“Neon” Leon Spinks Today: A Tragic Sight

By James Slater: “Oh my God, that was Leon Spinks,” unknown fight fan, Las Vegas, May 5th 2012

Ever since I’ve been interested in boxing I’ve found the Leon Spinks story to be a fascinating thing. I’m too young to remember Spinks’ 1976 gold medal glory at the Montreal Olympics, and I’m too young to remember the gap-toothed warriors’ upset win over the great Muhammad Ali that came two years later.

But over the years, beginning in the late-1980s, I’ve read about Spinks, I’ve watched a lot of his fights and I’ve seen him on T.V. Something of a hero, not just to me but to many fight fans the world over, Spinks sticks in my mind mostly as a guy who is a walking, living example of all the bad things that can happen to a pro boxer. Spinks, as has been well documented, lost all of his money long ago, and his mental and physical health have been in question for years.

I had the privilege (though it was far from a pleasure) of meeting Spinks for a brief moment in time during my recent May 5th through May 12th visit to Las Vegas. It was the day of the Floyd Mayweather-Miguel Cotto super-fight that I ran into Leon. I myself had not noticed the former heavyweight king, not until a random fan blurted out the above quote. Approaching the 58-year-old and his aid from the side, I immediately saw that Leon was struggling to walk in a straight line.

Limping badly, his left leg betraying him noticeably, Leon’s arms were dangling by his sides. It was a tragic and very sad sight. Not wanting to leap in and bother him, I instead asked his female aid if I could shake the champ’s hand. She replied that, yes, I could, but photos would only be available later that weekend, at a sports memorabilia store along the Vegas strip. I introduced myself to Leon, and told the former Champ that it was a great pleasure to meet him (even though, in truth it wasn’t). Leon shook my hand limply and tried to say something. I couldn’t make out the slurred response, but Leon’s famously wide grin was at least something of a comforting sight.

How much Leon knows of what is going on around him I cannot say, yet the former heavyweight ruler seems to know he is recognised by people. His aid, and perhaps others around him, know this too, and they also know his autograph and his image are worth money. It is by public appearances alone that Spinks (and Ken Norton, who I also met in Vegas, Kenny in a bad way himself, largely due to his horrific 1986 car smash) makes money - at least it is hoped he sees some of the cash his lingering fame continues to scrape in.

They say it’s never all that great meeting one of your heroes, that your lofty expectations will be let down; either due to your idol acting like a jerk or due to your hero not being as special as you thought. With Leon, although he is far from an idol of mine, it was simply a heartbreaking experience meeting the man in the flesh. The sight of him try his best to navigate the lobby area of The MGM Grand brought a tear to my eye, and Leon’s blank stare accompanied by his simple grin made me feel like simply hugging the poor guy - a fighting man who gave way, way more than he should have in the ring. The past stories I’d read about Leon being ruthlessly exploited also flooded into my mind.

Larry Holmes, who destroyed Spinks in a 1981 WBC title defence, always said Leon would “wind up driving a Cadillac with cornflakes for brains and $25 in his pocket.” Larry’s words have been borne out; although I’m not sure Leon has the Cadillac these days.

Leon Spinks: 1976 Olympic Gold medallist, light-heavyweight. 1978 world heavyweight champion. Final record: 26-17-3(14). Faced Ali (twice) Holmes, Scott LeDoux, Gerrie Coetzee, Bernardo Mercado, Carlos De Leon, Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Randal “Tex” Cobb.

Article posted on 15.05.2012

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