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Leon Spinks is a former American boxer. He had an overall record of 26 wins, 17 losses and 3 draws as a professional, with 14 knockout wins, and was the former World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association heavyweight champion of the world. While still an amateur, he also became a member of the United States Marine Corps.
Leon Spinks is down, not out
- Stan Grossfeld, Boston Globe
Sunday, December 25, 2005
Columbus, Neb. -- At the Columbus Family YMCA on a recent Saturday morning, the Champ punches only a time clock.
The man who dethroned Muhammad Ali on a February night in 1978 in one of the greatest upsets in boxing history puts on his gloves -- not the red Everlast boxing gloves, but the orange Rubbermaid cleaning gloves. He methodically gets the cart with the brooms and the cleaning chemicals and gets to work.
Leon Spinks, 52, has crash landed in the Great Plains. Nearly broke but far from broken, the former World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association heavyweight titleholder (and Olympic gold medalist) spends his days fighting his demons -- dementia, boredom, and hangers-on who have taken advantage of him.
He gives his glasses to Cassie Billings, a college student working the front desk, for safekeeping.
"I tell guys I don't fear anything," she said. "I have a friend named Leon Spinks and he'll kick your butt."
There's not a trace of sadness in Spinks. There are, he figures, people worse off than him.
"It ain't what you do," said the custodian. "It's how you do it.
Ali is puffy and shaky under the hold of Parkinson's Disease. The Louisiana Superdome, which hosted Ali-Spinks 2 just seven months after their first fight, is closed, ravaged by Katrina's wallop, and New Orleans citizens are still reeling and homeless. But Spinks is putting in an honest day's work.
"You do the best you can," he said.
He still carries himself with dignity, still flashing that internationally recognized gap-toothed smile, even as everyone is whispering why.
Why is Leon Spinks here, in Columbus, a town of 20,971 split by the Union Pacific railroad tracks?
"Well, I'm still breathing, still making money," said Spinks, who acknowledges he came here after being smitten by a woman he met on the road.
"I'm happy 'bout life. Still trying. I ain't giving up on life."
The years have been tough. Spinks got divorced and lived briefly in an East St. Louis shelter. He was a greeter at Mike Ditka's restaurant in Chicago. He says he helped start a gym in Detroit and did odd jobs in California.
Now he cleans the local YMCA for $5.15 an hour on weekends, sometimes unloads trucks at McDonald's, and volunteers to help the homeless. He also never turns away a kid looking for an autograph or advice.
"Sometimes it's good to get away from the city and get a little clean air, a little space," said the Champ. "I'd love to teach kids how to box here. There's nothing to do here but get in trouble."
Twenty-seven years later, he's still strong, his biceps still bulging, still no man to mess with. He wears a Spiderman knit cap under a Chicago White Sox baseball cap, a green pullover over a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and work shoes. Only when he moves does he appear stiff, and he walks with a slight limp.
Sandy Staverman, another custodian, asks a photographer to take her picture with the Champ.
"He's really neat, he's got a great personality," she said. "He acts like an everyday human being."
Bob Lauterbach, executive director of the Columbus Family YMCA, agrees.
"I call him Champ, and he likes that," he said. "We get a ton of phone calls, mostly people wanting him to sign stuff. He's real, real quiet. He gets challenged in bars. An African American in Columbus is going to stick out. But people are generally kind. He's a proud man and very humble. His situation has made him more humble. He's a good guy. He just wants to be a viable entity. When I told him everyone at the Y has to pass a CPR class, he took it and he passed it."
The Champ spoke to the kids in the Y. "When they found out he won the championship of the world by beating Ali, they flipped out," says Lauterbach. "He told them, 'Don't do drugs.' Everybody applauded.''
On his tour of duty, one shy boy follows the Champ around and watches him mop the floors. Finally, Spinks gently puts his arm around him and poses for a picture, then he gets back to work. The boy, on top of the world, takes his smile and runs to tell his friends.
Spinks does his chores methodically, never taking a break.
He says the older kids ask his advice.
"Kids come up to me when they see me cleaning, and I tell them my opinion," he said. "The kids are thrilled to meet me and their parents are thrilled, too."
The Champ also likes his second job at the local McDonald's. "I get 50 percent off on Big Macs and everything," he said. Spinks also goes to several autograph shows each year.
Last year, he worked at Emerson Elementary in Columbus as a volunteer at an after-school program. "The kids really enjoyed him," says Marla Kurtenbach, the school's after-school coordinator.
Three of Spinks' sons followed in their father's footsteps and became professional fighters. Leon, the eldest, was murdered in St. Louis in 1993. Darryl had 20 professional fights, and their younger brother, Cory, born just five days after his father beat Ali, is a former welterweight champion.
"I didn't push (Cory)," said Leon. "I wanted him to decide if he wanted to go into boxing and he did. Can't blame it on me."
Looking back, Spinks admits he was immature.
"When I had a kid, I was a kid," he said. "I wasn't around. I was too busy trying to figure out where I was going."
Now it's payback time.
"He's not helping me at all, but it's all right," Spinks said. "I don't ask for nothing."
Glur's Tavern, (est. 1876), the oldest bar west of the Missouri River, serves fried gizzards, just the way Leon Spinks likes them. Brenda Glur, who was born here and whose relatives used to own the bar, makes sure Leon doesn't have to walk the icy streets. She drops the Champ at the front door. She never lets Leon, who's had more than his fair share of motor vehicle violations, drive.
They met several years ago when Leon was barely existing in Brandon, Mo., and Glur was a wardrobe dresser for a Rockettes tour there. First they became friends, the country girl brought up in the cornfields of Nebraska and the tough guy from the streets of St. Louis. Glur, whose grandfather and brothers were boxers and whose father was a Golden Gloves champion, says Leon always makes her laugh. She fell for him and vowed to help him.
"I felt Leon had more potential than to just be put up in some creepy place to sit until he had some engagement to go to that someone would set up for him," she wrote in an e-mail. "A couple summers ago he was set up to stay in the back room of a stinky old gym. I went to stay with him, but I couldn't stand it. We slept on this dirty old floor and used a creepy bathroom with no light. He had stayed there for over a month already, by the time I got there. I could only take it for a couple of days! We had to leave."
"She's my friend and my lover," said Leon.
They moved back to Columbus, two hours northwest of Omaha.
"He has good days and bad days," said Glur, who is also Spinks' business manager. On bad days, Spinks is quiet and hard to understand, because of the missing teeth and complications from the onset of dementia.
Spinks wants his epitaph to read "a hell of a fighter." But after he lost the so-called "Battle of New Orleans" to Ali, he became progressively mortal in the ring. He got one more crack at the heavyweight title, losing a title bid to Larry Holmes in a third-round TKO in 1981. Although he did win the cruiserweight title in 1982, he finished his career in 1995 with a professional record of 26 wins, 17 losses, and 3 draws.
But his legacy is diminished by hanging on too long, drinking too much, and fighting for measly purses. He became the only former heavyweight champ to get knocked out in the first round by a fighter making his pro debut when he lost to John Carlo in 1994.
Does he believe the dementia is a result of the blows he received?
"Maybe," he said, shrugging his broad shoulders. "I'm not Dr. Kildare."
"I got hit a lot. I'm glad I lived through it."
Today is a good day.
"If you take a little time to learn to listen to me then you might learn something," he said. "If I can give you some kind of knowledge of life you should listen."
When he became the champion, Spinks -- sporting his trademark toothless grin -- was on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
The smile looks the same today.
"No, I ain't no vampire," he said with a laugh, noting that he first lost his teeth in 1972, when he was head-butted while sparring in the Marines.
"Sometimes I leave my teeth in the hotel," he said. "One time they were stolen by a maid or somebody who got a key to my room and they got my teeth. They were in a plastic container."
Spinks is a generous man. He has a dozen close friends who watch his back.
"There's a sweet spirit about him; he's a humble man," said chaplain Don Konrad, director of the Men's Ministry of the Columbus Rescue Mission.
Konrad says Spinks helps in the kitchen.
"He's very unpretentious," said Konrad. "There's no airs about him, he's just Leon our friend."
Spinks also helps give out awards at the Special Olympics, one of his favorite activities.
On a Friday night, Spinks sits at the bar and has a few 32-ounce $2 beers and maybe a shot or three of Cognac or Crown Royal. A few patrons ask for and receive his autograph. But on the way to the men's room, a young local gives him a sharp elbow.
Spinks lets it go. "I don't hurt anybody," he said.
But he did get his favorite cap robbed in a Columbus bar.
"He snatched it off my head," Spinks said. "It said, 'Heavyweight Champion of the World Leon Spinks.' It had like diamonds on it, but it wasn't real. The guy thought it was diamonds so he snatched it off my head and ran out the back door."
But when a local newspaper reported the crime, the petty thief returned with a guilty conscience.
"He gave it back to me," Spinks said. "He said he was sorry he took it, gave me $20, and handed me a drink."
Spinks, who was arrested in April 1978 for cocaine possession, is told that the public perception of him is that he partied away the nearly $5 million he made from fighting.
"That's (expletive)," he said. "That's what people think. I was stupid and I gave (the lawyers) power of attorney."
He says he never saw a penny of the $3.75 million he made for Ali-Spinks 2.
"Well, what can you do about it?" he said. "The money they stole. They stole all my money."
Spinks admits he tried drugs, but not during his boxing career.
"I'll tell it like it is," he said. "I did try (cocaine). I tried it in the service but I didn't like it and I got away from it. I smoked marijuana. I did pills. I tried speed in the service. I've seen how it affects other guys. It wasn't good for me. I never did crack. I never used a needle. I saw other guys do that and it ruined their whole life.
"Oh, I partied with booze and smoked a little pot. I tried it but I never loved it. Mr. T. was my bodyguard. I got him started in the movies. They wanted me for those roles."
Spinks finishes the night at a Karaoke bar, where he wins a game of 8 ball pool, signs more autographs, and gets drinks sent over by fans. He plays a video card game for an hour and when he finishes, three of the top-five all-time scores read "LeonSpinksJr."
Leon grew up St. Louis. His father wasn't around much.
"Everyone in our neighborhood, we stayed in the projects," he said. "If you couldn't box, you'd get your (butt) whipped.
"I went into the Marines to get away from drugs. My birthday was July 11 -- 7-11 -- but I don't know how lucky I was."
He joined the Marines and won a gold medal in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, a member of perhaps the greatest U.S. boxing team in history (along with his brother, Michael, and Sugar Ray Leonard).
"I enjoyed the service, it's the best thing for a young man," Spinks said.
In the Games, he looked beaten against Cuban boxer Sixto Soria after being staggered early in the third round. But instead, he moved in and exploded with a fast flurry of punches, punctuated by his haymaker overhand right, that ended the fight later in the round. It was during the Cold War, and Spinks had beaten a Russian and a Cuban for gold.
Surprisingly, he ranks beating Soria higher than beating Ali.
"Oh, the gold, man," Spinks said. "It was great. I fought for my country. I represented the United States. They can take away the title. Nobody can take (the gold)from me."
But when he climbed into the Las Vegas ring to face Ali, he never had gone 15 rounds. He faced 8-1 odds.
The Champ was fighting his idol. He says his mother sat with a Bible in her lap. "She snuck in," he said.
"When I fought Ali, I was scared until the bell went ding," Spinks said. "Then I did my job. He talked a lot. He was the Mouth from the South. He hanged clothes on his mouth.
"He said I was crazy. I talked trash to him. I came from that type of neighborhood.
"He was talking trash to me. He said, 'You're going to tire out.' I said, 'C'mon old man, get in the fight.' "
Spinks never tired and won a split decision.
The Champ credits his trainer for the strategy to beat the rope-a-dope, where Ali covered up on the ropes and let his opponent get tired, then attacked him mercilessly in the late rounds.
"My trainer said, 'Hit his arms,' " Spinks recalled. "Then later on Ali couldn't use them when he wanted. I was putting too much pressure on him. I knew he'd try to win the 13th, 14th, and 15th. That's the way he beat George Foreman. He got humbled. I had more wind than George Foreman. I knew Ali 'cause I'd been watching how to stay on him and when to lay off and save my strength. I didn't follow him around. I cut off space.
"He wasn't in great condition. Ali ran out of gas and I could've gone 20 (rounds). I just know one thing -- I went with one thing my mother taught me. When a man hits you, hit him back.''
Spinks says he still respects Ali.
"I grew up watching him fight," he said. "I listened to the Sonny Liston fight on the radio.
"I think he's still the greatest for a lot of things in life he did. He lived his life the right way -- he chose the religious life."
Spinks chose the fast lane. There are stories of Spinks sneaking out of his boxing camp to party and getting caught driving without a license and being intoxicated. But the champ denies he was not ready for the rematch -- 70,000 fans mostly rooting for Ali to become the first three-time heavyweight champ.
"They didn't bother me, I blocked them out," said Spinks.
"I wasn't out of shape. I'd put on some weight, but I was still in shape. How can you be out of shape? I went 30 rounds with the man."
This time Ali, now 36, showed up in better shape and danced for 15 rounds, winning a unanimous decision. When Spinks watches an edited videotape of the fight in his apartment, he speaks softly and stares at the television.
"I think I won the second fight," he contended. "I know they show just seven rounds in the whole fight. The ones I won they cut out.
"Why just show seven rounds? Where were the other rounds? Why did he win a unanimous decision and not show the whole 15 rounds?"
Did he protest after the decision?
"I didn't say nothing," he recalled. "Why should I? It's politics. They wanted Ali. It ain't what you know but who you know."
Spinks also replays some Olympic tapes, but loses interest and plays solitaire on the computer. He is unresponsive, his back to his company, and seems not to be listening until Howard Cosell announces that Spinks is an "untrained boxer."
"(Expletive) Howard," he says without looking up.
Spinks says he has neither the gold medal or the championship belt. Both were stolen from his mother's home in St. Louis.
Both Spinks brothers won gold medals in Montreal. When Michael Spinks beat Holmes in 1985, the Spinks boys became the first brothers to become world heavyweight champs.
But Michael Spinks kept his money and bought a $5 million estate in Delaware. Leon lost his.
"Me and my brother are close," Leon said.
But he won't ask him for financial help.
"I'm not into that thing," he said. "I can make it myself. I don't pressure him. God gave me the strength to see, and breathe, and talk. Everything ain't gone. I ain't gonna ask for nothing."
But Spinks does worry about the future.
"I worry about that all the time," he acknowledged. "I want to live comfortably for the rest of my life. I need money.
"I don't hurt nobody. I do what I can. I still help people as much as I can. I keep doing my best and hope God will lead me the right way.
"If you want to be my friend, be my friend. If not, leave me alone."