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Leon Spinks: “Heart of Gold”

By Scoop Malinowski

1978 was the beginning of my love affair with boxing. Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” sparked the interest to look at the real sport and then the likes of Ken Norton, Roberto Duran, George Foreman, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes, Leon Spinks and many others sustained the fascination to the present day.

Leon Spinks was one of the first ones I adored. For some reason his two fifteen round fights with Muhammad Ali and the way he conducted himself were very appealing. There was something about his sincerity and class that touched my heart. It’s hard to put into words. Part of it was awe that he had beaten Muhammad Ali with amazing boxing but maybe more so was the honorable way in which he did it with humility and honor. Spinks suddenly became an enormous figure and there was something about his character that inpsired a feeling of sympathy too.

Spinks lost the rematch in front of about 80,000 people in the Superdome in New Orleans, with Howard Cosell calling the historic action which resulted in Ali winning the title for the third time.

Around that time our household in Packanack Lake, Wayne, NJ got a female cat and I named her Spinks. She was an extremely friendly and affectionate cat, and also a mother of many rounds of kittens for many years.

I kept on following Leon Spinks and tuned into his first fight after losing to Ali. The opponent would be 21-0 Gerrie Coetzee in June 1979, in Monte Carlo, Monaco. I still remember exactly where I watched it on NBC (Dick Enberg and Ken Norton commentating) at my uncle Lou’s cabin in Pennsylvania. Spinks got shocked in the first round by the unknown South African. It was a devastating loss but Leon bounced back and beat Alfredo Evangelista, Kevin Isaac and Bernard Mercado and suddenly got a title shot vs. Larry Holmes in Detroit in June 1981. Again, Spinks would be out of his league and he got caught early and lost in the first round. It was horrifying and almost traumatic to watch a hero lose like that.

I got into writing for boxing magazines in the early 1990s and finally met Leon in 1997 in Atlantic City. It was a surprise to see him in the crowd in Convention Hall before the Lennox Lewis- Andrew Golota world title fight.

I approached Spinks, who was dressed in a dark suit, standing by himself in the crowd, between fights, and asked if he would do an interview with me. He kindly agreed and we did this Biofile.

We never would cross paths again. Except at a future fight card in Atlantic City, a photographer from Chicago and I were discussing Spinks. He loved Spinks too and shared with me the following story which I find even more impressive than his victory over “The Greatest”…

I will retell it because it’s unforgettable. Spinks was at the International Boxing Hall of Fame for one of the induction weekends in the early 2000s. During the weekend’s events Leon agreed to go to a local hospital and visit some of the patients in need of care, for Induction weekend publicity purposes I guess.

The boxing group met many patients and hospital workers. There was one woman patient who really wanted to meet Leon Spinks, she was evidently a huge fan of his. Leon of course agreed and was accomodated to her room along with the photographer and a few others. The woman was a quadriplegic but her dream came true, she actually got to meet the man who defeated Muhammad Ali and won the world heavyweight championship.

Later after the visit in the hospital had concluded, the photographer told me he was leaving the hospital and walking in the parking lot outside. He suddenly heard a strange noise coming from behind some cars, like the sounds of a man crying in extreme anguish. It was Leon Spinks sitting on the curb by himself, crying like a baby.

I still remember how the photographer finished the story with the last sentence, “…Leon Spinks has a heart of gold.”

The man with the heart of gold passed away this week at 67.

About Scoop Malinowski

Author of six books including "Muhammad Ali: Portrait of a Champion" and "Heavyweight Armageddon: The Lewis versus Tyson Championship Battle" available at amazon