had 2,870 apartments, it was one of the largest in the country, and not posh. A 1970 book by Harvard professor Lee Rainwater, “Behind Ghetto Walls: Black Families in a Federal Slum, it was shared that, “No other public housing project in the country approached it in terms of vacancies, tenant concerns and anxieties, or physical deterioration.” The author did two plus years of field work at the complex, and the stint ended in 1965. The Spinks crew lived in Pruitt-Igoe for 18 years, and then moved over to the Darst-Webbe site.
If you lived in Pruitt-Igoe, P.I., many called it, you put up with shit like this: the elevators stopped only at the first, fourth, seventh and tenth floors. You had to get off on the fourth and trudge up stairs to finish the journey to the sixth floor. There was a reason for it, something about encouraging community, but they didn’t have that set up in the buildings outside the projects, did they?
The buildings, which were often casually referred to as “the projects,” referring the reason for the construction of the housing cluster which planners hoped would lessen some of the degrading deficiencies in over-looked and under-cherished neighborhoods, deteriorated and the city threw in the towel. Twelve years after Pruitt-Igoe went up, they dynamited it into dust.
Let’s give Kay some more credit. If you watch the first Spinks-Ali fight, you see Leon go to a corner, and close his eyes, and pray before the bell rang to start round one. Kay insisted the kids attend worship services, and it stuck in Leon, even after he’d done his stint in the Marines, and won gold, and then looked to make ends meet using the talents God had graced him with. We’ll say it again, supposedly “progressive” folks often bemoan the existence of pro boxing, and opine that everyone should instead knuckle down in school, and learn a trade or pursue a vocational goal they are passionate about. They don’t get it, that school gives a lot of people a rash, and an itch to get the hell out, and, maybe, use their body to make a living.
Leon learned to box because he was undersized and somewhat sickly, or he would be defending Michael, or another younger sibling, or some underdog, and he’d face off in a street tiff…and he’d lose. One of the Westbrook kids two floors up yanked him to a gym.
Kay put up with it, but she didn’t pretend that she came around to it, even after Mike and Leon won gold (at 165 and 178) in Montreal. “I often prayed God would bring them out of the ring but the harder I prayed the more they stayed in the ring. I felt that they no longer needed boxing, that God could take care them. But my mother said that if God wanted them to stay in the ring, he must have a plan. So they stayed and I just took a seat and watched,” Kay told a reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch during the ’76 Olympics. That was before an anonymous samaritan put out word that he wanted to pay for Kay to fly to Montreal, and stay over, and watch her boys in action.
You heard how much Kay succeeded when Leon spoke to Sports Illustrated after beating Ali in Vegas.
“People ask, ‘Who is Leon Spinks?’ ” he said. “It is a question I have been asking myself all my life. I didn’t know who I was, but I knew I wanted to be somebody, I wanted to do something. I was tired of being a nobody, of having nothing, of having nowhere to go. All my friends were becoming dope pushers, drug addicts. My friends were being killed and they were going to jail. I knew there had to be something better for Leon Spinks. One day when I was 15 I walked out of our building and I heard that a friend of mine had been killed. I heard that another friend of mine had been locked up. I looked around me. I looked at where I lived, and how I lived. Right then I got the strong feeling that I wanted to do something with my life. No, not just wanted. I knew I had to do something with my life that my people had never done before. My generation of people stayed in trouble all the time. I wanted the name of Spinks to mean something besides dirt.”
That he didn’t lapse into anger at the unfairness of it all, or seek 24-7 refuge in bottles and powders to quiet the sorrow, that he had the innate wisdom to look inward to where he had that epiphany for his path to meaningfulness, all those homages after he died didn’t give him due credit.
Let’s not give in to the obvious temptation, though, and fashion a halo for Leon, pretend Leon was nothing but a perseverant soul who lived to make his mama crowd. No; he liked too much to have a good time. We’ll get to more evidence of that shortly, and not merely to spice up this story. No, Leon had a rep for “partying,” but we’ll take a stab at being a keyboard shrink, and offer that he was probably self medicating a good deal. Yeah, he loved to disco dance and carouse and laugh his ass off with fellow smoking and snorting and swigging buccaneers, too often when he should have been concentrating on training…and his stubbornness, which would be an asset in the ring, wasn’t always beneficial. Boot camp for the Marines was supposed to be 13 weeks. Leon graduated boot camp after six months. Maybe he got second and third chances because they knew he could be something? Leon was on the All-Marine boxing team at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, went approximately 178-7 with 133 knockouts.
This all is an attempt to make sense as well as possible Leon’s time on this earth. So we try to boil down the anecdotes into a handful of traits and descriptions. Leon Spinks really contrasted with Ali, who prized his ability to push buttons, get a rise out of people, de-stabilize them. Leon didn’t want to hypnotize you, he more often wanted to be left alone. Check that–he adored companionship, but on his term, with his type of people. “His type” was often rugged, it must be said, but he also shared time and affection with a few gals. His first wife Nova (below) was there for the blastoff into celeb status.
You hear the phrase “hurt people hurt people” sometimes. And sometimes hurt people gravitate to other hurt people, because the kindred spirits get each other. Nova lost her dad when she was very young, in a dramatic blaze. She recounted in her auto-biography that her mom had caught her dad with a galpal, and mom laid into the lady. Then the couple had a heated argument, while little Nova was upstairs. She heard her dad yell, then it was quiet. Nova went to investigate, and her dad came out of the kitchen, a blood stain on his shirt. He took the knife that had plunged into him, and threw it outside. An ambulance came, but Nova’s dad didn’t make it. She gave props to her mom for trying to live a well meaning life after the violent tussle exploded.
In ’74, a buddy of hers told her about a Marine she knew. Leon Spinks was his name, Nova could maybe send him a letter, maybe something could come from a pen pal relationship. Something did; they went from letters to calls to visits, to getting hitched.
Leon wasn’t a dutiful and devoted spouse, according to Nova, who with excessive detail shares his outside the bounds of marriage hijinks in her book.
And yes, he took extra flak because Ali beat him in the looks department, in the ability to articulate, to entertain inside (there was no Spinks Shuffle equivalent) or outside (Leon didn’t do poems). At the time, did he get the props he probably deserved for his humility? I’d say no.
In July 1978, he told Bruce Newman of Sports Illustrated, “I’m a ghetto n—-r—people shouldn’t forget that about me. You can take the n—-r out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the n—-r. One of the great things about Ali was the things he did for the black man in the white society—but you don’t never see no Ali down in the ghetto. When I swoop, I go to the neighborhoods and give those people a chance to see the heavyweight champion of the world on their own ground.”
And he won’t hear it now, but Leon deserves some apologies, because he took lots of arrows from elitists everywhere who found flaws in him to tip to top. How he spoke, his hair, how he looked–they’d gotten used to a total package, in Ali, not then realizing that Ali was one-and-done creation from a higher power who was in some kind of mood on a certain night.
“People may be disappointed because I’m not Ali,” Spinks told SI two plus months before he dropped his crown back to Ali in Louisiana at the Superdome. “But times change and the world changes; now I’m the champion. People want the heavyweight champion to fit a certain image, and they’re afraid I’m nothing but a dumb n—-r. But I’m just Leon.”
And we’ll also resist the temptation to affix XL angel’s wings on to Kay. Word was that leading into the fight with Ali in Vegas, she didn’t bestow on him all the unconditional love as motivational fuel that might have come in handy. She told him he’d get wiped out by Ali. But, it must be said, she was only saying the conventional wisdom.
“We started making fights for Leon and he’d get drunk before the fights,” promoter Bob Arum told Florie and Shapiro for “One Punch From the Promised Land.” So, there were oddsmakers who had Ali a 10-to-1 favorite, and plenty of sharps who didn’t set a line because they thought there was no point, there was no way Ali was going to lose to the guy who was coming in to go to sleep in Vegas as Ali was going out to do pre-sunrise road work.
Expectations were not sky high, but Spinks wasn’t dismissed as quick as you might think a 6-0-1 guy would be, because Ali was perceived to be on a hard slide. Earnie Shavers had rattled his brain pain a lot in their 15 round dance off on Sept. 29, 1977. It wasn’t said aloud as much as it was whispered between friends and fight fans, ‘What’s up with how Ali sounds?’ His voice had changed, he sounded a tiny bit slurry and the decibel level had dropped. The mouth that roared now sounded whispery and the campaign to get him to retire reached a new high, among some pundits and people close to him. There were bills to pay, though, a gigantic ego to defend and Father Time to fend off.
If Leon beat Scott LeDoux on Oct. 22, 1977 in Vegas, and then handled 28-0 Italian Alfio Righetti after that, he’d get the golden ticket Ali fight. Leon made it dramatic, though, fighting to a draw with LeDoux, and not having an easy time of it with Righetti, a Romagnan who retired from the ring at age 28, and became a traffic cop. The man from Italy had Leon in a bit of trouble in round seven, but didn’t put him away. He’d regret his “lack of malice,” as he put it, moving forward.
Five months after Ali-Shavers, Bob Arum put Ali-Spinks on at the Hilton in Vegas, scaled to under 6,000 patrons in attendance. No need to waste the hot air in building the thing up in a quest to fill a larger barn, not with Leon being less than sterling in his two set-the-table fights leading into the first Ali challenge.
“What is different about this encounter, as opposed to Ali’s other home television appearances, is that it is seriously being hyped that Spinks ‘could put the aging champ away,” wrote Peter Maas in the NY Times. “And theoretically it could happen. But if it does, it will be close to a miraculous event, far outstripping Ali’s own upset of Sonny Liston.”
A sparring partner told Michael Katz of the Times that Spinks had a good chance to grab a shocker win. “I’m telling you, Leon has a damn good chance of beating Ali,” said Joe Gholston. “It would be a very cold day in Las Vegas,” Katz wrote, as his kicker.
Being honest, though, in the name of keeping it real, and not over-selling the immensity of Leon’s win, Ali had slid and he was getting more callouts to retire by this time. So, it wasn’t like he had the Godzilla aura that Mike Tyson did when Buster Douglas made jaws drop in Tokyo by dropping and stopping Iron Mike. Ali ran his odometer up against Joe Frazier on Oct. 1, 1975 in the Philippines, arguably got extra judge love for his win over Jimmy Young on Oct. 30, 1977 in DC, maybe didn’t deserve the W over Ken Norton in their third match, on Sept. 28, 1976 at Yankee Stadium, and then beat Shavers but ate brain-cell zapping right hands from the grenade tosser all night long at Madison Square Garden. They weren’t so often calling him “The Greatest” by the time the Spinks fight got made.
BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS?
Still, even diminished like this, it WAS a wonder Leon won. In “One Punch From the Promise Land,” the authors share that camp for the Ali-Spinks rematch, on Sept. 15, 1978 wasn’t a spartan regimen for Spinks. “His day started with breakfast: three eggs, sausage, vitamins, and two bottles of beer.”
How many beer breakfasts were drank by Spinks as he got ready for the first Ali fight? Let’s just say he didn’t see camp as a sacred tradition and his body as a divine vessel that needed to be gently nourished. Oh, but for the first Ali fight, Leon had enough untainted gas in the tank to go 15. He wasn’t put off by rope-a-doping, or peek-a-boo D, or Ali’s lateral slides. Leon, weighing 197, simply chugged forward. Simple, but yet not. His focus was impressive, but for energy dips in the middle rounds, when Ali knew he needed to make up ground.
Spinks whacked to the body as Ali, at 224 pounds, had his back to the ropes in the first. You saw Ali sliding some, and also yapping at Spinks. “Can’t you hit any harder than that,” he said. OK, the tosses weren’t Shavers-esque, but Leon just kept throwing.
Perpetual motion in round three. Ali gliding, like the old days, a bit.
Ali spit some blood out of his mouth after the fourth, Leon’s assault was persistent, and effective at keeping Ali working to slip and duck and block. Encouraged by assistant trainer Georgie Benton, he hurled a jab more often than was customary, too.
In the eighth, Ali danced, mostly to his left, as was his habit. Then he’d switch direction, to help get an angle for the right cross. It’s worth a watch, this fight, even if the action isn’t prime Ali, for moments like this: you hear Brent Musberger tell you that Spinks had beer for breakfast, and Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, who had dumped out of the Ali posse the year before, tell viewers that the beer was probably because Leon was trying to put on weight.
Round ten saw Ali working like he knew he was down on the cards. Ali pressed, he was in the young man’s grill, ripping shots, pumping a jab, poking with it, and dropping sharp rights behind it. Ali took 10, and 11, he’d won four frames in a row. When would the beer breakfasts kick Leon’s ass? They wouldn’t, Leon had the energy to dip the torso, slip shots…but this one was dead even at this point, looking back at the cards.
Rounds 13, 14 and 15 were bootcamp, when Leon knuckled down. Ali started as a pro in 1960, remember, his entire body had taken a long lickin.’ Leon stood straight up, sure, but then he’d do what Sam Solomon drilled into him, better than in previous fights, move that head. Did it have anything to do with the magic Perrier that Solomon gave Leon after the 12th?
“Hold the spit, I’m gonna give him some juice,” Solomon said, and then put a little mini bottle, it was small enough to be allowed on an airplane, up to Leon’s lips. The liquid was a concentrate, Leon only took a small sip. Solomon told Tim Ryan after the fight it was just carbonated water, and Angelo Dundee remarked that he’d never heard Perrier called “juice.”
In the 14th, Ali couldn’t move his hands, or his legs all that much, either. Check that…Give Ali credit, he knew he’d need gas to burn in the 15th, and that he did. The old man nailed the kid with that quickie counter that buzzed George Foreman, and another, and almost stunned him enough to pounce. All three judges scored it for Spinks in the 15th, and all three got it wrong, for the record. Leon stole the round with hard work at the end, but in this, one of the rounds of the year in 1978, Ali should have been given the extra point. No point in fixating on that, Lord knows Ali had been gifted whole fights, let alone rounds here and there, so maybe we can say this was karma kicking back on the GOAT.
Harold Buck scored it 144-141 for Spinks, Art Lurie saw it 143-142 for Ali and Lou Tabat decided it was 145-140, for Leon.
This was something Spinks craved and appreciated, and he had as much fun as you can with it….but there’s no question it proved a mixed blessing.
Nova would tell you that the triumph messed with Leon’s head, he had more money to blow on blow, and more “friends” to share with.
Leon got arrested five times in the seven months following his win for the ages.
In the third week of April he was charged with felony possession of cocaine and misdemeanor possession of marijuana in St. Louis. Him and a lady friend were hassled in a fast food restaurant at 4 AM. Spinks, 24, and a 26-year-old woman were arrested on the parking lot of fast food restaurant about 4 AM. Asked for his license by a cop, he replied, “Come on, you know who I am, I don’t have one.”
Promoter Arum stood up for the champ. “This is the United States and a man is innocent until proven guilty. As far as I personally know, Leon does not use drugs. That’s just absurd. He’s marvelously conditioned athlete. There’s something fishy going on.”
The rematch wouldn’t be put off, of course.
On fight night, President Jimmy Carter made watching the bout, to see if Ali could re-gain the crown yet again part of his peace for the Middle East plan. He put the fight on and watched with the leader of Egypt, Anwar Sadat. The born-again peanut farming pol from Georgia would have been surprised to know that Leon’s prep wasn’t exactly Rocky-esque, unless you sub in booze and powders for raw eggs.
Ali was 221, dialed in, his pride had been wounded, he loved nothing more than proving doubters wrong. Spinks was 201, and in condition to lose for months now. ABC expected and got a massive audience for the free fight. The network paid $5.3 million for the rights and an estimated audience of 90 million watched the feature bout. Ponder this–46.7 percent of TV sets in this country were tuned in, while 63,350 paid to watch in the dome.
Spinks, if he had a feeling he’d not leave with the belt he came with, would have been cheered to receive a purse of $3.75 million, and Ali was to get $3.25 million, officially.
It looked like Mardi Gras, that’s how crowded it was around Ali as he walked to the ring. No one carried cups and was throwing beads, there was business to handle for the 36 year old Ali.
Leon didn’t start horribly, even though Ali’s feet were lighter this time. Howard Cosell did the call, by himself, there was no room in the 13-acre Superdome for color support.
“Ali staying on his toes, says he’s conditioned himself to fight, not just lost weight, but is ready to fight fifteen rounds,” Cosell said after the third.
Co-trainer George Benton read the writing on the canvas, and departed, leaving ringside after round five. He couldn’t stand the cornering by committee deal Sam Solomon had going. He watched in the dressing room, on a monitor, and then did an Elvis, left the building, after the twelfth.
At the midway point, Cosell sounded impressed with the old man. “Ali, giving a boxing lesson,” he said, after Muhammad came up with a left, and smeared it on Spinks in the eighth. “Ali, showing evidence of being in extraordinary condition,” the blow by blow man shared to start the ninth.
That held into the home stretch. Cosell gave props, telling watchers that this was a better brand of athlete than the one that fought Jimmy Young, Alfredo Evangelista, Earnie Shavers, and Spinks in the first clash. Howard got more jazzed as the rounds progressed, like someone presiding over a New Year’s broadcast. The closer to midnight, to round 15, that it got, the more amped Cosell got. To start the 13th, the bombastic broadcaster marveled at Ali shuffling. “Look at that, Ali is having fun, a touch of the shuffle, and then, the dance from side to side, sensing that he’s in command, knowing that he’s back.”
The 15th ticked down and Cosell showed humility, a rarity. “I wonder how many thought that Ali could put on this kind of fight, now, at this late point in his career, I know that I did not, in truth, I did not,” he admitted.
Ali’s ex camp crewman, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, didn’t seem to be giving The Greatest much of chance. He showed that, and also that he wasn’t dialed in to what was going on in the lead-up, that Leon had been enjoying the fruits of fame excessively. “I think Ali has a chance (to win),” Pacheco told reporters during fight week. “I never underestimate Ali when his mind is made up-resourceful, powerful, determined. But Spinks is not the kind of fighter that can be psyched out the way Joe Frazier was. Leon is impervious to outside factors–he’s in a tunnel.”
“The fight is over,” Cosell said as the final ten seconds drained down, and the masses in the building, the largest ever gathered to that point for an inside sporting event, bubbled. They knew that The Greatest would get his hand raised and re-prove again his status as a sporting marvel. Cosell had to hope the glue on his rug would hold as the went into the ring to interview Ali.
“On balance, one of the most exceptional fights I’ve ever seen waged,” Cosell said. “Admitting that Leon Spinks is young and not a great fighter, Ali proved equal to the occasion, and he fought his fight, he fought it his way, he’s the first ever to win the crown three times. He remains, I suppose, forever young.” The scores were read by sportscaster Peter “Champ” Clark: ref Lucien Joubert had it 10-4-1 for Ali, judge Herman Dutrieux saw it 11-4 for Ali and judge Ernest Cojoe saw it 10-4-1 for “the new champion, Muhammad Ali.”
The estimable Gene Kilroy, the trusted aide to The Greatest, who enjoys retirement in Las Vegas, told NYF his thoughts on Leon, and gave us the lowdown on both Ali-Spinks tangoes. “First off, when Leon fought Ali, Ali didn’t even train, he thought this is a guy with seven fights, this will be just like sparring,” Kilroy said. “He wasn’t even in shape. He said, ‘I’m not going to punish my body for this.’
There was no Deer Lake, Pennsylvania session for Ali heading to the February ’78 Spinks scrap, so Kilroy and the crew met up in Las Vegas. Kilroy asked Kris Kristofferson, who worked with the fighter in the NBC mini-series “Freedom Road,” which screened in October 1979, to hang with him and maybe motivate him some.
“Kris would say to Ali, ‘Let’s run,’ give him a little incentive.’ But when Ali walked to ring, he was tired. Going in, I wasn’t nervous about Spinks,” Kilroy continued, “I was nervous about George Benton, one of the great trainers ever. There aren’t a lot of great trainers, there are a lot of guys great at BS. George was the one who programmed the whole fight.”
And I had to ask, did Kilroy ever find out what was in the magic flask held by Solomon? “About the bottle, I asked George about that,” Kilroy said. “There’s a thing, the psychology of fighters, Cus D’Amato said that the fire that can cook your food can burn your house down…and that is fear. They put honey in the bottle, to make it taste different, and told Leon it was ‘high power,’ and it would give him strength. It was nothing, but Spinks believed it it was. George was an up and down guy, he wouldn’t lie.”
And Kilroy saw how it played out after Leon hit that jackpot which contained unforeseen trip-wires in the package. “Butch Lewis had Leon, and he figured, now we’re gonna milk it, have Leon fight in Switzerland, in London. But Leon said, ‘Ali gave me a shot, I’m gonna give him a shot at getting the title back.’ So, for the rematch, Ali got serious. The gang went to Deer Lake. “He trained his ass off,” Kilroy recalled.
So, Ali in his 59th bout became the heavyweight champion for the third time, and Spinks became a one hit wonder in the minds of most.
The punchlines got aimed at Leon hard and fast after this L. “He was drunk every night he was here,” Bob Arum told Pat Putnam of Sports Illustrated after Ali performed his latest magic trick. “Leon went to places our people didn’t dare go. I’m surprised he didn’t wind up with a knife in him.”
Leon spoke to Thomas Hauser for Hauser’s Ali bio, and summed up as well as he ever had publicly how succeeding immensely can be such a mixed blessing. “The second time we fought, Ali wasn’t better,” Leon said. “He just held a lot, and I had a lot of things on my mind. I don’t think about that second fight no more. Don’t matter now. It’s done, it’s over. But sometimes what I think about is how my life changed, being champion. It wasn’t right, the way people treated me. I was fighting to get ahead. All I wanted to do was make a living and the world wanted me to be like Ali…Not getting respect didn’t matter to me. I don’t mind people making fun of me. People always make fun of me, and if they don’t do it to my face, they’re gonna do it behind me. But when I was champion, no one would leave me alone. That’s what really bothered me.”
Probably, I could’ve and should’ve done the legwork on Leon before he died. Then he could, maybe, have seen it said that he deserves some apologies. No, that’s not because I’m wanting to be contrarian, or because I think people “deserve” to have obituaries that present them in a better light than they deserve. They are dead, if ever there was a time for honesty, it’s now, no feelings can be hurt when harsh truths are told. But the “harsh truths” here are more so aimed at our society. Do research on the conditions at Pruitt-Igoe, ask why we thought it was OK to do this: “able bodied” men weren’t allowed to live in an apartment with a woman who was receiving welfare. So that discouraged plenty of guys who would’ve wanted to be better fathers from coming ’round, because over-whelmed mothers couldn’t juggle full time work and child rearing.
Leon arguably deserved apologies for the insensitivity that reigned supreme then. People didn’t quite get it that the targets of the comedians’ barbs were actual humans. You think Spinks didn’t get stung by the punch lines? He maintained that he had a thick skin, that he shrugged it all off, but we’ll never truly know. “Jokes,” like, when it came out that him and Nova would be divorcing: “Hey, Leon Spinks is getting divorced. Who’s getting custody of his teeth?”
He deserved apologies, or just better from us, when there would be a “Where Are They Now?” story, and someone would pen a ‘How the mighty have fallen’ column. “It’s been a hard fall from glory,” they said in a December 2005 Boston Globe story when a reporter learned Leon was working as a custodian at a YMCA in Nebraska. The story was headlined “Riches To Rags.” There was schadenfreude in play, sometimes, let’s be honest, when the columns got crafted. They’d tsk-tsk him for losing his money. They always excel at that, much more than in working on and supporting efforts to improve, for example, a benefits structure for pugilists at retirement age. And let’s keep it real–a “one hit wonder” like Leon climbed higher on that one night than any of the takedown artists ever did or would.
I’m not exempt, I could have done and been better with Leon. Sometimes I will steer away from a guy who maybe seems like boxing has taken large pieces from them, damaged them neurologically. Because if I look too hard maybe I won’t be inclined to let myself off the hook for not doing more to lobby for that benefits package, or even seeing it as a sport at all.
SPINKS IN AA
After Ali, Spinks kept on looking to make a living at doing what he seemed best suited for. Nine months after the Superdome loss, he got placed in with South Africa’s Gerrie Coetzee in Monaco, and lost that one in round one. He got smashed to the mat three times on June 24, 1979, and was in tears when he walked back to his dressing room. He’d never been knocked down before, he maintained.
Seven months later, on Jan. 12, 1980, Spinks met Alfredo Evangelista, three years after the Uruguayan from Spain went the distance in a loss to Ali. Promoters would time and again tell reporters that this was a new Leon, but usually it wasn’t so, or his conversion to being a structured sort would be brief. Leon hit the disco, to take in a performance by Joe Frazier and his revue after midnight, though he’d need to be in the ring with Evangelista at 1 PM ET the next day. Yet he had the energy to stop Evangelista in the fifth.
On March 8, 1980, on his journey back to a title shot, Spinks fought with Los Angelan Eddie ‘The Animal’ Lopez in Nevada. Lopez (13-2-1 entering) had lost to 4-0 John Tate in his 11th fight, and Gerry Cooney two years later, in 1979. “My road was never paved for me,” said The Animal coming in to a fight with a kindred soul, noting he’d not been born with even a bronze spoon in mouth. Don King by now steered the Spinks ship, and while Don and Mr. T listened, the judges cards were read, the bout deemed a draw.
King’s stubbornness, knowing he had a fighter with heavy name recognition, meant he’d not stop working to maneuver Leon into another title opportunity. On May 3, 1980 Leon battled 9-2-2 Kevin Isaac in California, off TV, on a Joe Gagliardi card in San Carlos. Spinks scored a TKO8 victory. The next one had higher stakes–on Oct. 8, 1980, Spinks (ranked No. 4 by the WBC) stepped to the line against Colombian Bernardo Mercado (ranked No. 1 by the WBC) at Caesars Palace, on the Larry Holmes-Muhammad Ali undercard. Maybe you took in the feed that featured Bob Sheridan doing blow by blow, with Don King and Kris Kristofferson on color.
Mercado like Leon got ushered somewhat tenderly to this point; he’d via stoppage to John Tate and then Mike Weaver in 1978, but rebounded with wins over Trevor Berbick and Earnie Shavers, leading to the crack against Spinks. In round nine of a scheduled 12, Spinks still had pop. A left hook buzzed Mercado, Leon saw it, and flurried so the ref stepped in. “This Leon Spinks is some kind of fighter,” color man King enthused, right before Holmes-Ali got underway. That fight had the look of an execution, as the 38 year old Ali had nothing to offer but his name, and the memories held by those watching, which only served to make the scene sadder. The only upside for him, the $8 million purse. Angelo Dundee mercifully pulled the plug after ten rounds of depressing sessions. Ah, but Ali had a name, he was still THE NAME, and so he’d get asked to do it again. And same with Spinks, he had a name, and so there was no shortage of people to funnel him into fights.
On June 12, 1981 at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Michigan, Spinks received his last big-deal shot at a crown. His purse would be $490,000 to fight Larry Holmes, and Leon’s mood read as more pragmatic than maybe you’d like coming in.
In Spinks’ dressing room, Sports Illustrated reported, friends, supposed friends and fake friends approached him, and told him he’d whup Holmes easy. “I’ll do the best I can,” he would reply. His mom Kay said the same, that he’d be the champ again real soon. “Aw, Mom, shut up,” Spinks told her without malice. “I’ll just do the best I can.” Spinks weighed 200¼ pounds. Behind him were seven solid weeks of hard work, we were told, by people hoping that you’d forgotten that to start the year Leon made the papers again. He got jumped coming out of a bar, he told cops, and woke up nude in a motel room with all valuables stripped from him.
Cosell didn’t share the naked truth story; he told watchers that the 10-3-2 Spinks, now 27, appreciated getting another chance on a grand stage, against the WBC and the RING belt-holder Holmes. In a half-filled house, it sounded like a capacity crowd as the noise built up when Holmes hammered away in the third.
Spinks just beat a count after getting smashed into the ropes. He rose, and ate hard and clean shots from Holmes, who rose to 38-0 courtesy of faded Neon Leon when referee Richard Steele felt a pang of conscience and stepped in to halt the slaying.
And then the business of boxing rolled on.
Cosell at his ringside perch discussed with Holmes how he’d gotten the job done. Don King came over, to see how his near future plans would progress. Gerry Cooney stood 50 feet away, Cosell would invite him over and the flames would be fanned for a superfight of the sorts, a race war pitting a Great White Hope against a super-skilled sniper. And Spinks? He wouldn’t be invited to chat with Cosell or get his thoughts on the defeat at the hands of Holmes. Leon wondered about his future in a quiet dressing room, as a few more devotees tiptoed away, to search for a meal-ticket with more upside.
Leon would fight 31 more pro fights, and be matched with some names, like Carlos DeLeon, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Jose Ribalta and Tex Cobb. He’d get a check, in exchange for letting the promoter use his name to sell a show, and to add a recognizable figure to his opponents’ win column. After Holmes, it was purely about making a living, basically.
And we swing back now, because Leon’s life played out like most do. Ups and downs, he got dealt both and his “ups” inform his legacy outside of the realm of “wins” and “losses” and money earned and squandered.
It’s been under-reported the influence, the very positive influence, that Leon had, as a role model for St. Louis area youth. No, he wasn’t a slick talker, he didn’t win people over to him aided by a superb aesthetic package. And that actually helped, if maybe you were a kid from a rough hood who got tongue tied a bunch, and maybe got teased because you had big ears, or whatever.
“I was twelve years old when Leon and Michael won Olympic gold in ’76,” said A-grade boxing trainer Kevin Cunningham. “I grew up in north St. Louis, infamously known as one of the worst ghettos in the country. When Leon and Mike won Olympic gold on that historic night in 1976, I remember everyone in the neighborhood running outside yelling and screaming, “Leon and Mike won!” Everybody in St. Louis felt like they were kin to the Spinks brothers. The city was so proud of them and they gave everybody in the hood hope. Leon and Mike’s success inspired kids throughout St.Louis to get into boxing. St. Louis became one of the best amateur programs in the country throughout the 80s and 90s. The city of St. Louis has produced over 18 world champions. When Leon beat Ali in 1978 it was like St.Louis had won the Super Bowl. That fight was watched by over 90 million viewers and the biggest sporting event of that time,” the 56 year old Cunningham continued. “I was blessed to have the opportunity to manage and train Cory Spinks, Leon’s son. Our journey started when Cory joined my PAL amateur boxing program. The Spinks family is by far the most accomplished family in the sport of boxing. There’s no other family in the sport that has two Olympic gold medal champions and three undisputed world champions. I’m thankful and honored, to have had the opportunity to be a part of boxing royalty.”
Leon’s son Cory, age 42, summed up Leon: “He was a free spirited dude, who’d say what’s on his mind.” He admitted that his parents were not together, and Leon wasn’t around St. Louis, where Cory grew up. But he clearly, when talking to Ak and Barak on SiriusXM, would rather not go so deep into the subject of generational trauma. He pivoted to the brighter side. The Spinks family is absolute royalty in the pugilism scene, he told the hosts. “I don’t think that’ll every happen in boxing again…three undisputed champions in one family,” he said. And Cory, 39-8 fighting from 1997 to 2013), undisputed welter champ in 2003, seems to get it, that he has plenty to be proud of, by soldiering on. He told Ak and Barak how Pruitt-Igoe was known back in the day as some of the very worst projects in the nation. “We’re the most accomplished boxing family, for sure!”
Gene Kilroy has only kind words for Leon, looking back, as well. “I always had a lot of respect for Spinks, he kept his word,” he said. “And he never hurt anybody, the only person he hurt was himself, with his lifestyle.”
George Foreman is in a fraternity with Leon Spinks, both from a boxing standpoint, and in terms of coming from those prototypical “humble beginnings.” Me and George, who is 72, talked some about Leon, how he doesn’t receive due credit, as a role model, how boxing deserves more credit than it gets, because it offers a sanctuary and a foothold to have nots, and how so many mothers deserve medals for being the glue in fractured families.
“You have all the pieces there to give credit to Leon Spinks,” Foreman told me. “Can you imagine a mom taking such kids from their environment and making Olympic champions? I on the other hand was introduced to boxing by the Job Corps, meaning no mixing with an outside world. They had a mother rule. I met Leon a few times, there was never a complaint. He was so happy to be around the boxing crowd. It was like, ‘That’s my story, I beat Ali, I was champ, made lots of money, it’s all gone, but look, I’m still here and I am an attraction, there is no hiding.’ His story was as mainstream as a Horatio Alger story. Living through a Spinks experience is pure American.”