Dark Days For Neon Leon

March 31, 1986
March 31, 1986

Table of Contents
March 31, 1986

NCAA Tournament
The NCAA Tournament
Figure Skating
Leon Spinks
Pro Basketball
Final Four
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Dark Days For Neon Leon

He had the heavyweight title and the headlines, but Leon Spinks is now fighting mostly for survival

Dressed in a black rubber shirt, Leon Spinks stepped out of the sauna, sighed wearily and dropped onto a small seat next to the hot tub. The former Olympic gold medalist—and the last undisputed heavyweight champion of the world—was caught in the eternal struggle waged by most aging prizefighters.

This is an article from the March 31, 1986 issue Original Layout

Here it was, last Friday afternoon and less than 24 hours before his scheduled title fight against Dwight Qawi, the WBA's junior heavyweight champion, in Reno, and the 32-year-old Spinks was working to sweat six pounds off his already lean frame. The weigh-in was only three hours away. Beads of sweat poured off him, running down his brow and neck and soaking the knit collar of the sweatshirt he wore under the rubber top. He dabbed at his brow with a towel, looked down between his knees and closed his eyes, his face for the moment impassive.

In the ashtray next to the hot tub, just lying there grinning, were the fighter's false teeth, at one time the most celebrated bridge in America outside of the Brooklyn and the Golden Gate. Now Leon flashed that wonderful, toothless smile, the one that had prompted Muhammad Ali to call him The Vampire and was to become the emblem of Spinks's free-spirited freshness in a sport overrun by bums wearing bulletproof smirks and diamond pinkie rings.

"I haven't had sex in two months!" said Leon, as if announcing some sort of personal record. "I'm going to do my best to win. I'm not going to take any ass-whippin'."

"He'll fool everybody," said Dave Collins, Spinks's trainer.

"I won the Olympics a long time ago, but my name is still up there," Leon said. "It was my choice to start this comeback from the bottom. I'm in more control of my life now. It's hard to get to the top once. When you fall down from up there, it's twice as hard to get back up again."

Spinks peeled off the rubber shirt. Pointing at his new co-manager, Marv Haupt, Spinks said, "Even he didn't believe it! They all thought my comeback was bull. I thought of quitting a few times, but when [my brother] Michael won the heavyweight title, I said, 'What the hell' and decided to stay with it. We can make it. And this time we're going to try to do it right."

Ah, yes, the promise to do it right this time around. So here sits Leon, sweating it out in the Grand Central Sauna & Hot Tub Co. in Reno on the day before he will fight for a championship again. Behind him, his turbulent career lay in a twilight ruin of time, and here he was struggling to put it all back together again. His ring career aside, here was a man whose life had become a shambles.

It was in 1976 that Spinks and four of his Olympic teammates—Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis, Leo Randolph and Michael Spinks—won Olympic gold medals in Montreal and returned home as heroes to parades and ticker tape. It was eight years ago last Feb. 15 that Spinks, in one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history, took the heavyweight title from Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas in his eighth fight as a professional. Seven months later, Ali would regain the title in New Orleans, but this child of the St. Louis ghettos had already had a rich payday: $4 million.

That money is gone. So are all the other purses earned in the following six years by the man they nicknamed Neon Leon. So is the black mink coat. And the cars. And the entourages. He went through an expensive divorce in 1982, and then lost almost all that he owned after that. Last spring, said Haupt, the bank evicted Spinks from his $125,000 house in the Rosedale Park section of Detroit for failing to make his mortgage payments. Thomas Hearns ended up buying the house for $55,000.

Spinks had no place for his belongings, said Haupt, so he put them in storage and moved in with a friend. Because Spinks allegedly failed to pay the storage fee, everything was sold at auction last September. Gone was much of his wardrobe, all his furniture, even the championship belt he lifted from Ali when he won the title. "About $80,000 in personal belongings," Haupt said. "And how do you put a monetary value on that belt?"

Last week, five days before he was to fight Qawi, Spinks filed for bankruptcy in Michigan, trying to protect from his creditors the $70,000 purse that he was to earn on Saturday. But even a declaration of bankruptcy was not the end of his difficulties. The day before the fight, just hours before climbing into the sauna, a local sheriff knocked on the door of Spinks's room at the Ramada Hotel and Casino and served him with papers seeking to attach $27,670 of the purse for Jerry Sawyer, his former manager.

On top of all this, Haupt had to tell his fighter that James Shuler, the middleweight contender who had been knocked out by Hearns the week before in Las Vegas, had died on Thursday when the motorcycle he was riding crashed into a tractor-trailer in Philadelphia. Shuler and Spinks were close friends.

"Man," Leon said to Haupt, "I wish you hadn't told me that."

Spinks came to the Qawi fight knowing that, at his age, the end is near. "I'm not going to fight much longer anyway," he said one afternoon in his room. "I'm fighting now because I want to open the door for myself." That is the very same door, of course, that he closed on himself in the tempestuous years when he let his life and career get away from him. There had never been a career quite like it in the heavyweight division. Certainly no modern heavyweight champion ever came to the job less prepared to handle the demands it put upon him.

After Spinks whipped Ali—and stories began surfacing about his traffic accidents, his run-ins with the law, his late-night appearances in discos and his disappearances from this training camp and that one—he became the butt of endless jokes, the easiest target in sports. There was the night at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas when Spinks's bodyguard, Lawrence Tureaud, known then and now as Mr. T, came up to a group of reporters and asked, "Has anyone seen Leon?"

"Have you tried the airport?" a reporter replied. Everyone laughed, except Mr. T, of whom another writer said: "Don't cross Mr. T or he'll dot your eyes."

But there were also stories that Spinks, a genuinely sensitive and good-hearted young man, was so hurt by the laughter aimed at him that he was crying himself to sleep at night. He was simply overwhelmed by his celebrity and his sudden wealth. "I let fame get a little ahead of me," Spinks says now.

He made mistakes. "I made a lot of them," he says. Asked last week to name just three, off the top of his head, he said, "Driving without a license. Getting married. And not looking both ways and driving the wrong way down a one-way street."

Surely there is no clearer, more apt metaphor for Leon Spinks's life since he beat Ali than the last. He did not look both ways, and he turned right into oncoming traffic. And if any scene sums up the chaos that descended on Spinks's life thereafter, it was the one that unfolded in his corner on the night Ali won the title back. There were more advisers in his corner than Q-Tips, and they were all shouting different orders at Leon. It got so chaotic that trainer George Benton simply turned and walked away from it.

"It was like watching your baby drown," Benton recalls. "There was nothing you could do about it. I had no more control of the guy. I was useless. All I could do was get the hell out of it."

One final recollection of that surrealistic night at the Superdome is a classic boxing tale that reveals as much about the nature of the game and about what happened to Spinks as any story of his life. When he left the Hilton hotel that night to fight Ali, he had an entourage of at least 70 people—helpers, hustlers, hangers-on. Late that night, after the fight was over, boxing promoter Dan Duva and his father, Lou, were standing in front of the Hilton when Leon returned. He was all alone as he got out of the limousine, his head down and his hands in his pockets.

"It was the saddest thing I ever saw," Lou Duva says. "His whole entourage had left him. He came back to the hotel by himself."

The defeat devastated the fighter. "I was depressed and discouraged," Spinks says. "It hurt me a lot. I got away from things for a while, trying to find myself again."

He never really did. In his next fight, his only action in 1979, Gerrie Coetzee knocked Spinks out in the first round. He finally got another title shot two years later, in 1981, but by then Spinks was involved in a distracting divorce action and champion Larry Holmes banged him senseless. There had been suspicions all along that Spinks, who weighed only 197¼ pounds when he won the title, was really too light to be a heavyweight. So he ventured into the cruiserweight division and its 190-pound weight limit. In 1982, Spinks won the NABF cruiserweight title, but in his first defense, in 1983, Carlos De Leon promptly took it from him by knocking him out in the sixth round.

Leon Spinks appeared to be finished. He was idle in 1984, but by then he had financial problems pressing in around him, and that fall he decided to give boxing another try. He took on three co-managers—Haupt, Sam Lafata and trainer Emanuel Steward—and started working with Collins and Steward at the Kronk Gym in Detroit. They paid Spinks $400 a week in salary, says Haupt, and they also bought him a used Ford LTD to get around in. What he earns above the $400, says Haupt, is stashed away for him. He has been living with a former Detroit cop, Willie Hence, who watches over him.

Spinks has not been earning much of late. He had five fights in 1985, but took down only $45,000 in purses. "Chump change," Haupt says. But it's a living for now. Looking back, Spinks is not bitter over what happened to him, and he has but one regret. "I wish there had been somebody there to teach me," he says. "To say, 'Hold it, Leon. You're in another bracket in the world, Leon. You just beat Muhammad Ali. I'm going to teach you how to deal with that.' There was nobody to take a hold of me and help me to learn the way. I learned the hard way, but I learned."

The comeback gave him something to dream about, and he hadn't had that for a long time. When brother Michael took the IBF heavyweight title from Holmes last September, Spinks began to dream of winning one of the other heavyweight titles himself and then of him and Michael retiring on the same night at a big bash. Just think of it, says Leon: "Two brothers with heavyweight titles! We'll retire with each of us having a title. I'd love to make history. I'd love that. Then we could go out and make a big movie career. To Hollywood."

Last week, standing in the way of this pleasant fantasy was Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Dwight Braxton until 1982, a former light heavyweight champion whom Michael had defeated in a bout to unify that title three years ago. That was Qawi's second defeat in 22 fights, and he was out to earn a rematch with Michael, who was in training in New Orleans for his own rematch with Holmes on April 19. Qawi and his manager, Rock Newman, figured that the best way to arouse Michael would be for Qawi to put a whipping on brother Leon. "I'm going to put him out of his misery early," Qawi said.

Haupt had heard all the stories about Leon's disappearances, but in fact the fighter had gone AWOL only once during the 10 days they trained in Reno. Instead of running one morning, Spinks jumped in his car and took off for 12 hours. Haupt was frantic, and he was more relieved than angry when Spinks came rolling in that night.

Smiling, Leon kissed Haupt on the cheek and said, "Is you mad?" Stories of Spinks's wanderings circulated among hotel workers, but Spinks had always kept time by his own clock, and he was only Leon being Leon.

"One night he called the desk every hour on the hour, all night long, to find out what time it was," says Jim Thornton, the Ramada's chief engineer. Spinks eventually made the 190-pound weight limit, but only after that session in the sauna plus another hour of running after he first weighed in 1¾ pounds over. Qawi came in at 189 and wore a robe on which was sewn: THE BUZZSAW RIDES AGAIN.

Qawi mixed more than metaphors at the Lawlor Events Center. From the opening bell, he hammered Spinks with both hands almost at will—lefts and rights, up and down—and in the third round he had Spinks wincing with pain under a savage assault to both sides of the body. The fight was barely a contest after the first round, when Spinks stopped moving and jabbing and began fighting with his back to the ropes. Spinks tried to counter, and once rocked Qawi with a sharp uppercut, but his rights and hooks had no more effect on Qawi's head than if he had turned and banged the ring posts.

More than once, in a display of classless taunting, Qawi stuck out his head and let Spinks punch him at will, or stuck out his tongue and laughed at Spinks as Leon's jabs hit nothing but air. The way Qawi was pummeling Spinks, it was particularly graceless to try to humiliate him, too. With 2:56 gone in the sixth round, as Spinks's head snapped left and right under the onslaught, referee Mills Lane mercifully jumped between them and stopped the bout.

Spinks, with his lower lip raked and bleeding and his right hand resting on the top rope, stood and stared at Qawi for a long moment when it was over. There was talk that Spinks ought to retire before he gets hurt. "He has the biggest heart in the world," said Benton at ringside, "but when he was younger he had fire, too. He doesn't have the fire anymore."

But there was no talk of quitting from Spinks's corner. Haupt said Spinks was too weak at 190 pounds, too weak after the sauna and the running, and that the fighter would now move back among the heavyweights.

"You still love me, dontcha?" Leon Spinks kept asking friends around him.

"We still love you, Leon," they chimed back.

In the locker room the last undisputed heavyweight champion of the world dabbed his still bloody lip and hung his head in his hands. "Oh, my goodness," he said. "But I'm all right. I'll come back stronger. I'm still breathing. I still think I can whip his ass. What can I say. I lost. Damn. But I ain't givin' up."

PHOTONEIL LEIFER1976: An Olympic gold medal at Montreal.PHOTONEIL LEIFER1978: The world heavyweight championship, won by defeating his hero, Muhammad Ali.PHOTOTONY TOMSICLast week: Helpless in the corner in a WBA junior heavyweight championship fight as referee Lane herds away the gloating victor, Qawi.PHOTOTONY TOMSICSpinks's efforts to get down to the 190-pound limit did him little good against Qawi.PHOTOTONY TOMSICQawi hit Spinks almost at will for most of six rounds, taking occasional breaks to deliver more taunts to the punched-out challenger.PHOTOKEN REGAN/CAMERA 5[See caption above.]PHOTOKEN REGAN/CAMERA 5"He doesn't have the fire anymore," says a friend.