It is almost midnight in this little farming town 40 miles southeast of Philadelphia. Leon Spinks is in his motel room. You can tell because you can hear music exploding through his door. Leon breathes music. It is almost midnight and a police car pulls up to Spinks' door, parking right in front of it. The cop leaves his car lights on and knocks on Leon's door.

Since he beat Muhammad Ali six months ago to win the heavyweight championship, Spinks, the man-child from the ghetto, has been in constant trouble. His closest advisers have split up; his wife has become a tragi-comic figure crisscrossing the country to find Leon and his women: he has been arrested three times while driving, once taken away in handcuffs after going the wrong way on a one-way street, and police found an infinitesimal trace of cocaine in his hatband (planted by someone, Spinks says).

And now, at midnight, a police car sits at Spinks' motel room door.

But Leon Spinks is not always getting arrested.

The fighter comes out of his room and walks with the cop to the car. From a hundred feet away, you can hear nothing of what is said. But you can see the cop laughing and the fighter smiling and you know Leon Spinks is in no trouble this time.

The people who work with Spinks remind you that Ali once spent five days of his youth in a Florida jail for driving without a license. They will tell you Ali has had three wives. Their man Spinks is no angel, they agree, but why, they ask, come down on Leon Spinks as an illiterate carouser while Ali is let parade as a minister of deep faith who would save the world from evil?

Had that police car pulled up to Ali's door, the policeman would have been accepted as another worshiper. With Spinks, though, it is news that the cop had not come to take him away in leg-irons. Imagine the headline: "Spinks Is Not Arrested in Midnight Visit; Cop Just Wanted to Hear the Music."

If life in the ghetto was a thunderstorm of privation, the heavyweight championship had created for Spinks a hurricance of confusion.

He is 25 years old and has more money than he ever dreamed of ($300,000 from the Ali fight, $1.5 million coming for the Sept. 15 rematch in New Orleans).

Life is changing for him and he doesn't want it to. He wants to be what he thinks he is: Leon Spinks, "just an ordinary working man having fun."

That way, you don't get your name in headlines for driving the wrong way on a one-way street and nobody plants coke in your handbank and newspapermen don't care about the women you dance with.

But life as the heavyweight champion is life in the public view, and Leon Spinks, a product of the ghetto's closed society, is bewildered by such a life.

"I whup his tail if he keep it out of jail."

-- Muhammad Ali, last month.

Spinks' training for the Ali rematch has been questioned. He first set up camp at Hilton Head Island, where he was seldom seen. His people say he worked hard at cutting down trees to build up his upper body (indeed, he seems more powerful). Other observers say Spinks works mostly on airline schedules, flying out of Hilton Head when the whim moved him.

For three weeks, he worked out in the Catskill Mountains of New York and then moved to Hammonton, a pattern he has followed, as a creature of superstition, in this last three fights. He seldom does more than three rounds of sparring (while Ali is doing maybe 10 a day) and seems unconcerned that, at 193, his weight is significantly lower than his trainer wants it.

While reports from Ali's Deer Lake, Pa., training camp say the old champion is whipping his body into wonderful shape for one last fight, Spinks goes about his work with a nonchalance that seems foolishly careless.

An old Marine buddy, Gunnery Sgt. Art Redden, now is an assistant trainer for Spinks. He says things are not what they seem with Leon.

"Leon's training habits and his lifestyle are not according to the book," said the man who first put Spinks on the Marine boxing team at age 18. "A fighter is supposed to get up at this time, run at that time, eat this, do that. Well, it's directly opposite with Leon."

And Redden does not care.

"It still comes down to him giving 110 percent when it comes to getting in the square jungle."

So if Spinks wants to play his music until 3 in the morning, as he did here the night the cop stopped by . . . if he wants to sleep in the next morning and not go running until 11:20, as he did here . . . if he wants to show up an hour late for a workout that lasts only 30 minutes -- all that is fine with Spinks' people. Because he is the champ and the champ calls the tune, and in Leon Spinks they have a champ who is made whole and majestic only in that finite representation of his life, the boxing ring. The square jungle.

"Leon Spinks, he so ugly that when he cry, the tears run halfway down."

The first time Leon Spinks cried, and the last, he said, was when he was a child, maybe 10 or 11. He didn't cry because his father was gone.What hurt Spinks was he had no bed. They later condemned the building he lived in. They put dynamite in the foundations and blew it up. It was like all the other places there and he didn't cry about how bad it was. He just wanted a bed.

Spinks left home at 15. "To give more room to the rest of my family," he said. "Seven of us. Two bedrooms."

He wanted out, too, because he had seen evil and come to fear it.

"I am scared of drugs," he said the other day in Hammonton. He wore a gold chain with his name cut out of a dogtag-like pendant that was marked with a boxing glove. The ring on his right pinkie held seven diamonds. In white slacks and a collarless shirt that would have looked proper on a man of wealth weekending at Newport Spinks was out of buildings they dynamite. He remembered them, though, and that is why, he said, he is confused by his melancholy image as a jock-outlaw.

"I didn't ever fool around with drugs," Spinks said.

He tried marijuana when he was 14 or 15, he said, but he has never done cocaine.

"Mom always told me to leave that stuff alone, it was bad for you," Spinks said.

"People I know died on it."

Spinks is not articulate. His speech is often muffled, the words there but piled atop each other.Ali has said that when he is gone, boxing will go back to the days when the champion couldn't say three words that made sense. "They ask me questions like a U.S. senator," Ali has said, and now they ask Spinks questions that he can answer yes or no, so they'll be sure to understand him.

But this was clearly said.

"People I know died on it."

"My friends were getting killed everywhere," he continued. "With dope, they died. I didn't do it. My life was worth more than that. Being a bigtime hustler, a gangster. I was worth more than that. So I got away from it."

He joined the Marines, where Redden signed him up for the boxing team, and Spinks began a distinguished international career. He won a gold medal in the 1975 Pan-American Games (where U.S. authorities had to intervene to keep him out of jail, said a team official who added, "Leon wasn't the All-American boy"). And in 1976 Spinks gained national recognition by winning an Olympic gold medal at Montreal.

That is when we first saw, on television, the gaping hole in Spinks' teeth. His two front teeth are missing. That, along with a smile that is almost equine, has made Spinks the butt of jokes. As often as Carson speaks of what Dolly Parton has up front, he mentions what Spinks doesn't have: "The American Dental Association chose its poster boy today -- Leon Spinks."

Not everyone thinks it is funny.

Art Redden keeps one of Spinks' missing teeth in his jewel box.

"It came out when he was sparring at Camp Lejeune," Redden said. "And I kept it because Leon's like a son to me. He's dear to me."

"No man is supposed to tear another man down," Spinks said. He doesn't like to be called ugly. "Larry Holmes (the other boxing group's champion) has done the same things Ali is doing. That's all right. When they get through, God will tear them down. They will be paid back."

-- Spinks, talking about Ali, two days ago

Through Ali's influence, boxers have come to be promoters. They talk big. Larry Holmes is polishing his Ali act now, full of braggadocio and insult. When Leon Spinks talked of "that payback," he was doing the proper ticket-selling thing: Answer an insult with anger.

But Leon Spinks is no actor. He is what he is. More than 14,000 people went to a fight in Philadelphia the other night and Spinks was given tickets to attend. Ali would have made it a spectacle. Spinks chose to pass the fight and go to dinner with three friends. He answered the Ali insult with anger on one day, but the next day he could not sustain the act.

"I really like Ali," Spinks said. "I understand him, I understand what he's trying to do (sell tickets). What he has accomplished, it would take five or six people to accomplish in their whole lifetimes what he accomplishes in one year. He did it all himself.

"Nobody else could have gone through what went down with him and be the champion, too. He is a good man and God bless him."

Someone told Spinks, "Ali really likes you, too, you know."

Spinks smiled. "As long as we're swinging and not hitting, it's cool. What he tries to do is scare people and he knows he can't scare this one."

"Ali knows it doesn't work with you," someone said. "He said he talked to you during the fight and he's not going to do that again because all it did was tire him out."

"Yeh, he was saying, 'Ah'm gonna whup your --,'" Spinks said with delight. "And I was saying, 'Come on with it, old man.' And he'd hit me and I'd say, 'Oh, old man, you can't hit hard anymore.'

"He got me in a corner and said, 'You're crazy, boy.'"

"He's still the greatest, I'm just the latest."

-- Spinks, the night he beat Ali

Ali has made a career of being the bad guy in the ring. Even against an acknowledged monster such as Sonny Liston. Ali worked up so much hysteria with his marathon jabbering that mild-mannered folks found themselves rooting for Liston, the convicted felon, to shut up, once and for all, this uppity Cassius Clay, who only four years earlier had won a gold medal for the U.S. in the Olympics. It wasn't easy becoming the baddest villain against the villaninous Liston, but Ali did it and he has done it for the decade and a half since -- against Patterson and Frazier, Norton and quarry.

Come Sept. 15, for the first time and perhaps the last, Ali will be the good guy in there. Free finally of the hateful tutelage of Elijah Muhammad, Ali has become if not an Establishment figure at least a property the Establishment can safely hire to do TV commercials for roach spray. He is on all the TV talk shows and he is in the Kremlin and the White House. The world is his stage and the curtain is about to come down on his athletic greatness.

He has lost to Leon Spinks, who at 25 came in against Ali after only seven pro fights. And now Ali is 36 and he says this rematch will be his last fight and so, at last, he is the good guy, the legend a-dying, thrown in against a fugitive from the ghetto who can't drive the right way on a one-way street.

A sadness here, that the end may be near. Spinks, who once called Ali "my idol," does not share the sentiment.

"I don't feel no sadness," he said, "because Ali didn't feel no sadness when he beat my man (Liston, also a native of St. Louis). I'm a man trying to accomplish something. What Ali has got might come to me."

No sorrow at the end of a great champion's career"

"I really like him," Spinks said, "but when we get in that square jungle . . ."

"I want to be the first black man to retire with that belt."

-- Spinks, two days ago.

Life is bewildering to Leon Spinks. His money man have argued and split. His trainer has argued with an assistant and fired him. An ex-manager is barred from Spinks' presence and stays away under threat of arrest. Of the 10 people around him at Hammonton, only two were with him for the first Ali fight. Spinks now calls all the shots. He's the one getting beat up on," says trainer Sam Solomon, explaining the chain of command.

Spinks knows one thing certainly.He is comfortable fighting. "A king in the ring," says his publicity man, Chet Cummings. "Being the champion makes you a world figure," Spinks said, "but you're still just a human being trying to be somebody. Fighting's my thing."

No one ever won the heavyweight championship earlier in his career than Spinks. He says he wants to retire as champion, something no black has ever done without coming back for one more disastrous effort. If he does that, he will have survived in more than just the square jungle, for life is enough of a jungle to keep Spinks busy.

"It didn't hit me that I was the champ for about a week," he said. "It hit me one day. It would go to your head, like you were elected president of the United States all of a sudden. I can't drive down the street all of a sudden without a policeman stopping me and it being big headlines.

"I'm not nothing more than any man would be except they call me the champion."

Spinks was done with his workout at Upper Darby. Driving away from the gymnasium, he turned left into a busy street and noticed that all the traffic was coming at him. He was going the wrong way on a one-way street.

He put the car in reverse and backed to safety just as a police car passed in front of him.