Yet another of the ghetto's progeny, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad (43-6-1), who challenges undisputed light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks (23-0) at the D.C. Armory Friday, ran from the bad back alleys and mean streets of his boyhood haunt in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to a place of refuge in the boxing ring and on the silver screen.
"That ghetto where Spinks comes from in St. Louis, whatever you call it," said Muhammad, 6 feet 1 and 175 pounds, "it's paradise compared to Brownsville. Mention St. Louis to a man and he'll say, 'Nice city.' Say Brownsville and you'll scare him half to death . . . Michael Spinks may be the gold medal winner, but Eddie Mustafa Muhammad is the ghetto medal winner."
And soon to be Oscar winner, if his "ultimate goal in life" becomes a reality. Muhammad had bit parts in Martin Scorcese's "Raging Bull" (in which he pretended to get his brains Osterized by Robert DeNiro, playing Jake LaMotta) and in "Body and Soul," starring Jayne Kennedy.
"I think I'm way beyond boxing. I want to be versatile; I want to do it all. Boxing is a way to open the doors to the future. I'm gonna win the light heavyweight championship, then I'm gonna win an Oscar," he said yesterday.
The first time Muhammad fought Spinks, he lost in 15 rounds and gave up the WBA title he had held for one year, after knocking out Jerry Martin on July 20, 1980. The loss to Spinks was in Las Vegas, two years ago.
"I trained in Palm Springs last time," Muhammad said. "I had no business playing around in Palm Springs. How could I get ready? I sparred between 125 and 130 rounds for this fight, in Puerto Rico and Miami, all over. I'm looking to get Friday over with quick so I can go home and see my kids. I got to go to my little girl's graduation."
Since losing the WBA crown, Muhammad has repeatedly accused Spinks of avoiding him, claiming Spinks has fought only "wastes and dead men," opponents Muhammad "would have killed and sent home in a coffin" had he fought them.
"Spinks is running from me now and he's been running the last two years," Muhammad said. "He knows that I'm hungry. I got a lot of anger in me.
"Michael Spinks is a dull person. He's the kind of person who gets arrested with pistols, then comes out a week later in Jet magazine, standing in front of a police precinct with a big fat smile on his face and with little black and white kids hanging all over him."
Maybe it's the actor in Muhammad that allows his brazen theatrics. Yesterday, when he walked into the Round One Boxing Club in Hyattsville, where he's been training the last week, one of the yes-men in his entourage flipped on the overhead lights and announced his bossman's arrival. "Put your hands together," said the man, lugging a portable radio the size of a two-man footlocker. "Put your hands together for your majesty."
Although he didn't spar, Muhammad worked on the speed bag and against an imaginary Spinks standing between his quick jabs and stabs and a full-length wall mirror. He grunted and groaned, spitting out a pasty effluvia and kicking at a punching bag set regretfully in reach of his right foot.
Muhammad said, "First thing I want is a referee who can count to 10. I know that if it goes the distance he'll get the decision because of who he is. If the ref lets him get away with things, the next punch I throw'll be directly at the ref.
"I can't win if it goes all the way, so what do I have to lose? I might lose my chance to ever fight again, but so what? I'll be doing this for all boxers. If anybody gets hurt it'll be the ref and Spinks. It won't be me. Let them suspend me. I can do other things."
A few months ago, Muhammad wrote a story for a Jacksonville, Fla., newspaper in which he said his childhood ambition was to rob banks.
"I used to dream about being a bank robber when I was growing up. I would barge into a bank with guns blazing, go in there and take all the money, then leave."
According to fight promoter Butch Lewis, Muhammad's purse will be $250,000. Spinks will make $1 million.
For now, their training arenas reflect not only a difference in their pocketbooks, but an apparent disparity in social status as well. Round One Boxing Club is situated in a funky steel building down a funky old road. There are fight card posters and the gray-on-slate likenesses of ring legends plastered all over the cinder walls.
Across the street from the gym, bare-chested boys in Sting Rays cut wheelies across their front lawns and wonder if Larry Holmes'll ever show up, as rumored.
Unlike Spinks' classic setting--the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel ballroom--this haunt lacks chandeliers, Persian rugs bleeding a rainbow of pastels and the legions of fight groupies who cling to the champion's status like sucklefish on the bellies of great blue whales.
"I'm a poor little old man from the ghetto," Muhammad said. "A ballroom ain't a gym. This is more like where I come from."
Stepping out of his psychedelic flip flops and rubbing his bare, sweating feet against the bare, sweating concrete floor, Muhammad said, "My strategy is to win. He can't run from me. He can't beat me. I can only beat myself."
His sparring partner, Muhammad Aziz, answering like a bleacher plebe calling down salvation from the back pew of the Kingdom Hall, shouted, "Amen, champ, Amen."