One of the strangest experiences I had as a magazine writer was the time I spent with the onetime World Heavyweight Champion Leon Spinks who has died far too young at the age of 67.
When I met up with him, Leon had, to the vast disbelief of everyone, defeated Muhammad Ali for the World Heavyweight Championship. Now he was training for a rematch. In September of 1978, the Chicago Tribune’s magazine dispatched writers to report on both camps. Lucky me, I got Leon.
He was training at a Kutsher’s Country Club, at the time the longest running so-called Borscht-Belt resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. The resort hotel was, to say the least, an odd choice. For the mostly white Jewish clientele, it was as if Leon had landed from another planet (“That guy’s an animal,” snarled one vacationer). For Leon, it was as if he had arrived on another planet.
Any sort of mutual understanding was not helped by Leon’s reticence and downright unfriendliness. His entourage was making half-hearted efforts to polish his image so that he was a more user- friendly heavyweight champion than the uncommunicative, unpredictable kid from the St. Louis projects with a noticeable chip on his shoulder.
There were problems with this attempt at refurbishment so close to the second fight. For one thing, the presence of a pack of sports writers did not make Leon happy—he yelled at and then threw out a disliked hometown reporter from one event, causing outrage among the gathered press.
Everyone assigned to cover him was having difficulty understanding what Leon said even when he did choose to say something. Leon had lost his two front teeth in sparing bouts, causing his speech to slur. Mostly he refused to wear the false teeth that would have made him easier to understand.
We would all gather on Adirondack chairs on the lawn behind the hotel following one of Leon’s press conferences, trying to agree on what it was exactly he had said.
Another problem was simply that Leon refused to listen to anyone. He freely admitted that he was enjoying the money he had finally earned following an impoverished childhood. It was generally believed, he was much more interested in enjoying his wealth than he was in training to win his upcoming fight with Ali—he was being paid over four million dollars, big money in 1978.
Leon, it seemed, was doomed to be Leon, him not liking anyone and everyone not liking him. Still, at barely six feet and weighing in at 195 pounds, he hardly struck an observer as a fearsome heavyweight fighter. Watching him trying to adjust to fame trapped in the foreign culture at Kutsher’s, you couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for a twenty-five-year-old seemingly in way over his head.
There was a vulnerable quality about him that was touching. You could see the loneliness in his eyes and a sadness that on occasion displaced the suspicion and mistrust. He would lean against a doorframe staring forlornly at the swirling crowd in front of him, nuzzling Champ, his tiny poodle, and he was a kid lost in an alien land.
One morning he did manage to inadvertently make a simple human connection. At his improvised gym one morning, in front of a group of hotel guests, Leon was skipping rope, his boom box blasting out, skipping in time to the music, picking up speed as he went along. Leon skipping rope was something to see.
He picked up more speed, skipping faster so that his rope was a blurring arch. Now Leon was dancing to the music as he skipped, a superb show of coordination. Suddenly, a little man in a Budweiser sun hat cried out, “All right! All right!” And the next thing, the late-middle-age white audience was into this, calling out, clapping along in rhythm with the music and Leon’s dancing. Unbelievably Leon began dancing even faster, the audience clapping away with him.
Finally, Leon came to a stop. As he did, onlookers broke into delighted applause, having witnessed a remarkable performance by a superb athlete. Leon, caught in the magic of the moment, was all smiles as he shook hands and posed for pictures. No one around him could believe what they were seeing. Fleetingly, he was not such a stranger in a strange land.
As the lore of boxing records, it did not end well for Leon. Muhammad Ali beat him handily a couple of weeks later in New Orleans. Ali became legend while Leon faded into a footnote until last weekend when his death was reported (his brother Michael did much better, becoming heavyweight champion in 1985, successfully defending his title three times).
As for Kutsher’s, it too faded, and finally closed in 2013. Since then, the hotel itself has been demolished.
A young, angry fighter and the alien landscape upon which he briefly skipped rope, both gone forever.