The Sunday London Times
The Big interview: Leon Spinks
Brian Doogan in Columbus, Nebraska
He won Olympic gold, beat Muhammad Ali, lost his money and now works as a janitor, but the former champ is still upbeat
The old boxer, wrapped in shadows and pathos, stared at the television set in his apartment and said nothing. Images of a forgotten hero of a forgotten war flashed across the screen. They showed the boxer in his heyday, as a 24-year-old on a February night 28 years ago when he beat the greatest heavyweight boxer who ever lived. “He could have made upwards of $50m if he had disciplined himself and done the right things for four or five more years (after he beat Muhammad Ali for the title),” the promoter Butch Lewis always insisted. But who could say what Leon Spinks, one-time Olympic champion and holder of what was then the richest prize in sport, was thinking as he gazed straight ahead?
Outside, a freight train passed by on the Union Pacific railroad, which traverses the town of Columbus, Nebraska (Buffalo Bill held the first full dress rehearsal for his Wild West Show here, but not much has happened since in this isolated area of America’s Midwest). Spinks switched off the television and slowly lifted himself out of his chair. “I gotta go to work,” he said in a gravelly voice. “Another day, another dollar. Ain’t that what they say?”
His girlfriend, Brenda Glur, with whom he has lived for three years, drove him to 28th Avenue, stopping outside the Columbus Family YMCA; Leon has a long history of traffic violations, so Glur never allows him to take the wheel. Spinks walked in, handed over his glasses, as he does every shift, to the girl working on the front desk, and began his shift, donning overalls and a pair of rubber gloves before pulling out a cart full of brooms, mops, cloths and cleaning chemicals that he steered towards the lavatories.
He is one of four janitors working at the Y for the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. “I’m happy here,” he said, with not a trace of self-pity, smiling at a small boy who followed him along a corridor while he mopped the floor. “Kids come up to me all the time. It’s a thrill for them. I tell them I was heavyweight champion and if they eat healthy, stay off drugs and grow up real strong, maybe one day they might become the champ, too.
“I like it. I like doin’ what I’m doin’. I’m still breathin’, still makin’ money and I have people round here who look out for me.”
One of these people is Don Konrad, the director of the Men’s Ministry of the Columbus Rescue Mission. “There’s such a sweet and gentle spirit about him, no airs,” he said of Spinks, a regular volunteer at the church’s kitchen for the homeless. “To everyone in this community, he’s just Leon, our friend.”
When he first came to Columbus he spent his days anonymously, watching television, going to the American Legion and the downtown bars. “I didn’t think this was good for Leon,” Glur explained, so she helped him find jobs to occupy his time. “They give him a purpose, and, as a person, he’s really benefited. Leon’s happiest helping other people.”
He works at the Y on Saturdays and Sundays and at a local McDonald’s on weekdays, also as a janitor. “I unload the delivery trucks when they come in and get 50% off on Big Macs and everything,” he declared matter-of-factly.
Dementia and arthritis have taken their toll. “He has good days and bad days,” Glur admitted. This was one of his good days. When asked if boxing had contributed to his mental deterioration, he shrugged. “Maybe,” he replied. “I’m not Dr Kildare. Look at Ali. I ain’t seen him recently, but sometimes he ain’t too good. Who knows why? I got hit a lot, took a lot of punches and I’m glad I lived through it.”
But why? So you could be mugged in a Detroit street and laughed at? Left in a gutter to be ridiculed, as the attackers ran off with your fur and 22-carat gold front teeth? Or perhaps so you could blow an entire fortune earned the hardest possible way and end up flat broke, living for a while in a homeless shelter on Detroit’s east side, with only your quiet but battered dignity to carry you through? Maybe this was the way you had to do it — it was certainly the way you chose — to live through this and more, much more, before finally you were found by an angel while lying on the floor of a dirty room at the back of an old gym in Brandon, Missouri — Las Vegas without the lights — and she brought you to Columbus. Maybe this was a destiny that had to be fulfilled before its purpose, your purpose, could reveal itself.
“How you doin’, Leon?” the boy finally asked as Spinks mopped his last patch of floor at the Y.
“I’m good, buddy, pretty good,” Spinks replied earnestly, looking hard at the boy. “How are you? You good? Let me tell you somethin’. Listen and you might learn . . .”
Okay, kid, here’s how it all began on the mean streets of St Louis . . .
His first lessons were administered by local toughs around the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects where he grew up. “Mess-over,” they called him, because Spinks was easy to mess over. Once acquired, the reputation was difficult to shake. “It was the ghetto and it was hard,” he affirmed over dinner at the Village Inn, his cleaning cart put away for another day. “You had to fight to make it. Eventually, common sense saw me through. You learnt when to move in and when to move out. When a guy called you into an alley, looking at your brand-new tennis shoes, you knew what he was calling you into the alley for. But I didn’t let it happen. Nobody took my tennis shoes. You had to figure out a way to survive, and I figured it.”
The toughest lessons, however, came courtesy of his often-absent father. He came home once and punished Spinks — “for what, I don’t remember” — by suspending him from a nail and beating him, the way George Foreman might have beaten a heavy bag. Spinks cried long after the beating stopped. From his earliest days, his father would tell the eldest of his seven children that he would “never amount to anything”. “That became my thing,” Spinks reflected. “To be somebody. I wanted to be somebody to prove him wrong.”
At 14 he joined a local boxing gym, just after his father had left for good. His mother raised the family on welfare money and taught Bible classes at home. “She was sat with a Bible in her lap the night I won the title from Ali,” he recalled fondly. “My mother was the kindest woman, but she was tough too. She had to be. I went through life with one thing my mother taught me: when a man hits you, you hit him back. Ain’t no other way. Those guys who tried to make my life hell, taking me on three-on-one, four-on-one, they learnt after a while that I wasn’t the same Leon. They saw my progress in the gym. Pretty soon I was on the local amateur team, then I was representin’ my country. I kept winnin’ and got a chance to travel and see the world. Finally, I went all the way to the Olympics. Without fightin’ back, I’d have got nowhere.”
Still listenin’, kid? When I tell you to stay off drugs, I know what I’m talkin’ about . . .
Sugar Ray Leonard, Spinks and his younger brother Michael, the lightweight Howard Davis and flyweight Leo Randolph all brought home gold medals from Montreal. Big John Tate, who went on to claim the WBA heavyweight title, won a bronze medal and the bantamweight Charles Mooney a silver, making the USA’s 1976 boxing team its most successful ever. Howard Cosell, the broadcaster whose fame was spread internationally by his verbal sparring sessions with Ali, called the bouts for ABC television. Overnight the five gold medal- winners were household names. “People looked up to us — kids, even the guys from the neighbourhood who used to try to beat us up all the time. We represented the country, did everybody proud, and that will always be my greatest achievement,” Spinks insisted.
“What I was proud of most of all was doin’ it for the Marine Corps. I was the first guy from the Marine Corps to win an Olympic gold medal and all the guys were happy for me. Not long before then I was dropped in Vietnam by mistake. My papers got mixed up, and shit, man, that was one bad place to be. Two weeks felt like forever, but I got outta there. I was meant to be boxin’ some place, but got dropped there. All I could hear was machine-gun fire and bombs explodin’ all about the place. Facin’ a man in a ring never scared me after that.”
It was while in the forces, probably during his fortnight in Vietnam, that he first experimented with drugs. Marijuana, speed, LSD, pills and cocaine were all readily available, and Spinks succumbed, despite witnessing all around him the devastation that they could cause.
“It wasn’t good for me, wasn’t good for nobody. What saved me was I never used crack and I never used a needle. I saw other guys do that and it ruined their whole life,” he said. “I got into boxin’ and my thing was to lead Michael (they became the first brothers to win Olympic boxing medals at the same Games and the only brothers to win the world heavyweight championship). I was everythin’ to my brother. My brother was everythin’ to me. We both inspired each other. We motivated each other. We were livin’ off each other. That gave us the strength and God gave us the power to get there. Yes, I partied and boozed and smoked pot, but I got away from everythin’ else. I had my boxin’ career to keep me focused. Everythin’ was happenin’ so fast.”
Sure, kid, I fought Ali. He talked crazy and I talked crazy right back. He was my hero — he was everybody’s hero — but when we was in the ring he was just another man to beat . . .
Within 12 months of becoming a professional fighter in January 1977, Spinks was signed up to fight Ali.
Apart from Pete Rademacher, the 1956 Olympic gold medallist who fought Floyd Patterson for the title on his pro debut, no heavyweight has ever challenged the champion bringing less experience to the ring. Ali was 36 and looking for a soft touch against whom he could notch up another title defence after a life-and-death struggle at Madison Square Garden against the ferocious Earnie Shavers. Leon, with only seven fights under his belt, fitted the bill perfectly.
Spinks’s early competition, as one beat writer put it, had come “straight from Palookaville”. Lightning Bob Smith, a Brooklyn butcher, was dispatched in lightning quick time. Three first-round knockouts followed in rapid succession. His fifth foe, Bruce Scott, who signed to fight just hours before the first bell after the scheduled opponent withdrew, fell three times inside three rounds. Even unconvincing matches against the journeymen Scott LeDoux and Alfio Righetti of Italy could not tarnish his marketability, although in fighting terms he remained a novice.
“I beat Floyd Patterson, who won a gold medal. I beat Joe Frazier, who won a gold medal. I beat George Foreman, who won a gold medal. I’m gonna beat ’em all before I retire to prove I’m the greatest of all time,” Ali bellowed, fooling nobody.
An unconcerned, uninspired Ali sparred only 20 rounds in preparation for the 15-round fight. Spinks, meanwhile, went to a training camp for the first time in his life. “I had him all set up in the Catskills,” Butch Lewis, who had signed him on his return from the Olympics, told Thomas Hauser, Ali’s authorised biographer. “My own mother was there to cook. I slept on a cot outside the door to Leon’s room, so he couldn’t sneak off to a bar or disco. I mean, I covered all the bases. Leon was going to be in the shape of his life if it killed me.
“So, what happened was one morning Sam Solomon, Leon’s trainer, woke me up and asked, ‘Where’s Leon?’ I said, ‘He’s in his room’, and Sam said, ‘No, he ain’t’. And I thought I was going to kill Leon — he’d gone out the window, walked across the roof, jumped down and ran off. We found him in a pool room in Monticello (South Carolina, a million miles away from the discipline of his regime in upstate New York). He said, ‘Butch, I was all cooped up. I just had to have some freedom’. “But we were making progress. Leon was in shape, looking good, and I was starting to think he could beat Ali. The biggest problem we had was psyching him up to be aggressive. All the time I had to remind him, ‘You know, Leon, it’s not personal. You can love Ali, but you’ve got to hit him to win the fight’. Ali was his hero and Leon is a very sweet guy.”
The night before the fight at the Las Vegas Hilton, Spinks was eating dinner in the hotel restaurant in the company of Solomon and the sportswriter Ron Borges when suddenly the doors burst open and in walked Ali with his entourage.
“There’s Ali,” said a smiling Spinks, as he rose from the table to walk over and shake his opponent’s hand.
“What! Are you nuts?” snapped Borges. “Yes, it’s Ali, and tomorrow night he’s going to be punching you in your head. If I were you, I’d be getting my head around that. Quickly.”
Reluctantly, Spinks sat down: “Yeah, but there’s Ali . . .”
About 8,000 people were in attendance on February 15, 1978, when an ageing, out-of-shape Ali engaged the young contender. From the early rounds, Ali played possum and Spinks flailed away, building a substantial lead on the judges’ scorecards. Nobody confused the spectacle for Ali-Frazier III, but the unfolding drama lay in the challenge Ali had left himself: behind on points, the man who used the rope-a-dope on Foreman in Africa needed once more to improvise and find a way to win.
“So he started talking crazy and I talked crazy right back,” Spinks recalled. “He’d say, ‘You’re gettin’ tired. You’re goin’ down. I’m gonna get you’, and I’d tell him, ‘Well, come on, old man’. The Mouth from the South, I called him. He was my hero, but I knew what I had to do. I went all out to beat him in the opening round. I knew I had to take the fight to him, stay on him, steal a breather whenever I could, but all the time keep up that pressure without wearing myself out. When the 15 rounds were over, I really didn’t know if I’d won; they could’ve given it to Ali because of politics. Then they announced the decision (Spinks by a split decision) and I was in shock.”
Spinks retreated quickly to a room under an assumed name in the Hilton. All he could think of was a trip, somewhere overseas. “Maybe a cruise,” he thought. “Yeah, a cruise. I’d like to go to England.”
I was the champ, kid. I had it all. But I only ever wanted to be Leon. You go through life, you make mistakes, you pay for ’em. Aw hell, kid, learn from me . . .
When Butch Lewis returned to his office after Spinks’s unlikely victory, he found a stack of messages “six inches high” from people offering Spinks endorsements. “The US Dairy Association, Coca-Cola, 7-Up, Prudential Life Insurance,” Lewis recalled. “We were ready to make a fortune.” Spinks, however, was ready to let his hair down after eight weeks of intense training. Against his better judgment, Lewis agreed to loosen the reins, allowing the boxer to “swoop”. “Everybody’s makin’ plans for me, but what they don’t understand is I ain’t gonna let nobody plan my life,” he told a reporter. “I gotta be me.”
Two nights after permitting Spinks to leave the Manhattan apartment he owned, Lewis received a 4am phone call from Ed Schuyler of the Associated Press. “Obviously Ed knew something I didn’t know, because otherwise, four in the morning was a bad time to be calling. He told me, ‘Leon just got busted for cocaine’. Here we are, about to make millions of dollars and he’s got $5 worth of cocaine in his hatband. So they put a picture of Leon in handcuffs on the front page of every newspaper in the country (and all) the endorsements are gone.”
Spinks spun out of control. In the seven months between the first and second Ali bouts, he was arrested four times for offences that ranged from driving the wrong way down a one-way street to possession of marijuana and cocaine.
“I didn’t understand what it meant to be heavyweight champ. I was just Leon and that’s all I ever wanted to be, just Leon,” he reflected.
The WBC stripped him of its title and awarded it to Ken Norton, but the Ali-Spinks rematch went ahead for the WBA belt at the Superdome in New Orleans. Ali sparred 10 times as many rounds as he had for their first bout. On the other hand, “Leon was everywhere except the gym, partying his life away, all the leeches telling him, ‘Right on, Leon, do it your way’, because they wanted the money they could suck out of him,” Lewis recalled.
“Then Leon disappeared completely. It was time to start serious training and nobody knew where he was. Finally, I tracked him down in North Carolina in a little shack drinking moonshine whisky. He’s smoking dope, groggier than hell, like this is a dream and he’s going to enjoy it because any day he might wake up. That’s how it was the whole time he was champ. Leon was supposed to be here, he’d be there. He’s supposed to be there, he’d be here. Take him in the front door of a hotel and he’d keep on walking right out the back. At most, he trained 10 days for the rematch.
“Forget all that stuff about Ali going back and working hard and being better the second time around. Ali wasn’t better; Ali was worse. He had slipped even more than before, but Leon went against him with nothing at all.”
A record indoor crowd of 63,532 witnessed Ali become the first man to win the world heavyweight title three times. Spinks was outmanoeuvred throughout the 15 rounds. He was paid $3.25m, but lawyers, he says, stole every last cent. “I was stupid. I gave them power of attorney,” he claimed. “They stole all my money. What can you do?”
You gotta pick yourself up, kid, that’s all you can do. People need you and somewhere out there is an angel who’ll give you the help you need . . .
Who could say what was really the lowest point? Getting mugged in the street or being mugged in the ring? Spinks boxed his last bout in December 1995, dropping an eight-rounds decision to Fred Houpe, a no-hope heavyweight from Chicago who had not fought for 17 years. The former world heavyweight champion’s purse was $2,500.
Spinks resurfaced as a greeter at a Chicago restaurant owned by Mike Ditka, the former Chicago Bears coach, but within months he was fired for being unreliable. He volunteered to help homeless people in the city, joining up with a couple of fellow ex-Marines to hand out packed lunches, drinks and clothes. “Hey, Leon Spinks just handed me a cup of coffee and a pair of underwear!” a man was once heard to shout out on Chicago’s west side.
“I love to put a smile on people’s faces,” Spinks explained. “I know how it was when I was a kid, when I was young and didn’t have anythin’. I was there. They need help and I help them because I can. You hope somebody would knock on the door for you, if you needed it.”
In July 1990 his son Leon Calvin was found dead in his girlfriend’s car, the victim of a drive-by shooting. He was unbeaten after two fights as a light heavyweight. “The pain’s still raw,” Spinks said. “But Cory, another of my sons, he became world welterweight champion and I follow his career, get to most of his fights. He’s doin’ his thing and that’s what’s satisfyin’. I never pushed him into it. When I had kids I was a kid myself and I wasn’t around much. I regret this, but I was too busy tryin’ to figure out where I was goin’.”
When he met Glur he was going nowhere fast, trading on his name and signing autographs at ex-boxers’ conventions. “She’s my angel,” Spinks said. “She brought me here and I do what I can. I give out awards at the local Special Olympics and help out in some after-school programmes, talkin’ to kids and warnin’ them about drugs and gang fightin’. I try to make them respect their parents and always stay positive.” For, despite all he has been through, Spinks has held on to his self-respect and, on the good days, much of his charisma.
At a recent reunion of the 1976 Olympic boxing team, Spinks, as ever, was the comic turn, pointing out to Sugar Ray Leonard, in front of the other team members, exactly what it was that made this group of fighters unique.
“Best dancer, the only white guy (Chuck Walker, who became a professional tap dancer). Ain’t that somethin’?”
“Leon, you crack me up.”
“You know, Ray, you don’t look a day over 50.”
“Leon, I am 50.”
“You are . . . well, happy birthday!”