Dressed in a black rubber shirt, Leon Spinks stepped out of the sauna, sighed wearily and dropped onto a small seat next to the hot tub. The former Olympic gold medalist—and the last undisputed heavyweight champion of the world—was caught in the eternal struggle waged by most aging prizefighters.
Here it was, last Friday afternoon and less than 24 hours before his scheduled title fight against Dwight Qawi, the WBA's junior heavyweight champion, in Reno, and the 32-year-old Spinks was working to sweat six pounds off his already lean frame. The weigh-in was only three hours away. Beads of sweat poured off him, running down his brow and neck and soaking the knit collar of the sweatshirt he wore under the rubber top. He dabbed at his brow with a towel, looked down between his knees and closed his eyes, his face for the moment impassive.
In the ashtray next to the hot tub, just lying there grinning, were the fighter's false teeth, at one time the most celebrated bridge in America outside of the Brooklyn and the Golden Gate. Now Leon flashed that wonderful, toothless smile, the one that had prompted Muhammad Ali to call him The Vampire and was to become the emblem of Spinks's free-spirited freshness in a sport overrun by bums wearing bulletproof smirks and diamond pinkie rings.
"I haven't had sex in two months!" said Leon, as if announcing some sort of personal record. "I'm going to do my best to win. I'm not going to take any ass-whippin'."
"He'll fool everybody," said Dave Collins, Spinks's trainer.
"I won the Olympics a long time ago, but my name is still up there," Leon said. "It was my choice to start this comeback from the bottom. I'm in more control of my life now. It's hard to get to the top once. When you fall down from up there, it's twice as hard to get back up again."
Spinks peeled off the rubber shirt. Pointing at his new co-manager, Marv Haupt, Spinks said, "Even he didn't believe it! They all thought my comeback was bull. I thought of quitting a few times, but when [my brother] Michael won the heavyweight title, I said, 'What the hell' and decided to stay with it. We can make it. And this time we're going to try to do it right."
Ah, yes, the promise to do it right this time around. So here sits Leon, sweating it out in the Grand Central Sauna & Hot Tub Co. in Reno on the day before he will fight for a championship again. Behind him, his turbulent career lay in a twilight ruin of time, and here he was struggling to put it all back together again. His ring career aside, here was a man whose life had become a shambles.
It was in 1976 that Spinks and four of his Olympic teammates—Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis, Leo Randolph and Michael Spinks—won Olympic gold medals in Montreal and returned home as heroes to parades and ticker tape. It was eight years ago last Feb. 15 that Spinks, in one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history, took the heavyweight title from Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas in his eighth fight as a professional. Seven months later, Ali would regain the title in New Orleans, but this child of the St. Louis ghettos had already had a rich payday: $4 million.
That money is gone. So are all the other purses earned in the following six years by the man they nicknamed Neon Leon. So is the black mink coat. And the cars. And the entourages. He went through an expensive divorce in 1982, and then lost almost all that he owned after that. Last spring, said Haupt, the bank evicted Spinks from his $125,000 house in the Rosedale Park section of Detroit for failing to make his mortgage payments. Thomas Hearns ended up buying the house for $55,000.