By John Lepak
*Originally published UCN Live - aprx 2016
“NEON” LEON SPINKS – Detroit’s Adopted Son
It was March 22, 1986 - the morning of Leon Spinks last shot a world title. He spent the day before draining himself in the steam room to make the weight limit of 190 pounds in order to challenge Dwight Muhammad Qawi for the WBC cruiserweight title. As the story was told to me by Emanuel Steward, he went to check on Spinks and when he opened up the door to Spinks hotel room, he sees (and I quote) “empty chicken buckets, chicken bones and empty wine bottles littered around the room just as Leon pops up from the bed (where he is accompanied by two women) and says “It’s not what it looks like!”
It was as Sports Illustrated put it, another example of “Leon being Leon”. Although that story was not part of the special feature on Spinks, the article was filled with tales about the man known as “Neon”.
A few years before Leon made his way to Detroit’s Kronk Boxing Gym in 1984, the St. Louis native had already made Detroit his adopted hometown. As he was blowing his $3.5 million dollar payday from the rematch with Muhammad Ali, some of it went on a home in the upscale Detroit neighborhood where Emanuel Steward lived (actually right across the street). One story I was told on one night Steward had to rescue the champ as his wife and her friend were putting a beating on him apparently for buying a girlfriend a car.
Early in the morning hours of January 15, 1981, Spinks was out on the town having drinks at The Last Chance Bar on Woodward Ave. in Detroit wearing his blue fox coat. While Spinks told police he was hit over the head in the official report, the word on the street was Spinks got slipped a mickey and woke up around 1 pm in a nearby “no-tell-motel that afternoon. He was missing all of his clothing, his blue fox coat, his jewelry and cash, totaling around $45,000 in all. Also gone was the bridge that held his two false front teeth as well.
After Spinks was KO’d by Larry Holmes in Detroit in June of 1981, he began training out of The Original Powerhouse Gym on Woodward Ave. and 6 Mile. Back then the weight lifting gym had a small boxing ring in the back where fighters like Hector Camacho, Willie “Sandman” Edwards, Hilmer Kenty, Greg Coverson, Spinks and many more trained.
Old time fight manager Billy Gutz (who once managed champions Lindell Holmes and Bernard Benton) told me that one afternoon he was out playing golf with Frank “Frankie The Bomb” Bommarito (a Detroit underworld LEGEND) and another friend (who shall remain nameless) and they ended up having a few drinks. When Billy got to Powerhouse, Spinks was just wrapping up his workout and as he told me, he was feeling “pretty good” from the cocktails. There was some remodeling going on in the gym and there was a big sheet of drywall. Gutz pulled out his pocket knife and shaved off some drywall into dust, put it in some cellophane paper and handed it to Spinks acting very secretive. He said Spinks returned the next day and thanked him and told him it was “some good shit!”
By 1984 the money, the entourage, the hangers-on were all gone. Next to go was Rosedale Park home as the bank foreclosed on him (Thomas Hearns ended up buying the house for only $55,000). Spinks was down, but not out. He hooked up with Kronk Boxing supporter Sam Lafata and local businessman Marv Haupt where they gave him a $400 weekly stipend, convinced Steward to do them a favor and train Spinks. Thanks to Steward’s influence at the time, Spinks had a series of “club fights” in 1985, winning 5 times earning $45,000. He then landed his shot at Dwight Muhammad Qawi. Leading up to the Qawi fight, Spinks was forced to file for bankruptcy listing $301,303 in debts including; $85,000 to Don King Productions, $18,000 to D’s Fur Works, $500 Detroit Edison and $500 to Detroit Consolidated.
While Spinks will perhaps be remembered more for the crazy stories that happened outside the ring, it should be noted that he was an accomplished amateur with a record of 178-7 and won a Gold Medal in the 1976 Olympics. He went on to become the heavyweight champion of the world when he beat Muhammad Ali in less than 10 fights in a 15 round decision.
Spinks gave people something to cheer about, something to laugh about, but more than all, he gave all he had to a sport that takes far more than it gives to a fighter. At the end of the day, Leon Spinks was a proud veteran of the USMC, an Olympic Gold Medalist (in arguably the greatest Olympic team in history) and a heavyweight champion of the world. Leon Spinks was REAL BOXING.
**In memory of Leon Spinks