The wonder is that Leon Spinks even made it into the ring. You hear it all now: Leon was bombed every night. He was running the streets. He had 1,700 people telling him what to do.
The fight promoter uses words such as "tragedy" and "chaos." You hear all that, and you remember a vignette that, at the time, was good for a laugh.
This was at Leon Spinks' training camp in Hammonton, N.J. The first defense of his heavyweight championship was three weeks away. Someone asked Spinks how he would fight Muhammad Ali this time. Would he change tactics? And Spinks said he'd rather not say because Ali might read the newspaper.
Then a door opened beside Spinks.
His trainer, Sam Solomon, was a bizarre sight, his black face a half-moon of shaving cream. His was smiling.
"I heard that question," said the man who once trained Sonny Liston, "and how we'll fight Ali is right here in my book. Take a look."
The book's title was "Everything I Know About Boxing, by Sam Solomon."
The book was filled with blank pages.
Solomon, laughing out loud, closed the door.
No one is laughing now. The fight promoter, Bob Arum, a New York lawyer who is president of Top Rank, Inc., called a press conference yesterday. He said Spinks "wasn't mentally ready." The champion's "camp was in total chaos." Spinks' ascension to the championship prematurely was "one of the greatest tragedies in boxing history," Arum said. "You can't have dozens of sharks picking at the bones of young fighters."
The picture is complete. Leon Spinks was bleeding and thrashing about in waters too deep for him. Somebody knew it and brought in a trainer, George Benton, to help out Solomon. That is amazing in itself, that you would bring in a teacher for a heavyweight champion 10 days before a fight. More amazing, Benton quit in mid-fight, leaving Spinks' corner in a rage at the amateur goings-on there.
To say Spinks disintegrated before our eyes is to stipulate that he was fighter of substance in the first place. That can not be stipulated. He was given the title fight with Ali last February only because he was a recognizable name, a 1976 Olympic champion, who could warm up Ali. But when Ali loafed, Spinks won.
That victory gave him a stature he didn't deserve. It also gave him recognition he didn't want. Every policeman in St. Louis seemed eager to arrest him for driving his car strangely. He was sued by a man who claimed to be his business manager. His wife flew all over the country in anxious pursuit of the champ and his ladies.
No one says this extracurricular activity hurt the champion. It was agreed that such a lifestyle was normal for Spinks, that winning the title simply made it public knowledge. During the 1975 Pan-Am Games, American officials talked Spinks out of the clink more than once. No, everyone agreed, Spinks always lived in chaos.This was normal.
He could train and be in condition. He always had. Indeed, for 15 rounds with Ali the other night, he never seemed tired. He pushed his rock of a body the entire hour.
But he lost for two reasons. One, Ali was a better fighter than he was the first time. Two. Spinks was not better.
While the chaos may not have hurt Spinks' training methods, it did make it impossible for him to improve as a fighter. He learned nothing in the seven months between fights. Solomon's joke book might have been the truth, at least when Leon Spinks is the student.
For five or six rounds the other night, Spinks was a copy of Joe Frazier. He Pressed Ali. He stayed low. Looking for a knockout early, Ali launched several chopping rights. All sailed harmlessly over Spinks head.
Almost imperceptibly, Spinks rose up from that crouch. Now he was easy to hit and no longer could he reach Ali. An Ali who looked embarrassingly awkward early in the fight now became an Ali stinging Spinks regularly. Spinks only calming and perceptive cornerman. George Benton, had left the corner before the sixth round, in disgust and, coincidence or not, the spirit for war had left Spinks.
"My mind wasn't on the fight," Spinks said afterward.
"I don't know," he said. "I don't know what I was thinking about. But my mind wasn't on the fight. I was thinking of too many different things."
"You know," he said.
Maybe he was thinking of the Isaac Hayes' dance. Hayes put on a disco show at the New Orleans Hilton after the fight. At 5:30 a.m., the former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, was doing a mean boogie.