When Neon Leon Met the Greatest: A Look Back, Forty Years Later

Handlers Raising Leon Spinks On Shoulders
February 15, 1978. Handlers raise Leon Spinks on their shoulders in triumph at the Las Vegas Hilton Pavilion after he won the heavyweight title via split-decision versus Muhammad Ali. Credit: Getty Images.

Never the world’s greatest mixer, I had accommodated myself to long silences at the 2004 International Boxing Hall of Fame dinner in Canastota, New York, even at a dinner table populated with eager pugilistic fans. A resident of Lowell, Massachusetts, an avid reader of Jack Kerouac, rescued me: we discussed the merits of Kerouac’s work, my take being that those merits became less apparent when the reader got out of his twenties. He seemed to agree, but was more animated by the conflicts Kerouac felt between religion and hedonism. This filled the time.

Wandering about after dinner, as former champions circulated around the venue, known as the Rusty Rail, I didn’t expect to come upon a former heavyweight champion sitting alone at one of the many serving spots. Older and thicker, he was still recognizably Leon Spinks, especially when he flashed that unmistakable grin—a grin now fully capped with teeth, not the gap-filled mouth that became iconic during 1978, when Spinks took a ride on the American Dream rollercoaster, jumped off when he reached bottom, and was rarely heard from again.

“Champ,” I said, and he turned toward me at the word, “I was eleven years old, up past my bedtime, the night you beat Muhammad Ali; I saw every round.”

He grinned again, took a long drink, and said, “Sheeeeiiiiit.”

I remembered something else. “When they announced the decision, I felt a little sorry for Ali. Did you feel sorry, too?” Spinks had idolized him.

“Hell, no, man—I beat his ass!”


If you lived in the United States in 1978 and were of conscious mind, you knew Leon Spinks. It wasn’t optional. People didn’t just go around beating Muhammad Ali, as Spinks had done on February 15, in Las Vegas. Just two men had achieved that feat before him, Joe Frazier and Ken Norton. Many others were more famous for losing to Ali—Earnie Shavers and Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle and Jerry Quarry, Chuck Wepner and Joe Bugner—than for anything else they had done.

It was true that Leon had defeated a poorly conditioned, thirty-six-year-old champion whose skills were evaporating, and that his triumph consisted, in a sense, of pushing over a tree that stronger men had leaned on for years. Still, the tree had to be pushed over, and 10-1 underdog Leon had done it, when no one thought that he could. Not with seven professional fights, a ledger barely distinguishing him from amateur status. Not against the greatest heavyweight of them all, as Ali was increasingly regarded. Even an unmotivated and out-of-shape Ali couldn’t lose his cherished heavyweight title to such a novice. And even though Spinks had won gold for the U.S. in the 1976 Montreal Olympics—part of a famous team that boasted five gold-medalists, including his brother Michael and Sugar Ray Leonard—few projected him as a pro superstar.

Ali had taken the Spinks fight, to be held at the Las Vegas Hilton, with some sheepishness, because of Spinks’s inexperience. But then, as he ruminated on his need for cash and his desire to avoid, or at least postpone, another match against top contender Norton, a bout with Spinks, for a cool $3.5 million, looked pretty good. So what if, just four weeks before the fight, Ali weighed 242? Working out in a rubber suit, he got himself down to 224 ¼ in four weeks.

The fight was a hard sell. NBC and ABC wouldn’t bid on it, so CBS took it, assigning non-boxing announcer Brent Musburger, then at his career peak as host of the network’s NFL Today show, to handle the blow-by-blow. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s longtime physician, who had recently left his employ after urging him, unsuccessfully, to retire from boxing, would provide commentary. Stung by the fan disinterest and perhaps also feeling gloomy about his mounting financial problems, Ali took to uncharacteristic public sulking, declaring that he would give no interviews. “I’m just tired of the press and I’m tired of people,” he said—perhaps the most surprising words he ever uttered. “Hell has now frozen over,” a columnist wrote.

Brought down the aisle to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance,” Ali came into the Las Vegas ring looking soft around the midsection. The twenty-four-year-old Spinks, a former Marine once known as the Mad Dog of Camp Lejeune, came in at a lean and ready 197¼. He had trained furiously but partied furiously, too—Leon was to nightlife what a cat is to a scratching post. One early morning, returning from his revels, he had passed by Ali, heading out to do his roadwork.

When the bell rang, Spinks swarmed Ali, who went to the ropes in his now familiar rope-a-dope posture. Ali’s plan: conserve energy while the kid punched himself out. Spinks attacked with gusto, showing no concern about the stamina trouble that had bedeviled George Foreman and made subsequent challengers, like Earnie Shavers, leery of going all-out against Ali. By 1978, the rope-a-dope was as effective psychologically as physically. It got in challengers’ heads.

Muhammad Ali Blocks Leon Spinks Punches
Champion Muhammad Ali grimaces as challenger Leon Spinks gets in a right hand shot in the third round of their title fight at the Las Vegas Hilton Pavilion. Credit: Getty Images.

Not Leon’s. He was twenty-four and didn’t do “tired”; his two speeds, as John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro wrote, were “turbo and sleep.” And his assistant trainer and strategist, the former middleweight standout George Benton, had instructed him to pound Ali’s biceps and shoulders, and to step to the side and hit him in the lower back. The idea was to make Ali pay for his attempt to coast. Ali gave away most of the first six rounds, with Spinks wailing away, rarely scoring dramatically but doing all the fighting.

Ali picked up the action in the middle rounds, scoring more with the jab and trying to use his superior bulk to wear Leon down in the clinches, but the youngster kept coming. “That kid is a tough son of a bitch,” Ali thought to himself on his stool between rounds. He knew that he needed to make a charge, but Spinks stayed with him, never letting him rest down the stretch. In the fifteenth, both men let everything go. Ali tagged Spinks with his best punches, at one point pinning him on the ropes, but the challenger fought on, nailing Ali with a right that sent the champ back to his corner on rubbery legs.

When ring announcer Chuck Hull declared a split decision, the crowd moaned: Ali had been winning disputed fifteen-round verdicts for years. Sure enough, the first card was for Ali, 143-142. But then Hull read the next two: 145-140, Spinks, and 144-141—but for whom? Hull paused a beat, then said: “And the new . . . ” The rest of his words were drowned out. Spinks, riding the shoulders of his men, including brother Michael, raised his arms high and opened his potholed mouth wide in joy.

Ali was gracious in defeat, but he also allowed that he hadn’t trained right—an understatement—and that he wanted to regain the title. If successful, he’d be the first to win it three times. He started beating the drum for a rematch, declaring: “I shall return!”

As for the new champion, a scene in his dressing room afterward foreshadowed the future. A phone call came in. A Spinks aide called out: “Hey, Leon, it’s Western Union. They have a telegram from some guy claiming he’s your relative. He wants you to send him some money right now.”

“Who is it?” Spinks asked. The man shouted back a name.

“I never heard of no dude like that,” Spinks said. “Hang up.” But for Leon, the call of trouble was just beginning.


In late 1987, I sat in an arthouse cinema watching Barfly, Barbet Schroeder’s rendering of the life and times of Charles Bukowski, known in the film (as in many of his books) as Henry “Hank” Chinaski. Mickey Rourke played the Bukowski character. The movie is a two-hour drunken rout, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes dispiriting—a bit like drinking too much. Someone knocks on Chinaski’s door. It’s not a good time: his girlfriend and fellow alcoholic, Wanda (Faye Dunaway), has just beaten him up. Chinaski opens the door, his face looking like a tenderloin.

The man outside asks, “Are you Henry Chinaski?”

“No,” Hank replies, “I’m Leon Spinks!”

The theater, about half-full, erupted at the line. Nine years after Leon’s fights against Muhammad Ali, everyone knew what the words “Leon Spinks” meant. They meant smash-up, train-wreck, and not the private but the public kind, where everyone gets in line along the tracks and watches the chugging catastrophe explode. And they laugh as one, united in any crowd’s universal bond: at least it’s not me.

Walking out, I tried to remember the last time I’d thought about Leon Spinks.


Not that I’d forgotten him—not growing up as I had, turning from eleven to twelve between the two Ali fights in 1978, the year that saw my budding boxing obsession bloom into a benign madness. Leon Spinks: who could forget him? The missing front teeth alone made him imperishable. Most people didn’t know that he had a bridge for the gap, even in 1978; but as Sports Illustrated writer Pat Putnam pointed out, “the bridge is uncomfortable; therefore, the hell with it.” And “the hell with it” could describe Leon’s philosophy on life and his attitude toward becoming heavyweight champion. The jokes started soon after he beat Ali, when he began making tabloid headlines: Spinks caught with prostitute; Spinks busted driving wrong way down one-way street; Spinks in drunken scuffle in bar; Spinks busted with cocaine in his cowboy hat—said quantity later valued at $1.50. It was one thing after another, for the next seven months. “Neon Leon” was easy material for comedians’ monologues, a sort of slapstick Sonny Liston—always in trouble, but usually with a laugh track.

The funniest but also most compassionate take on Leon came, unsurprisingly, from Richard Pryor. In between hilarity—“Have you ever seen a dollar and 50 cents worth of cocaine? A dollar and 50 cents worth of cocaine melt before you open the paper!”—he implored Spinks to put some money away—“It don’t matter about how much you sniff, put it away and sniff the interest”—and reminded white listeners that blacks couldn’t join the mockery whole-heartedly: “I hate when white people be calling Spinks dumb, too. ‘Don’t you think he’s dumb’? My mind immediately say, ‘What is this motherfucker going to think of me if I agree with him?”

Of all the men who have held the heavyweight crown, none came from such a culturally deprived background. Leon and Michael (who would win the title in 1985) grew up in St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe housing project, which by the 1960s was a nightmare of urban violence, drugs, and despair, increasingly overrun by gangs, and policed with diffidence, at best, by cops who often feared entering its confines. Along with Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, it became symbolic of the failure of American public housing. Six years before Leon beat Ali, the first of Pruitt-Igoe’s buildings had been razed. Footage of the demolition remains oddly hypnotic today, perhaps because of the ease with which the buildings fall, as if suggesting that only folly had held them together. Discovering boxing at the nearby DeSoto Rec Center changed Leon’s and Michael’s lives, but the brothers were different men: Michael, low-key and mostly sensible; Leon, flamboyant and, well, mostly not sensible. Imagine a challenger who parties all night before fighting for the heavyweight championship! Yet Leon had won.

“Leon represented the kind of uncouth black guy from the ghetto,” said essayist Gerald Early. “Leon couldn’t have been what white America wanted in a heavyweight champion even if they wanted Ali defeated.”

But black America didn’t necessarily want Leon, either.  When he said things like, “I’m just a ghetto nigger,” people laughed, but many blacks winced. He was an omnivorous consumer of booze, drugs, and ladies; he dressed like a pimp; and he seemed a stranger to common sense, as his pileup of antic episodes suggested. He was “the stereotype that a lot of educated, more self-conscious black athletes were the most afraid of,” said Douglas Hartmann, author, Race, Culture and the Revolt of the Black Athlete.

Still, he was heavyweight champion, the conqueror of Ali, and Spinks-Ali II was the fight that the world wanted to see: it was signed for September 15, 1978, in New Orleans. All three networks bid on it, with ABC winning the battle, fittingly. ABC was the broadcasting home to Howard Cosell, then at the peak of his own career as the star of Monday Night Football. Cosell had a symbiotic professional relationship with Ali, defending him during his draft battle against the U.S. government and developing a rapport with the fighter that made Cosell-Ali interviews something like performance art. Only Cosell could narrate what Ali promised would be his last fight.

The Crescent City had hosted two heavyweight title bouts before. In 1972, Joe Frazier knocked out an overmatched challenger, Terry Daniels, on the Saturday night before Super Bowl VI. And on September 7, 1892, John L. Sullivan lost his title at New Orleans’s Olympic Club to Gentleman Jim Corbett. Ali had never fought in New Orleans, but he would make his debut in a forum worthy of his stature. The Superdome, which had opened in 1975, was home to the NFL’s New Orleans Saints, college football’s Tulane, and the NBA’s New Orleans Jazz, but it was more than just a sports arena: it was “a monument to man’s daring imagination, ingenuity, and intelligence—awesome in size and inspiring in beauty . . . it is the greatest structure ever attempted by mortal man,” a recorded message intoned, making it sound as if Ali had built it himself.

Not known, then or ever, as an orderly city, New Orleans, with its extra-terrestrial nightlife, had to be the worst place conceivable for Spinks, whose hard-partying tendencies showed no sign of slowing down. Every night, in the two weeks before the fight, Leon hit the city’s most dangerous hangouts. His people often lost track of him, and, frantic, enlisted police to help locate him. Even his bodyguard, the soon-to-be-famous Mr. T., couldn’t always find Leon.

“I gotta swoop,” Leon would say. “Let me swoop.”

Ali, meanwhile, was training with steely determination. He’d started work six months in advance, running steep hills and hammering out calisthenics, mostly at his rustic training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, a hamlet overlooking the Poconos where he’d bought a six-acre training camp in 1972. By the time he got to New Orleans, renting a house near Lake Pontchartrain to do his final preparations, he was in rare shape, even if, at 221, he weighed just three pounds less than for the first fight.

Spinks, who would come in at 201, partied nightly and squabbled with Michael, who saw his older brother headed for a fall. The Spinks camp was in disarray. Benton had been exiled by Spinks’s chief trainer, Sam Solomon, who resented his influence, but aides asked Benton back as the fight neared. Benton worked to get Leon focused, but he was flabbergasted when Solomon informed him that, in the corner, he could pass instructions to Spinks every third or fourth round. Others wished to advise Leon, too, Solomon said; they had agreed to take turns. Benton couldn’t believe it.


“In twenty-five years in sports, I have never heard a crowd like this!” Cosell exclaimed. It was the largest indoor crowd for a fight, with official attendance at 63,000, though it seemed like more, and its paid gate of about $6 million shattered the record, set in 1927, when Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney squared off for their second fight, in Chicago. (Both Spinks and Ali would earn more than $3 million.) About 90 million people, in eighty countries, tuned in. Near ringside sat the famous, who always flocked to heavyweight title fights, especially Ali’s: Lillian Carter, whose son, the president, was watching the fight at Camp David with Anwar Sadat; Frank Sinatra, Liza Minelli, John Travolta, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Sylvester Stallone. (Stallone thought he was tough? His Rocky character drank raw eggs before doing roadwork; Leon cracked raw eggs into his beer for “added protein,” and when he got around to doing roadwork, he liked to smoke a joint say, every mile or so.)

Throughout the evening, Cosell talked at a near-shout, to make himself heard over the din. Hardly a square foot of the Superdome looked unoccupied. Approaching the ring, the fighters were pressed so tightly against people that at times they would come to a dead halt, as in a traffic jam. In vain, Bob Arum had asked Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards to call out the National Guard for security. Ali somehow made it to the ring, but without his usual flair: he was stoic, in keeping with his all-business approach. He wanted his title back, period. No clowning until then—not even after Joe Frazier materialized to sing the national anthem, finishing with a nod to his then-current Miller Lite commercial.

Ali had promised that he would dance for the entire fight—no rope-a-dope—but he’d made such pledges before. This time, he delivered, dancing for every round of the fifteen but one—dancing more, in fact, than he ever had as a young man. Still, while his legs had life, his punches lacked power and accuracy. He started out missing with everything, the left and the following right, especially when trying to punch downward at the shorter, bobbing champion. Spinks bulled and mauled Ali in the second round, winning it, and in the fourth, winning that round, too—pressing Ali with such force that at one point Ali stumbled, off balance, looking for a moment like the old fighter that he was. But he recovered and began finding the range. His strategy was simple—“jab, jab, throw the right and grab,” as Pat Putnam described it—and Spinks had no answer, especially from about round five on. The young champion got no help from his corner, filled with advisors shouting instructions, including Spinks’s accountant. Disgusted, Benton stalked off before the fight was over. “It was like watching your baby drown,” he said later.

The rounds passed, and Ali moved firmly into the lead. It was no masterpiece, and Ali’s determined holding was shameless at times. The veteran referee, Lucien Joubert, took the fifth round away from him. It didn’t matter, because Leon had checked out. His upper-body swivel had diminished, and he stood up straight, eating jabs. Ali still couldn’t time his punches when Leon bothered to bob, but Leon was tired of bobbing—tired of everything, really, especially the title and the troubles it had brought him.

Feeling more confident, Ali allowed himself small displays of the old showmanship, doing a light shuffle at the seventh round bell, raising his arms above his head after round eight. “You got to move!” Solomon implored Leon in the corner, but Spinks’s expression was vacant. The remaining suspense concerned whether Ali could stop Spinks—he scored his best salvos in the eleventh, but Leon was sturdy—and whether the crowd situation would spiral out of control. It was getting louder and louder, and Cosell kept upping his own volume, as well as his verbal output, frenetic even by his standards. Cosell’s emotions were spilling out, too, his encomiums to Ali becoming less restrained: “What an extraordinary career, what an extraordinary man he has been, in every way!” He loved Ali, as everyone knew; now he was watching him go out on top, in a setting suitably epic and bizarre.

In the fourteenth, rhapsodizing about Ali, Cosell recited lyrics from “Forever Young,” the Bob Dylan song: “May your hands always be busy/May your feet always be swift/May you have a strong foundation/When the winds of changes shift.” By the fifteenth, he had turned to Shakespeare, declaring that Ali wanted to “make assurance double sure.” But the real story now was the surroundings.

“This crowd pushing in on us!” Cosell said. Dangerous crowd conditions!”

Ali had barely reached his corner after the final bell when the ring was mobbed, and he briefly tried his old tactic, first devised in Zaire, of dropping to the canvas to evade the crush. Somehow Cosell got through the scrum to ask Ali some questions, but he could barely hear himself, and the jam-packed ring seemed a more dangerous place than it had been when Spinks and Ali were fighting in it.

The decision, scored by rounds, was an afterthought: 10-4-1, 10-4-1, and 11-4, all for Ali. He remains the only three-time heavyweight champion. Hoisted up by his supporters, he blew a kiss. Moments later, the boastful Ali was back, leading the crowd in a chant, breaking out his comb, gesturing at the prettiness of his features. Order had been restored to the cosmos. Chris Schenkel, Cosell’s ABC colleague, called Ali “the creator of an age,” praise so lavish that even Ali might have blushed.

All along, he had promised that the Spinks rematch would be the end. “It’s time for a new life,” he had said. “I’m going to put on a three-piece suit, carry a briefcase and fly around the world working for human rights and dignity. . . . I’m going to have a big warehouse in Cleveland filled with food and clothes, and when there is a disaster anywhere in the world I’m going to fly there in my Learjet and help the people. I don’t want to fight no more.” It sounded good, but the new life was not to be.

For Leon, the old life resumed. He hit the bars after the final bell and kept on partying for years. He last resembled a viable heavyweight contender in 1980, when he knocked out Bernardo Mercado. Larry Holmes made quick work of him the following year. Leon later campaigned as a cruiserweight, a good choice for a small heavyweight in an era of expanding bodies, but he finished with a won-loss record that only a hockey team would envy: 26-17-3. He suffers from brain trauma today, but he has Brenda by his side, as devoted a wife as any fighter has ever had.


Late at night, about a year ago, I was lucky to get a cab home from the train station in a driving rain. The cabbie was a heavyset guy whom I’d traveled with before, an actor—he had a few credits on The Sopranos—and jack of all trades. He was always good company. He did most of the talking, but I didn’t mind: if I was in his car, that meant that it was late, and listening suited me fine.

I don’t remember how it came up.

“You wanna know something? I got a friend knocked out Leon Spinks in one round. Can you believe that?”

“Who’s your friend?” I couldn’t imagine that it was Gerrie Coetzee.

“John Carlo. Good pal. Yeah, he knocked out Spinks in one round. You can look it up.”

John Carlo, okay.” I made a mental note.

“Spinks was champ once—he beat Muhammad Ali.”

“I know it.”

“A lot of people forget that.”

“They do.”

“So I tell my friend, ‘Hey, whatever else happens—you beat the champ!’ Not many people can say that.”

Hardly anyone can.