Just when all seemed lost, Lewis happened to spot a small item in a Dec. 31 newspaper. It said that Leon Spinks, the Olympic champion, had been issued a traffic ticket for driving with a suspended license. The ticket had been issued in Des Moines. Lewis was on the next plane to Iowa.
"Here it is, New Year's Eve, and I'm the only guy on a plane flying to Des Moines," Lewis says. "I didn't know where Leon was in Des Moines. Hell, I wasn't even sure he was there."
The next morning Lewis rented a car, asked directions to the black neighborhood and drove to an active corner. There, leaning out of the window of his car, he kept asking, "Hey, do you know Leon Spinks, the guy who won the gold medal? Have you seen him?"
Finally, incredibly, Lewis located a youngster who said he had seen Spinks coming out of a house just a few hours earlier. Lewis had found his missing fighter. However, Spinks said he didn't want to fight, that he needed some time off. But Lewis can be persuasive. The next day the two of them were on a plane to Wilmington, Del., where Lewis lives. The next morning, Lewis had Spinks out running.
Fortunately, Spinks' first opponent was Lightning Bob Smith, a butcher's helper from Brooklyn, who had lost his only three fights, two of them by knockouts. Spinks knocked Smith out in the fifth round.
"That was one of the happiest moments of my life," Lewis says. "Leon had trained for only 11 days. I was scared to death he was going to run out of gas."
There were six more fights to go before Ali: Spinks scored four more knockouts, fought a dismal 10-round draw with Scott LeDoux and then won a 10-round decision against Alfio Righetti.
Sam Solomon, the champion's 62-year-old trainer, can't remember how many fights he had between the mid-'30s and the early '40s. As an amateur and semipro welterweight, he barnstormed the world, often fighting in tents or at small social clubs. Some of his summers were spent as a catcher in the Negro National League, playing for $7.50 a game. In both jobs the pay was small and the lumps were large.
A short man, round and bald, Solomon is filled with soft laughter and sparkling tales of times long dead. When not training Spinks—he once trained Sonny Liston, Ernie Terrell and, for a short time, Muhammad Ali—he helps his wife Edith manage their Laundromat and apartment house in Philadelphia.
A punctual man, Solomon agonizes over Spinks' casual disregard of the passage of time. One early evening last week Spinks borrowed Solomon's car, leaving his trainer at the Laundromat with a promise to return within the hour. At 4 a.m. Solomon gave up and went home.