What gives with these frogs? Four o'clock in the morning, and they are raising clamorous hosannas to a pair of automobile headlights that illuminate the parking lot. Drunk on dew, singing a mad chorus, the frogs carry on as the lights go out. For a long moment the car idles in a puddle of moonlight. Then the engine dies, the door opens and out steps the heavyweight champion of the world. He has just spent several hours in a joint appropriately called the Ribbett Room and is full of dew himself. He stands amid the din and croaks loudly to the frogs.
As befits his station, the champ is dressed in one of the many handsome ensembles that choke the closets of his rented villa. But he is feeling good, and as he walks through the deserted parking lot he begins to pick up momentum. By the time he reaches the nearby road, he is running. As he moves more quickly, if a bit erratically, the champ's breathing becomes heavy. His pulse begins to quicken and the song of the frogs fills his head. Leon Spinks, the frog who would be heavyweight king, gathers speed and disappears into the night.
As he began serious training last week for his Sept. 15 return bout with Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks was still on the run, still waiting for someone to turn him into a handsome prince. While Ali taunted him for being "too ugly to be the champion," Spinks remained more or less in the seclusion of his Hilton Head, S.C. training camp. Since Feb. 15, when he upset Ali to win the heavyweight title, Spinks has seemed distracted, confused and frequently depressed by his sudden celebrity. "Leon wants to be the same person he was before he became the champion," says his wife Nova. "He doesn't understand why people won't just let him be Leon." The champ reluctantly acknowledges this. "I want everybody to love me," Spinks says, "but I gotta be me."
Regrettably, Spinks has discovered that though he may have been a nobody six months ago, and had every intention of remaining a nobody, the heavyweight championship of the world is a kind of high office with attendant responsibilities, one that Ali elevated to new heights. In 14 years on the world stage, Ali gave lectures at Oxford, consorted with kings and imposed an unrealistic set of expectations on his eventual successor. Last month, while Leon Spinks was dancing in a discotheque with quarters jammed in his ears, Ali was in Moscow, deep in conversation with Leonid Brezhnev at the Kremlin.
July 23, 1978
"People may be disappointed because I'm not Ali." Spinks says. "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 nigger. But I'm just Leon."
Being "just Leon" seems to involve periodically climbing into one of his new cars and driving off in search of a place where all the lawyers and accountants and reporters can't find him. Usually Spinks heads for large urban centers like Philadelphia, Cleveland or Detroit, diving into them as if they were foxholes that remind him of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in which he grew up in St. Louis. Wherever he goes, Spinks travels in style. Among his recent purchases have been a $45,000 Lincoln limousine complete with TV and bar, an $18,000 Cadillac Seville and a $15,000 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
"Sometimes I got to swoop." Spinks says, stretching his arms out like a big blackbird. "Everybody's making plans for me all the time, but what they don't understand is that I ain't going to let nobody plan my life for me. So I just swoop. I look at Butch [personal aide and bodyguard Marvin Woolfork Jr.] and I say, 'Gotta gooooooo.' When I'm alone I can be free, got no cares, and I don't have to think about my job. Don't have to think about nothin'."
Though these flights from reality are hard on Leon's wife, who spent several long evenings in Hilton Head last week not knowing where her husband was, she concedes they are necessary. "When Leon gets too much pressure put on him." says Nova, "he just takes off. He needs solitude to sort it all out."
In addition to being perhaps the first boxer ever to refer to the heavyweight championship as "my job," Spinks also is one of the few successful athletes whose money does not seem to be able to separate him from poverty. "I'm a ghetto nigger—people shouldn't forget that about me," he says. "You can take the nigger out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the nigger. 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."
While he is mistaken about Ali's ghetto visits, whatever swooping does for Spinks' disposition, it wreaks considerable havoc on the training schedule for his rematch with Ali at the New Orleans Superdome. His "training camp." really nothing more than a big bare-walled room in the back of the Hilton Head Community Playhouse, has been open since June 1, but the champ avoided the place for nearly a month before he began regular workouts. Twice he had come to Hilton Head to start work, and twice he had gone over the hill. Both times, someone from the entourage had to track him down and bring him back. When Lester Hudson, one of his lawyers, found Spinks in Detroit late last month, the champ had not slept in three days.
Hudson, who is an associate of Spinks' new attorney, Ed Bell, has been the source of some unhappiness in the Spinks camp for the very simple reason that every hour he and Spinks spend together costs the champ $100, a typical rate for legal counseling.
Mitt Barnes, the champ's manager of record, who last week was ordered off the Hilton Head premises for telling a reporter that Spinks is "ignorant," contends that he had lined up three different training sites—all of them expense-free—but that Bell chose Hilton Head because it would make a good location for a tennis vacation. Bell denies this, though he does concede that he is the one who suggested Hilton Head and that he made two "business trips" there in June when Spinks was seldom around. In any case, the rental of six villas, the training site, and a cook, have cost Spinks roughly $15,000 a month.
Bell airily dismisses Barnes' charge by pointing out that Spinks is "working hard, running seven miles a day, and enjoying peace and tranquillity," but last week few of those statements seemed to obtain. Spinks was out almost every night, dancing, drinking and smoking cigarettes, and the moment Trainer Sam Solomon left the resort on a business trip last Monday, Spinks stopped training altogether.
"We can't shackle him to the training camp," says Solomon. "When he's off, he's his own man." So much his own man, it seems, that Solomon is reluctant to suggest that Spinks cut back on his drinking and smoking. "I go by his performance," is all Solomon will say. "After all, the man is the heavyweight champion. Who knows what's best for Leon but Leon?"
That, of course, is the $4 million question. About $4 million is the amount Spinks is expected to earn in the rematch with Ali, and there is a large school of sharks swimming around Spinks that would like a bite of the money. Meanwhile, the champ has been going through the money from the first Ali fight—an estimated $170,000 net, after expenses, from his $216,000 purse—at a noteworthy pace. In addition to the stable of new cars, he has recently purchased more than $10,000 worth of jewelry, has bought a $75,000 home in Detroit and another home in Des Moines for his in-laws, and during one two-week stretch last month kept his wife in a $250-a-day suite in Detroit's Pontchartrain Hotel.
"Leon treats five dollars like it was five cents," says Nova. "But I'd much rather have him go through $170,000 and get it out of his system before the big money starts coming in."
Spinks acknowledges that his handling of money has made for image problems. "People don't like the way I spend and spend my money," Spinks says, "and that hurts me. They don't understand that I ain't never had nothing, so I've got a lot of catching up to do."
"I don't think it's fair to expect Leon to put his money in a sock and live in a tenement just to prove to a lot of people he's not throwing his money away," says Ed Bell. "When a guy gets access to the kind of money Leon's getting, you can't expect him to live the way he did a year ago." Bell insists that with the money that will come in from the Ali fight, he is "going to see to it that Leon is funded from now on."
If he is, indeed, that well protected, there is little likelihood that Leon Spinks will wind up a figure out of some hackneyed movie script, punch-drunk and shining shoes somewhere. It is also an encouraging sign that he has begun to clean out the sharpies, like Butch Lewis of Top Rank, the outfit that is promoting the Ali rematch, who began to believe that he could control the fighter. "It's a divide-and-conquer thing with those guys," says Nova, who is among the shrewdest and most ruthless advisers the champ has. "Butch Lewis came to Mitt Barnes and told him that if Mitt could get rid of me, he wouldn't have any more trouble with his fighter. There are a lot of people who don't want me around—including Leon's mother and his brother Michael—because they know if I see something is bad for Leon I'm going to speak on it. I know that Butch Lewis has tried to put women in front of Leon's face to break us up."
Whether or not the banished Lewis was responsible for putting women in Leon's face, Spinks seems to need or want no assistance in that department. He has maintained an alarmingly high profile during most of his indiscretions, as he did several weeks ago when, according to several airline employees, he sat for three hours outside the main gate of the Savannah, Ga. airport in his Coupe de Ville, nuzzling a young woman and missing flights on which he was booked.
"It's a lot harder just to be the champ than it is to win the championship," says Solomon. "Once Leon gets into the gym he's a bitch to get out. He trains real hard, won't quit when I tell him to. The only trouble is getting him here."
For all of this, Spinks' body is young and resilient enough that he is able to bounce back from his nocturnal maraudings. At 197 pounds, he had been light for a modern heavyweight, but now he seems to have added weight. "He's developed into a full-fledged heavyweight in just a few months," says Solomon. "What a lot of people don't realize is that Leon is still a growing boy. He's getting bigger all the time."
Though Solomon insists that his man was not meant to start training in earnest until last Saturday, Spinks appeared remarkably fit as he worked out first on the heavy bag, then on the speed bag. Spinks likes to train to loud disco music, such as Teddy Pendergrass' Life Is a Song Worth Singing. "Got to have something I can boogie-woogie-oogie to," says the champ.
At the end of his daily workouts, Spinks is dutifully driven over to a stand of trees near the gym to chop down one of them. Lacking the instincts of a lumberjack, he had to be shown how to use an ax. In fact, his first outing was such a flop that after he had chopped completely through the trunk of his tree and shouted "TIMBERRRRR" a few times, the thing refused to fall. Spinks finally grabbed the sapling by what would have been the scruff of its neck, if trees had such things, and threw it down.
Last Tuesday, Spinks celebrated his 25th birthday by skipping his second consecutive day of training. He had spent the previous evening prowling the parking lot outside his villa, guzzling Miller beer from a quart bottle. It was 1:30 a.m. when, holding a pork chop in one hand, he walked out to bray at the moon. "I love everybody in the whole world," said the heavyweight champion of the whole world, "but I don't trust nobody." Then he howled again, as loud as he could howl, but nobody seemed to hear him but the frogs.