Requiem For A Redlined Heavyweight

Do not trust a soul who has laughed at the story of Leon Spinks.

Go down youtube boxing rabbit holes on Leon Spinks, and you will often hear Howard Cosell remind an ABC audience that he used to be a marine. It was Cosell who, in the 1976’s Olympics, sold him to America as a Horatio Alger figure who came up from poverty. It was Cosell who, in Spinks salad days as a fighter, would bring up his service to reprimand sports fans who saw him as another Bigger Thomas. Years later, after people heaped more scorn on him than almost any black athlete of his generation, I think of those clips, accompanied with the pictures of Leon in gap-toothed smile, marine uniform, and generally sweet personality, and all but ask “Just what did he do? Just what the fuck did this person I am seeing do? ”

Spinks would use the corps to escape one of the most talked-about tenements in the 20th century, a haunting example of how America set up the project-industrial complex to crush its citizens. In The Pruitt Igoe Myth, Chad and Jaime Fredrichs go into explicit detail about how local and state government set the building up to fail (refusing to do a single repair, not responding to the massive loss of industrial jobs, and not giving its black citizens their fair share of the American pie via the excruciating politics of redlining). Like many a fighter’s stories, Leon and his brother Michael boxed to process living in poverty and being bullied for it, being pensive kids with health problems. It was the Marines and Amateur boxing where Leon was the most stable, as the discipline of the corps and the point system of amateur boxing served his temperament and frenetic volume-and-courage-over-technique style.

In his first 7 fights, Spinks had followed the trajectory of an action fighter with promise. And then fate happened. To be specific: fate happened in the figure of the most famous and important athlete in the history of the world in haunting physical freefall. Muhammad Ali’s fight with Earnie Shavers in 1977 was a “Come to Jesus” moment for boxing, where the great man’s story stopped being about his exhilarating comeback and second championship reign and started being about a breaking man. Five months later and in a glitzy vegas casino ballroom, Spinks was seen as a soft touch, an easy few million in between the last summoning of his energy, a 12 million dollar 4th fight with Ken Norton.

Seeing this as the chance of his life, Leon, got into an almost supernatural shape. Like he did in a lot of 70’s fights, Muhammad trained by eating a lot of ice cream. It was that mixture-Ali, almost lear like in his dilapidation and slovenliness, and Spinks, the inexperienced rube fighting out of his head-which made their first fight an artless classic. Muhammad showed as much bravery as he did in his brutal fights with Frazier, Norton, and Shavers, but looked exhausted, uncoordinated, and finished as a fighter. Landing 419 times and withstanding a late-round comeback, Spinks became the first man to take Ali’s title in the ring.

It may have been the worst thing to happen to him. Leon had beaten the most famous person in the world in one of the most viewed televised events of all time( 70 million people), and he did it still carrying all of the scars that came from one of the worst hoods in history. Two of those scars became transparent after he won the title. It would cause his own people to be openly disgusted with him, and spur white media members to make obsessive numbers of jokes on his personage. These two things were so big that they were among the biggest pop culture stories of 1978. What were those two things? What were the deficiencies that made him a villain among respected negroes and the favorite punchline for many whites? Leon Spinks had a stutter and a speech impediment.

That’s it. That’s fucking it. All the monsters that inhabited sports in the last quarter of the 20th century and Spinks had to wear one of the biggest crowns of horns because St Louis secondary education left disabled black kids for dead. That public contempt-and Spinks’ disintegration in face of it- was such a public story, that Richard Pryor even dissected it in his immortal 1979 concert album

On top of that, there was the issue of the great man wanting his rematch. Seven months after losing his title, Ali got in the best shape he had ever been in the decade. In anticipation for what the world believed his final act, the old master summoned everything in his declining body. If the theme of the first fight was “Vegas Ali”: a sloppy craftsman abandoning whatever skills he had left, the theme of the second was the biggest audience in the history of television saying good by the biggest story in the history of sports. To 81 million TV’s set and 60 thousand people in the New Orleans Superdome, Ali Spinks 2 wasn’t a heavyweight title fight, but an elegy to a man whose skill, sense of self and radical courage defined the civil rights movement, black power, and the Anti War movement.

On one aspect there wasn’t much to the fight. On another, however, it is one of the most hauntingly beautiful youtube hours I have ever witnessed. There was Muhammad, not lying on the ropes, not absorbing punishment, but dancing in the ring as beautiful as he did when he was young. It didn’t matter that his legs and a jab were all he had left as a fighter. Those skills, along with his presence on that night were magical enough to remind people of just how great he was for so long.

It also helped Ali that Spinks showed up to fight as a drug and alcohol zombie. The vicious cycle of adulation and shaming that he went through in 1978 had left him a dazed stage player at the great event that was Muhammad regaining his title. When the event was over and everyone left the arena, Leon was left without the last cache he had, one he could never get back. A desultory 1st round knock loss against future champ Gerrie Coetzee sealed his fate as a public figure. There would be no more super bowl like TV audiences, no more decadent, lavish parties with decadent, lavish drinks and powders. There would only be shame, constant, ugly shame.

The image of Spinks as the clown monster of American Sports continued even though he showed tremendous valor in fighting his way back into another title shot. Only this time, he wasn’t going to fight a kindly man in the early stages of Parkinson's. No, in Joe Louis Arena on June 12, 1981, he fought Larry Holmes, a murderously good fighter in his prime whose jab and right hand easily picked apart Spinks’ face first defense. After a brutal three rounds, Spinks was finished as a fighter.

Sadly, America wasn’t finished with him. The cultures of respectability politics and the Reagan era made Spinks, an addict and fuck up who struggled to speak “proper” English, the perfect performative foil of the ’80s. Even after he was shot as an athlete, he continued to be served up as a transgressive unknowing punchline to the David Letterman show. Spinks’ image as the idiot villain was so big that it overshadowed just how terrific a fighter his brother Michael was. By the ’90s, after a generation’s tastes had shifted and his brother had wrapped his hall of fame career by being knocked out by Mike Tyson, Leon was a broken man just barely above the poverty of his youth.

Now, with him gone, Cosell’s misanthropic liberal soliloquies have more of a resonance. If he had a withering contempt for boxing, Howard had a deep affinity for boxers and the black experience. In going into detail about what Spinks had to go through in Pruitt Igoe, then chastizing the mass sporting public who saw him as a joke monster, Cosell underscored the sentence that seems to be the perfect epitaph for him now: that, for all the money he made in 1978, Leon Spinks gave more to America than it gave to him.



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Robert Lashley

Writer. Author. Former Jack Straw and Artist Trust Fellow. The baddest ghetto nerd on the planet.