What gives with these frogs? Four o'clock in the morning, and they are raising clamorous hosannas to a pair of automobile headlights that illuminate the parking lot. Drunk on dew, singing a mad chorus, the frogs carry on as the lights go out. For a long moment the car idles in a puddle of moonlight. Then the engine dies, the door opens and out steps the heavyweight champion of the world. He has just spent several hours in a joint appropriately called the Ribbett Room and is full of dew himself. He stands amid the din and croaks loudly to the frogs.
As befits his station, the champ is dressed in one of the many handsome ensembles that choke the closets of his rented villa. But he is feeling good, and as he walks through the deserted parking lot he begins to pick up momentum. By the time he reaches the nearby road, he is running. As he moves more quickly, if a bit erratically, the champ's breathing becomes heavy. His pulse begins to quicken and the song of the frogs fills his head. Leon Spinks, the frog who would be heavyweight king, gathers speed and disappears into the night.
As he began serious training last week for his Sept. 15 return bout with Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks was still on the run, still waiting for someone to turn him into a handsome prince. While Ali taunted him for being "too ugly to be the champion," Spinks remained more or less in the seclusion of his Hilton Head, S.C. training camp. Since Feb. 15, when he upset Ali to win the heavyweight title, Spinks has seemed distracted, confused and frequently depressed by his sudden celebrity. "Leon wants to be the same person he was before he became the champion," says his wife Nova. "He doesn't understand why people won't just let him be Leon." The champ reluctantly acknowledges this. "I want everybody to love me," Spinks says, "but I gotta be me."
Regrettably, Spinks has discovered that though he may have been a nobody six months ago, and had every intention of remaining a nobody, the heavyweight championship of the world is a kind of high office with attendant responsibilities, one that Ali elevated to new heights. In 14 years on the world stage, Ali gave lectures at Oxford, consorted with kings and imposed an unrealistic set of expectations on his eventual successor. Last month, while Leon Spinks was dancing in a discotheque with quarters jammed in his ears, Ali was in Moscow, deep in conversation with Leonid Brezhnev at the Kremlin.
"People may be disappointed because I'm not Ali." Spinks says. "But times change and the world changes; now I'm the champion. People want the-heavyweight champion to fit a certain image, and they're afraid I'm nothing but a dumb nigger. But I'm just Leon."
Being "just Leon" seems to involve periodically climbing into one of his new cars and driving off in search of a place where all the lawyers and accountants and reporters can't find him. Usually Spinks heads for large urban centers like Philadelphia, Cleveland or Detroit, diving into them as if they were foxholes that remind him of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in which he grew up in St. Louis. Wherever he goes, Spinks travels in style. Among his recent purchases have been a $45,000 Lincoln limousine complete with TV and bar, an $18,000 Cadillac Seville and a $15,000 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
"Sometimes I got to swoop." Spinks says, stretching his arms out like a big blackbird. "Everybody's making plans for me all the time, but what they don't understand is that I ain't going to let nobody plan my life for me. So I just swoop. I look at Butch [personal aide and bodyguard Marvin Woolfork Jr.] and I say, 'Gotta gooooooo.' When I'm alone I can be free, got no cares, and I don't have to think about my job. Don't have to think about nothin'."
Though these flights from reality are hard on Leon's wife, who spent several long evenings in Hilton Head last week not knowing where her husband was, she concedes they are necessary. "When Leon gets too much pressure put on him." says Nova, "he just takes off. He needs solitude to sort it all out."
In addition to being perhaps the first boxer ever to refer to the heavyweight championship as "my job," Spinks also is one of the few successful athletes whose money does not seem to be able to separate him from poverty. "I'm a ghetto nigger—people shouldn't forget that about me," he says. "You can take the nigger out of the ghetto, but you can't take the ghetto out of the nigger. One of the great things about Ali was the things he did for the black man in the white society—but you don't never see no Ali down in the ghetto. When I swoop, I go to the neighborhoods and give those people a chance to see the heavyweight champion of the world on their own ground."
While he is mistaken about Ali's ghetto visits, whatever swooping does for Spinks' disposition, it wreaks considerable havoc on the training schedule for his rematch with Ali at the New Orleans Superdome. His "training camp." really nothing more than a big bare-walled room in the back of the Hilton Head Community Playhouse, has been open since June 1, but the champ avoided the place for nearly a month before he began regular workouts. Twice he had come to Hilton Head to start work, and twice he had gone over the hill. Both times, someone from the entourage had to track him down and bring him back. When Lester Hudson, one of his lawyers, found Spinks in Detroit late last month, the champ had not slept in three days.