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The night seemed endless and empty in Des Moines, Iowa, and for Leon Spinks it offered no answers. Prowling through his dimly lit hotel suite, he paused at a window and peered out at the blackness. But his search was inward; he was looking for himself. A few days earlier, he had enjoyed little celebrity. Although he had won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics and was undefeated in seven professional fights, if he was recognized in public, and he seldom was, it was mainly because of his black gunfighter's hat and his picket-fence smile. And then, shockingly, thunderously, he had defeated Muhammad Ali to become the heavyweight champion of the world, and he no longer knew who he was.
Turning from the window, he took a deep breath. "People ask, 'Who is Leon Spinks?' " he said. "It is a question I have been asking myself all my life. I didn't know who I was, but I knew I wanted to be somebody, I wanted to do something. I was tired of being a nobody, of having nothing, of having nowhere to go. All my friends were becoming dope pushers, drug addicts. My friends were being killed and they were going to jail. I knew there had to be something better for Leon Spinks. One day when I was 15 I walked out of our building and I heard that a friend of mine had been killed. I heard that another friend of mine had been locked up. I looked around me. I looked at where I lived, and how I lived. Right then I got the strong feeling that I wanted to do something with my life. No, not just wanted. I knew I had to do something with my life that my people had never done before. My generation of people stayed in trouble all the time. I wanted the name of Spinks to mean something besides dirt."
While Leon Spinks, who is now 24, was growing up in the meanest of ghettos in St. Louis, a bouncy, chatty teen-ager named Butch Lewis was emerging from an upper-middle-class environment in New Jersey. He settled into a comfortable, if unexciting, career as a used-car salesman. One day the paths of the two men would cross, and at that improbable intersection would lie the heavyweight championship of the world.
Born two months prematurely, Leon Spinks weighed less than four pounds at birth. Two weeks later he developed yellow jaundice and nearly died. And from that bleak beginning, everything seemed to go downhill.
The Spinkses lived at 2351 Biddle St., on the eighth floor of one of 45 identical 11-story buildings in the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project, an experiment in low-income housing. The experiment failed. Twelve years after it was built the city dynamited the project and blew it into dust.
The neighborhood was an arena of crime and angry passions. The strong ruled the streets; the weak huddled behind locked doors. A sickly child suffering from low blood pressure and fainting spells, Leon was a favorite target of roving street gangs. Deserted by her husband, Mrs. Kay Spinks raised her children—six boys and one girl—largely on a monthly welfare check of $135. Dinners were corn bread and government-surplus peanut butter. The meals were followed by hours of reading the Bible.
"All the time Mama was reading The Book to us," Spinks says. "Before I left home she had read The Book to us twice. I have to admit that at first we didn't listen. But then we began to hear what she was reading. There are still a lot of passages that I can quote. I learned them because I believed them. I'm religious because I believe in God. God leads my future. He gave me my title, and tomorrow He can take it back. God makes you suffer, but He makes you suffer for a very good reason. Whatever happens to me, it is God's will."
Spinks' brother Michael, now 21 and an unbeaten light heavyweight with seven victories, remembers how they suffered on the streets of Pruitt-Igoe. "There was one gang that just hung around our house waiting for us to come," says Michael. He is taller than his brother, but not as muscular through the upper body. "They'd always jump on Leon because he was the oldest. They'd call him ugly. They were trying to rob him, take his money. What little there was. He'd fight back, but there were always too many of them. I'd be on the side throwing my little stones, but it didn't do no good. Sometimes they'd beat me up, too. Then we'd both go home with our clothes tore off."
"Sometimes I'd fight back," Leon says, "but when we were younger there were always too many guys fighting us at one time. You can fight one guy, maybe two; but you can't take on a whole gang. I took my lumps. When I got older I'd walk away from a fight on the street. A guy had to hit me twice before I'd fight. I wasn't afraid of being hurt but of what I would do. My mama raised me that way: to keep the peace. If I hurt some dude bad, then I'd feel bad. It's no way to live.
"My mama, I love her so deeply I cannot find the words to express it. I want to protect her so much it hurts. She gave so much of herself to us. I want to give back as much as I can. Now when I hear people talk against me, it just makes me try that much harder. I came out of that ghetto to prove to the world that I was me, Leon Spinks, a success. I want people to love me as Leon Spinks, not as Leon Spinks the heavyweight champion of the world. There is more to me than just plain boxing. I want the world to accept me as myself, as a person, not just as a fighter."