The night seemed endless and empty in Des Moines, Iowa, and for Leon Spinks it offered no answers. Prowling through his dimly lit hotel suite, he paused at a window and peered out at the blackness. But his search was inward; he was looking for himself. A few days earlier, he had enjoyed little celebrity. Although he had won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics and was undefeated in seven professional fights, if he was recognized in public, and he seldom was, it was mainly because of his black gunfighter's hat and his picket-fence smile. And then, shockingly, thunderously, he had defeated Muhammad Ali to become the heavyweight champion of the world, and he no longer knew who he was.
Turning from the window, he took a deep breath. "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."
While Leon Spinks, who is now 24, was growing up in the meanest of ghettos in St. Louis, a bouncy, chatty teen-ager named Butch Lewis was emerging from an upper-middle-class environment in New Jersey. He settled into a comfortable, if unexciting, career as a used-car salesman. One day the paths of the two men would cross, and at that improbable intersection would lie the heavyweight championship of the world.
Born two months prematurely, Leon Spinks weighed less than four pounds at birth. Two weeks later he developed yellow jaundice and nearly died. And from that bleak beginning, everything seemed to go downhill.
March 13, 1978
The Spinkses lived at 2351 Biddle St., on the eighth floor of one of 45 identical 11-story buildings in the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project, an experiment in low-income housing. The experiment failed. Twelve years after it was built the city dynamited the project and blew it into dust.
The neighborhood was an arena of crime and angry passions. The strong ruled the streets; the weak huddled behind locked doors. A sickly child suffering from low blood pressure and fainting spells, Leon was a favorite target of roving street gangs. Deserted by her husband, Mrs. Kay Spinks raised her children—six boys and one girl—largely on a monthly welfare check of $135. Dinners were corn bread and government-surplus peanut butter. The meals were followed by hours of reading the Bible.
"All the time Mama was reading The Book to us," Spinks says. "Before I left home she had read The Book to us twice. I have to admit that at first we didn't listen. But then we began to hear what she was reading. There are still a lot of passages that I can quote. I learned them because I believed them. I'm religious because I believe in God. God leads my future. He gave me my title, and tomorrow He can take it back. God makes you suffer, but He makes you suffer for a very good reason. Whatever happens to me, it is God's will."
Spinks' brother Michael, now 21 and an unbeaten light heavyweight with seven victories, remembers how they suffered on the streets of Pruitt-Igoe. "There was one gang that just hung around our house waiting for us to come," says Michael. He is taller than his brother, but not as muscular through the upper body. "They'd always jump on Leon because he was the oldest. They'd call him ugly. They were trying to rob him, take his money. What little there was. He'd fight back, but there were always too many of them. I'd be on the side throwing my little stones, but it didn't do no good. Sometimes they'd beat me up, too. Then we'd both go home with our clothes tore off."
"Sometimes I'd fight back," Leon says, "but when we were younger there were always too many guys fighting us at one time. You can fight one guy, maybe two; but you can't take on a whole gang. I took my lumps. When I got older I'd walk away from a fight on the street. A guy had to hit me twice before I'd fight. I wasn't afraid of being hurt but of what I would do. My mama raised me that way: to keep the peace. If I hurt some dude bad, then I'd feel bad. It's no way to live.
"My mama, I love her so deeply I cannot find the words to express it. I want to protect her so much it hurts. She gave so much of herself to us. I want to give back as much as I can. Now when I hear people talk against me, it just makes me try that much harder. I came out of that ghetto to prove to the world that I was me, Leon Spinks, a success. I want people to love me as Leon Spinks, not as Leon Spinks the heavyweight champion of the world. There is more to me than just plain boxing. I want the world to accept me as myself, as a person, not just as a fighter."
He has no such feelings for his father, who always put him down. And in this case, Leon's feelings are bitterly clear: "I always wanted to show him that I was the man he never was."
But on the street, survival comes before success. A family named Westbrook lived two floors above the Spinkses. "All brothers," says Mike, "a whole gang of them, and all of them big. Nobody messed with them." One afternoon as Leon was walking up the stairs, he met one of the brothers coming down. And as usual, Leon was bloody and torn. He was then 15 years old.
"That's it, Leon," the Westbrook brother said. "I've been watching you get beat up for years. I'm going to the gym. You come with me. If you are going to fight, you might as well learn how."
They went to the Capri gym on 19th and Cole Streets. That night Leon told his mother and Mike that he was taking boxing lessons. After that, when he got home, he'd practice what he had learned that day. He would practice on Mike. "To hell with this," Mike said. "Tomorrow I'll go to the gym with you."
Both brothers were soon entering amateur tournaments. Leon was a winner from the start. Mike was less successful. "That was because Leon was a better fighter than me," says Mike. "He had something I never had. He was always winning, I was always losing. I guess every little kid wants to be like somebody. I wanted to be like Leon. He was very proud of himself. And I was proud of him."
In 1971 Mike retired. He had had it with boxing. "I never got off on violence," he says. "I guess I was a softhearted little boy. But after I quit, Leon gave me no peace. He made me start boxing again. Anyway, I was tired of seeing all the trophies he kept lugging home. I wanted some for myself."
Leon dropped out of school after completing the 10th grade. Not much later, in 1973, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He was undisciplined and his troubles in boot camp are legendary. More than one drill sergeant fell before his fists. But while Leon won the battles, the Marines won the war. Leon spent six months in boot camp.
Looking back at that phase of his life, Leon still bristles at the thought of drill sergeants, but he does admit that they forced on him a discipline that he sorely needed. "Because I was a wise guy off the street," he says, "it was difficult for me to adjust to somebody telling me what to do and what not to do. So I fought it. But I learned. I straightened myself out because I learned it was not so bad to live the life of a Marine."
After boot camp Spinks became a member of the All-Marine boxing team. He had 185 bouts as an amateur, winning all but seven, with 133 knockouts. He was national AAU light heavyweight champion three times (1974-76). In 1974 he won a bronze medal at the World Games in Cuba, and the following year won a silver medal at the Pan-American Games. Then came Montreal, the gold medal in the light heavyweight class and his first meeting with Butch Lewis, the used-car salesman.
It was on a fall day in 1966 that the lives of Leon Spinks and Butch Lewis were set on a parallel course. As he drove past the John L. Lewis used-car lot just outside Chester, Pa., Heavyweight Joe Frazier spotted a Corvette Sting Ray on display. Frazier, who would become champion in 1970, is a compulsive shopper. A few hours later he had acquired the Corvette. He also had acquired a new friend in Butch Lewis.
Lewis began flying around the world to attend all of Frazier's fights. Never one to keep a low profile, Lewis was mistaken for an American promoter by a group of German boxing enthusiasts. "Being young and brassy, I let them go on thinking that," Lewis says. "Soon we were talking about promoting an Ali fight in Munich. I said, 'Why not? Let's get it on.' And at that very moment, I became a promoter. What the hell, I had a gift of gab, right?"
Lewis took his life savings out of the bank and began chasing Ali, often cornering him, always trying to talk him into fighting in Munich. It became a comic routine on a zigzagging tour of the world.
Ali: "Why you here?"
Lewis: "You know why I'm here."
Herbert Muhammad: "You've got to be crazy. You never even promoted a club fight. Get lost."
Worn down, Ali finally relented. He agreed to fight Richard Dunn in Munich. Lewis joined Bob Arum of Top Rank and co-promoted the fight. Then they promoted the Ali-Inoki boxing-wrestling farce in Tokyo, and the 1976 Ali-Ken Norton fight at Yankee Stadium.
"Every time we went to the post we lost our shirts," Lewis says. "Everybody made money but the promoters."
Like so many other boxing promoters looking for action and pro prospects, Lewis went to the Olympics in Montreal. The night that Leon and Michael won their gold medals, Lewis introduced himself. He also extended an invitation: Would the two brothers like to be his personal guests at the Norton-Ali fight in September? Would they ever! One month later Leon signed a three-year promotional contract with Arum-Lewis. It carried an option for an additional two years.
Signing a promotional contract was one thing; signing a managerial contract was quite another. While he was still in Montreal, Spinks signed a pact with Millard (Mitt) Barnes of St. Louis, one of the many boxing figures on the scene. The contract has since become a center of controversy. Barnes claims that the contract makes him Spinks' manager for three years with an option for three more. Spinks now asserts that the contract is invalid, that all it does is give Barnes 30% of his fight earnings, for which Barnes does absolutely nothing, according to Spinks.
A blocky, muscular man of 250 pounds, Barnes is an organizer for Teamster Union Local 600 in St. Louis. Eight years ago he was driving a truck and operating a small gym in the basement of the Railroad YMCA Hotel. He says that one day Spinks, then 16, wandered in and asked for a place to train and a place to sleep. Barnes says he gave him both.
"We were living in just three rooms, all us guys," Spinks recalls. "We were sleeping in the sink, on top of the refrigerator, everywhere. I guess I just got tired of it. I felt it would be better if I got out and gave them a little more space."
Spinks stayed with Barnes until he went into the Marines. He did odd jobs around the hotel. Sometimes Barnes gave him pocket money. Two days a week Spinks worked for a Manpower-type organization. It is Barnes' contention that he spent vast sums of money on Spinks.
Spinks was paid $320,000 for the Ali fight. Barnes received $96,000, "and I'm still in the hole," he says.
"Look, the dispute is between Spinks and Barnes," says Lewis. "It's got nothing to do with me, and nothing to do with Bob Arum. But I've got to say this: the only time you ever see Mitt Barnes is when he shows up to collect his 30%."
Barnes says that this is indeed true—but only because the Top Rank people are keeping him from seeing Spinks. "I get the feeling that everybody but me is managing him," Barnes says. "They refuse to let me talk to Leon, or let Leon talk to me. They are trying to steal him from me. But the only way they are going to get him is if the Supreme Court says they can have him."
Spinks did not express concern over the Barnes contract until after Michael signed a contract with Top Rank last February. Because he doesn't have a manager, Mike keeps everything he earns. "I guess it started the first time they came in together to get paid," Lewis says. "Mike got 100% of his money. But when we paid Leon, Barnes' 30% had been deducted. He looked at Mike's pile, and then he looked at his pile, and then he said, 'Why the hell am I giving this guy all my money? He doesn't do anything.' "
There has been daily talk of a pending settlement. Barnes says that he doesn't want one. Top Rank says it hasn't offered one. On Feb. 20, Barnes told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he had been offered $1.5 million by an attorney for Spinks and Top Rank to buy him out. Later, however, Barnes said he had received many offers, some of them for more than $1 million, but that none of them had come from Top Rank. The only thing that is certain is that several people want to manage the world heavyweight champion. So does Barnes. "I'll even give back my 30% just to stay with the kid," he says.
The day after he signed Spinks, Lewis appeared in the offices of Barry Frank, the head of sports at CBS. The network would be glad to telecast the Olympic champ's first pro fight in Las Vegas on Jan. 15, Frank said.
At about the same time, Spinks had returned to his Marine base in Virginia to seek an early discharge on the basis of financial hardships at home. He got the release, and disappeared.
Lewis now had a fight and no fighter. He called Barnes, who said he had no idea where Spinks might be. Lewis called CBS, offering Earnie Shavers as a substitute. Frank told him no Spinks, no show. "We want the kid with the gold medal," Frank said.
Just when all seemed lost, Lewis happened to spot a small item in a Dec. 31 newspaper. It said that Leon Spinks, the Olympic champion, had been issued a traffic ticket for driving with a suspended license. The ticket had been issued in Des Moines. Lewis was on the next plane to Iowa.
"Here it is, New Year's Eve, and I'm the only guy on a plane flying to Des Moines," Lewis says. "I didn't know where Leon was in Des Moines. Hell, I wasn't even sure he was there."
The next morning Lewis rented a car, asked directions to the black neighborhood and drove to an active corner. There, leaning out of the window of his car, he kept asking, "Hey, do you know Leon Spinks, the guy who won the gold medal? Have you seen him?"
Finally, incredibly, Lewis located a youngster who said he had seen Spinks coming out of a house just a few hours earlier. Lewis had found his missing fighter. However, Spinks said he didn't want to fight, that he needed some time off. But Lewis can be persuasive. The next day the two of them were on a plane to Wilmington, Del., where Lewis lives. The next morning, Lewis had Spinks out running.
Fortunately, Spinks' first opponent was Lightning Bob Smith, a butcher's helper from Brooklyn, who had lost his only three fights, two of them by knockouts. Spinks knocked Smith out in the fifth round.
"That was one of the happiest moments of my life," Lewis says. "Leon had trained for only 11 days. I was scared to death he was going to run out of gas."
There were six more fights to go before Ali: Spinks scored four more knockouts, fought a dismal 10-round draw with Scott LeDoux and then won a 10-round decision against Alfio Righetti.
Sam Solomon, the champion's 62-year-old trainer, can't remember how many fights he had between the mid-'30s and the early '40s. As an amateur and semipro welterweight, he barnstormed the world, often fighting in tents or at small social clubs. Some of his summers were spent as a catcher in the Negro National League, playing for $7.50 a game. In both jobs the pay was small and the lumps were large.
A short man, round and bald, Solomon is filled with soft laughter and sparkling tales of times long dead. When not training Spinks—he once trained Sonny Liston, Ernie Terrell and, for a short time, Muhammad Ali—he helps his wife Edith manage their Laundromat and apartment house in Philadelphia.
A punctual man, Solomon agonizes over Spinks' casual disregard of the passage of time. One early evening last week Spinks borrowed Solomon's car, leaving his trainer at the Laundromat with a promise to return within the hour. At 4 a.m. Solomon gave up and went home.
The two also differ in outlook over how to train and fight. Until the Ali match, Spinks showed an unwillingness to explore the mysteries of the jab. Until Ali, the Spinks style was like an iron ball smashing into a condemned building; just keep pounding until the whole thing is leveled.
"You gotta jab," ordered Solomon. "You gotta have balance. You gotta dance."
"Sissy stuff," scoffed Spinks.
Whatever the champion undertakes, he does with enthusiasm and, to Solomon's dismay, usually to excess. It is as though Spinks were trying to cram everything he missed as a child into the hours he now has. For him it is perfectly natural to dance all night and to sleep all day. He has been known to wander into the gym hours late. But once there, he drives himself without letup. Because of his training habits, Spinks has been accused of shorting himself on labor. That, he says, is just another myth.
"I have trained hard all my career," Spinks says. "I trained hard because I was scared. When I came out of the Marines and turned pro it was life and death for me. If I didn't make it I knew what I had to go back to, what was waiting for me. I came from poorness and I never want to go back to poorness. Sometimes Sam Solomon has told me I am training too hard. But I train my way, the only way I know. I train because if you have ever been where I have been, you are always scared you may have to go back."
The relationship between the young fighter and the old trainer has become something like that of father and son. A man of the old school, Solomon doesn't pretend to understand Spinks; nor, for that matter, does Spinks understand Solomon. But somehow they make it all work.
The afternoon after his long wait into the night for the return of his car, Solomon sat at the dining room table of his brick two-story row house, his emotions a mixture of paternal anger and almost maternal concern.
"I'm tired, so tired," Solomon said, sighing. "Up all night waiting for Leon, didn't get no sleep. Sat there waiting, waiting for him to return. The kid's really something. Does it all the time. Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. Always late for something."
A small smile brightened his moon face. "But then he told me, 'I'll do better. I will. I'll try.' I hope so. When he's training I have to start hours earlier just to wake him up. To get him to the gym, I have to wake him at noon to get him there by 3. For roadwork, I gotta get up at 5 to get him running by 8. He has no conception of time. And sleep? Man, does that boy sleep. One day I thought I would have to call the police to break down his door. I knew Leon was home but no one answered the phone. I let it ring and ring and ring. Nothing disturbs him. He'll fall asleep just sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. Or he'll walk in circles for a while and then sit down and fall asleep. When he goes to the bathroom and he don't come out after a while, you know he's fallen asleep.
"But when he does get awake, there's no stopping him. Out all night. Loves to dance. Jumping from one thing to another. He's like Ali in that respect. Impetuous. Only Ali don't do this disco thing like Leon does. Even when he trains he goes overboard. Can't get him to quit. Anybody that says Leon don't train hard is crazy."
In 1970 George Benton was a middleweight with all the moves, a dazzler who could have gone far. But one day Benton was walking down the street and someone fired a .38 into his stomach. He never fought again. Five years later Benton was in Manila. He was helping to train Frazier to fight Ali. And Benton had a plan.
"What we want to do is neutralize Ali's jab," he told a writer. "That's the main thing we are stressing. Ali likes to control fighters, and the jab is almost all he uses. When Ali goes to the ropes, we want Joe to go for the tips of the shoulder blades, the joints that control the arm."
Unhappily, Frazier didn't listen to George Benton that night. He was so battered and exhausted that his corner wouldn't let him come out for the 15th round. When Butch Lewis first thought of matching Spinks and Ali, he also thought of Benton. Lewis asked Benton to help Solomon train Spinks. Benton said no.
"That was the second time I said no," Benton says. "Lewis was after me from the start. But I had a funny feeling Sam Solomon wouldn't like it. I can work with the devil himself, but Sam wouldn't like it. Besides, I was working with Benny Briscoe, so I said no."
Lewis persisted. To Lewis, any negative answer is merely a temporary setback. He called Benton 10 times. Finally, Benton said he would help, but they would have to talk to Solomon first.
"I need all the help I can get," Solomon said when Lewis contacted him.
Benton helped Spinks get ready for the Alfio Righetti fight last November.
"It was a great test," the ex-middleweight contender says. "Righetti is the same style fighter as Ali, the same type. I saw things, the same things we'd be up against with Ali: abuse the jab, stab low, keep him busy, make him run faster than he wants. But it was a one-shot deal for me. I quit."
Benton went off with Briscoe, his middleweight, on a fight trip. When he got back, Lewis was on the phone again. The Ali fight was only a few weeks away.
"I need help," Lewis pleaded. "Leon needs you. Please help me. Please help us."
Once more Benton agreed to work with Spinks. He spent long hours explaining the strategy he had devised for Frazier more than two years earlier.
"I tried to tell him the things I'd do as a boxer if I were fighting Ali," Benton says. "We went over the whole thing about killing Ali's jab. But I was uncomfortable around Sam. I guess he thought I was trying to steal his job. Hell with his job. I got a conscience and it's clear. I did a good job with Leon. That's what is important."
The day after the Ali fight, Benton quit the Spinks camp for the second time. "He just got in the way," Solomon says. "He did nothing, nothing. Benton wasn't there in the beginning and didn't know the strategy, so how could he help?"
Last week, as Spinks discoed and dined in such places as Des Moines, Philadelphia, New York and Jacksonville, N.C., the great promotional race was on for his first title defense. Contracts overlapped contracts, offers were exchanged, accepted and denied. Above the maelstrom soared Spinks, who told Lewis, "Just give me a name, a place and a date, and I'll be there."
If only it were that easy. Lewis and Arum spoke of millions, until they spoke to Kenny Norton—and then the figure they mentioned was $200,000. Backed by the WBC, Norton had been demanding the first shot. He said he was insulted by the money Top Rank was offering. He also said that he would take it.
Then there is Ali, the man Spinks and his people would much rather face first—with good reason. A rematch could bring each fighter $5 million. If he meets Norton first, Spinks will take home "only" $1.5 million.
Last Saturday Ali put in his $5 million worth. He staged a televised press conference on CBS, during which he insisted he should be first in line to fight Spinks. "I am truly the No. 1 challenger," Ali proclaimed.
Earlier in the week Lewis and Arum flew to California seeking to convince Norton that he should fight Spinks at a later date, say, September or October. If Norton agrees, they say they will guarantee him $1 million against 20% of everything.
"I don't know why they want to talk to me," Norton says. "I want the title fight now. Even for that lousy $200,000."
Naturally, all of this was subject to change, and most likely will change. Spinks is aware of that—but aloof from it. "Let me know when you get it all sorted out," he says.
In his hotel suite the champion had grown pensive. In other places men were wheeling and making deals that might bring him millions. But all he wanted at the moment was a little peace, a little time to enjoy the championship. He was in Des Moines with his wife Nova and the oldest of his three children.
Only two others were with him: Mike Flagg, bodyguard and personal secretary and a close friend—"he makes me laugh," says Leon—and Chet Cummings, a public-relations man on loan from Top Rank. His brother Michael, usually not far away, had chosen to remain in Philadelphia.
Soft music played in the background. Closing his eyes, Spinks listened. Then he broke the silence. Eyes still closed, he said, "I've got just two more goals. One, I want to retire with the title as a millionaire. And, two, I want to be a preacher. I want to help other people. God gave me strength and love and care, and I want to pass on what He gave to me to other people. Ali wants to preach his thing; I want to preach mine. They don't sound the same but I don't think they are very different. We all believe in the same thing, we just take different routes getting there."
He opened his eyes and smiled.
"I don't know if being champion will change my life or not," he said. "It's all new to me. I'm going to have to learn what it's like being a champion."