If they keep pulling on Leon, stretching him like he's a dummy or a doll, it doesn't matter if it's Norton or Ali, he won't be able to fight anybody."
The words seemed to hang in the air of the nearly empty St. Louis coffee house. Michael Spinks, the younger brother of Leon Spinks, the world heavyweight champion, shook his head.
"Leon is not happy now," he said. "He's confused; they are putting too much pressure on him. His wife Nova is tearing his mind to pieces. Leon's mind is a total wreck now. He doesn't have anybody around him but people who want his blood. I tried to tell him he needed to come home, to be with his own people. But it may be too late."
Too late? Nobody seemed to know. Confused and pressured, Leon Spinks was a will-o'-the-wisp last week, not talking, first seeking refuge in a motel in Des Moines, then slipping into St. Louis to meet with Michael and his mother, and later with Mitt Barnes, his embattled manager. To add to Spinks' woes, Friday night the World Boxing Council stripped him of its version of his title.
March 27, 1978
At week's end, Michael, anguished by his brother's plight, tried to explain how he and Leon had come to such a hard place.
Deciding that he needed to follow the same advice he was trying to give Leon, Michael had gone home to St. Louis to talk over his future with his mother, Mrs. Kay Frances Spinks, and to sign a contract with his new manager, Nick Miranda, a theatrical booking agent. A fast-rising light heavyweight with a 7-0 record, Michael, like Leon, had been promoted exclusively by Top Rank. It was an experience, he said, that each day became more and more distasteful. Last Wednesday night, Michael and Miranda agreed on a two-year contract, with an option for two more years.
"I realize that Michael still has a two-year contractual obligation to Top Rank, but I want to read the contract," Miranda said. "I want to see how they have treated him, if they have lied to him. If I find the leverage I think I'll find, it's going to be a new ball game."
For Leon Spinks, the past two weeks have been the old ball game. The world heavyweight championship is the cornerstone of boxing; those who control it control the sport. Since winning the title from Muhammad Ali on Feb. 15, Leon has been the center of an emotional family tug-of-war, with his mother and brother at one end, his wife at the other. He has also been buffeted about in a three-way battle for control between Top Rank, Barnes, his manager of record, and Edward Bell and Lester Hudson of Detroit, his new attorneys. The WBC's action seemed to him the crowning injustice, taking part of his title (in the eyes of the rival World Boxing Association, Spinks is still the world champion) before he had a chance to throw a punch in its defense.
The WBC's move, as disappointing as it was to Leon, came as no shock. That body had demanded that the new champ defend first against Ken Norton. Spinks had signed a letter promising to do just that before the WBC would sanction his fight last month. Despite the letter, Leon announced after the fight that he wanted to give Ali a rematch before meeting Norton. The WBC reacted with righteous indignation.
"We've been kicked around too long," said Josè Sulaimàn, the WBC president. At the same time, however, Sulaimàn admitted that he didn't think Leon understood the contents of the letter he was forced to sign, or, for that matter, that anyone in the WBC had ever tried to explain them to him.
Late Friday, Bell, a former judge of the circuit court and a onetime primary candidate for mayor of Detroit, made a phone call to Sulaimàn, seeking a two-week extension. Earlier in the week, apparently at Nova's urging, Leon had unexpectedly dumped his New York City-based attorney, Milton Chwasky, and had replaced him with Bell and Hudson.
"No extension," said Sulaimàn. "Unless Leon calls me before midnight Friday with the promise to fight Norton first, we will withdraw our recognition of him as the WBC champion. And we will give the title to Ken Norton."
Later, Bell wanted to know, "How can you give the heavyweight championship to anyone? The WBC didn't give the title to Leon, he won it. And how can a man accept a title he hasn't won in the ring? But if Norton wants it that badly, all I can say to him is good luck. But for this I blame the WBC. They dillydallied with Ali for 2½ years, yet they couldn't give us two weeks. They didn't have the courage to take the title away from Ali like they kept threatening to do, so now it is Leon who has to pay. It is a mischief of the WBC's own making."
In St. Louis, Leon had no comment. Traveling alone, he had come to his hometown Thursday night, first to see his mother and brother, later to meet with Barnes in an attempt to heal their rift. As Leon's manager, Barnes gets 30% of his purses. He has said he will reduce that figure, while rejecting all offers to sell the contract.
When Michael and Leon won their Olympic gold medals at Montreal, Miranda was one of those who had sought to become Michael's manager. Miranda, who was born in Mexico, once lived just two blocks from where the Spinkses settled in St. Louis. He still lives in St. Louis but runs his theatrical booking business out of Los Angeles, where he handles the careers of comedian Stan Kann and actress Didi Carr, who appeared in Sugar Time, an ABC-TV mini-series.
"I guess what turned me on to Michael was that we had lived in the same project," Miranda said. "I didn't know anything about boxing. I still don't. But after all the dirty infighting of show business, I can handle anything that boxing can dish up."
At one point after the Olympics, Miranda thought he had Michael signed. What he in fact had was a verbal agreement with Mrs. Spinks. But then Butch Lewis persuaded Michael to join Leon under Top Rank's aegis (SI. March 13).
"I never had high hopes going in because I knew what I was doing when I signed with Top Rank," Michael says. "I knew I was going into a screwed-up mess. Right off I told Butch not to talk about big numbers and give me the lie. I told him I had been lied to all my life, so he could skip all that and just tell me it like it was. I was going in for me, but mainly I was going in to be with Leon, to help Leon. I knew professional fighting was a dirty business. I was and I am very concerned about Leon. He's my brother. He's very weak in some points. He has a tendency to trust people he shouldn't. All those smiling faces and shaking hands, and he just trusts. He should check people out. As for me, if I get messed up, I want to do it myself, then I can blame only myself. I don't want any help. If I fail, I want to fail on my own."
Still, as wary as he was going in, Michael says he was shocked by what he found. "Right off I saw that Butch needed me to get to Leon. I was the key. Leon did a lot of running off on his own. I'd get Leon back and we'd talk. Being brothers, we'd have arguments, but no fights. I'd talk to him, we'd argue, then he'd be O.K. There were good times and there were troubled times, but most of the time it was very confusing to us. Mostly to me. It took me a little while to learn that Leon was in a messed-up condition.
"Everything was moving so much. We never had time to sit together and talk. We never were allowed the time together we needed to get our heads straight. As each fight took place, I noticed a lot of shaky things happening. Like we discovered friends of Butch's selling Spinks T shirts at one fight. When we asked about the royalties, nobody knew where the money was going. Leon was upset. But everything else was happening too, so all that got forgotten.
"There was a lot of neglect, a lot of disinterest. We were looking good to the world but going nowhere. I tried to talk to Leon, but he was very confused. They kept moving him. And he was having family problems with Nova. He was having so many problems my heart went out to him. I couldn't lay things on him like I wanted. You can't lay too many things on Leon at one time. So I went home and talked it over with Mama. She tried to call Leon. She told me she tried to call him through the Top Rank office in New York a lot, and that she got turned away a lot."
For his third fight, Michael earned $20,000. For his fourth, he got $4,000. That's when he determined that he needed a manager. When he fought in Nevada and California, whose boxing commissions require a fighter to have a manager, Top Rank used the name of John Lewis, Butch's father, on the license.
"Butch never told me outright that I didn't need a manager," Michael said. "But he said he'd always be around to help, and that not having a manager would save me money. He helped; he helped dehumanize me. That's when Mom and I decided to call Miranda. We needed help."
Now Michael has the manager. No longer will Top Rank negotiate with Top Rank for his services. "I feel relief," he says. "I feel less alone now. I feel like I have a friend. Now I'm off on a new venture. I hope this change is what I am looking for. But now I have to help Leon. What good will all this do—what will it all mean—if I lose Leon?"