Thirty: Or, Let Neon Light Up Beale Street

By Michael Katz


Thirty: Or, Let Neon Light Up Beale Street

This could be my last column for - no applause, please - the topic of the day is one of my favorite fighters because character is what this game is all about. Leon Spinks is a character, sure, Neon Leon with the big gap-toothed grin and problems with power steering and power women. But he is also one of the purest hearts in the world and it's good to hear that this weekend, he's back in the game. For the first time, he will be in the corner of his son, Cory (The Next Generation) Spinks, for the kid's somewhat quixotic attempt to take Jermain Taylor's middleweight title in Memphis.

Memphis is a good town for Leon's reappearance. There's a square, which back in the day, led the league in the sales of slaves, but there's also the national civil rights museum and most people probably don't know this, but Leon Spinks was a foot soldier, hell, a Marine, in the war against bigotry. I would love to walk around the museum again, this time to see Leon's reaction to the room where Dr. King was assassinated, the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and gently remind him of his blow for freedom.

It came after he lost the heavyweight championship back to Muhammad Ali and Bob Arum, who wanted to promote that rematch in apartheid-polluted South Africa, paid off Ali to announce his retirement so he could hold a “tournament” to decide the successor. Arum had outbid Don King to sign two white South African heavyweights, Gerrie Coetzee and Kallie Knoetze. Arum's “mother lode,” though, was in the Bophutotswana resort of Sun City. This was the apartheid government's attempt to set up Bantustans, or phony “homelands,” for the “colored” races so they couldn't claim South African citizenship. The South Africans, a great sporting nation that had been kicked out of the Olympics and even international rugby and cricket, were willing to pay any price to get back on the world sporting stage through heavyweight boxing.

Arum had his “better-than-Joe-Louis” John Tate play Sun City, where he knocked out Knoetze. But Spinks refused to go and Arum had to stick his bout with Coetzee in a parking lot beneath the castle in Monte Carlo. Spinks got knocked out in the opening round - Arum promptly dumped him - and I'll never forget the plane loads of South Africans surrounding the mobile trailer that served as Leon's dressing room, shaking it and chanting “kaffir, kaffir,” the N-word in Boer.

I haven't seen much of Leon in recent years, but it was nice reading that he was working as a janitor somewhere in the prairie, doubling up by toiling at MacDonalds, but mainly doing volunteer work with kids. I'll never forget one summer night in an otherwise closed ski resort in Michigan, where he was training for his challenge of Larry Holmes, that I saw a light on in the closed bar. There was Leon, beneath the glow of the television set, watching Benny Hill, one of his favorite comedians. I asked him if it bothered him that comics often made cheap jokes at his expense. “Mike,” he said, “sometimes I cry myself to sleep.”

A couple of the old Detroit trainers who worked with them back then told me that the reason Leon was always getting in trouble in the worst kind of dives was that he didn't think he was good enough to drink in nicer places. I don't think either of us drink any more - the morning after losing to Coetzee, he insisted my wife and I join him for Drambouie and Cokes at the bar in San Remo, Italy, where we were staying - but I would make an exception if he were to join me for a Yoo-Hoo at the Hotel de Paris in Monte.

As usual, I find myself rooting for his kid, who has accepted his oft-absentee father back in his life. This is nothing against Jermain Taylor, a class act in his own right. But I might have more than a rooting interest in Cory Spinks when I turn on HBO this weekend. Taylor, at minus $8 (to win $1) is a prohibitive favorite while young Spinks, at plus $5 or so, seems like good value.

Of course the former welterweight champion, and current junior middleweight ruler, is too small for Taylor, a rather strong middleweight who is contemplating moving up to fight at supermiddle and light-heavy.

But then again, the family tree has often produced too-small fruit and how do you like them apples? Back in the winter of 1977-78, Tom Kenville was working for Bob Arum - yes, Tom deserved better - and was dispatched to drive the New York Times boxing writer up to the Catskills to cover Spinks's training camp. Kenville was the center fielder, I was the catcher on the New York Times softball team in the Broadway Show League, and yes, we could have been stronger up the middle, and I mentioned to my old teammate that Ali was ready to go and Spinks, the 1976 Olympic champion with only seven pro fights, had the kind of hustling, pressuring type of style that Ali had trouble with at this stage.

Tommy thought it would do wonders for the promotion if the New York Times would pick Leon (the Times had a rule about reporters making predictions, but there were other ways of beating a darkhorse). Remember, this was the time Ali decided there was no way he could sell a fight and promised to button his lips during the buildup (oh, would others please follow).

We watched Leon, and his kid brother Michael, run on the black-cinder trotting track at nearby Monticello Raceway. It started to snow and Michael quickly sought shelter as Leon continued running (I was always under the belief that if Leon could have remained heavyweight champion, Michael would have gladly sacrificed his own boxing career to head up the entourage, I mean, he didn't exactly burn with desire). Kenville looked at me. I was shaking my head.

“What's the matter?” he said.

“How the hell can I pick a light-heavyweight to beat Muhammad Ali? He's just too small.”

I've often had a problem with size. I remember an editor at the Times predicting Olympian Evander Holyfield would one day become heavyweight champion. I said I doubted if he would become a heavyweight. Said the same thing when Cus D'Amato first introduced “the future heavyweight champion of the world” to me, a 16-year-old Mike Tyson.

Maybe I've learned something over the years. Leon Spinks was plenty big enough to beat a faded Muhammad Ali; Micheal Spinks was big enough to give Larry Holmes fits and get two decisions, undeserved or not. Cory Spinks is in with a big chance against Jermain Taylor.

Spinks will be the third southpaw in a row that Taylor has faced. First, he was lucky to get a draw against Winky Wright. Then, against another guy moving up from junior middle, Kassim Ouma, he retreated his way to victory. Spinks is a whole new category.

Wright stands in front of you and picks off your punches. Ouma charges from all sorts of angles, always under the cover of fire. Spinks will not be so accommodating. He will be here, he will be there and Taylor, whose balance has long been questionable, will have trouble reaching him.

Emanuel Steward replaced Patrick Burns in Taylor's corner after the close calls with Bernard Hopkins, but I haven't detected any improvement in the champion's posture. As has often been said, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't change a leopard's spots.

Don't think the Next Generation doesn't have a chin, either. His one stoppage, in the rematch to Zab Judah, came while he was going through a divorce and I'm inclined to believe he will be able to take a few of the stronger Taylor's blows as long as they don't arrive in combinations. Taylor, for all his apparent power, does not knock out opponents. His last KO came 27 months ago against Daniel Edouard. Of course, Spinks doesn't hit as well as his beloved St. Louis Cardinals, who don't hit at all; Cory's last knockout came six years ago.

He is a defensive specialist and I loved the way he handled the big-swinging Ricardo Mayorga, making him miss and then punishing him. It could be déjà vu all over again in Memphis. It may be fashionable for my colleagues to refer to the semifinal between middleweight bangers Edison Miranda and Kelly Pavlik as the “real” main event, denigrating Taylor-Spinks as the “walkout” bout. Yes, they have great nicknames (Pantera, or Panther, for Miranda; Ghost for Pavlik) and records 28-1 with 24 knockouts for Miranda, 30-0 with 27 KO's for Pavlik), but I don't think they are anywhere the same skill levels.

The lean here is to Miranda, at minus $1.80, because I don't know what Arum matchmaker Bruce Trampler knows about Pavlik (plus $1.50) that we don't or else why has he carefully kept someone with a rich amateur background out of real fights as a pro?

But my real hope is that Leon Spinks has a night to make Beale Street talk for years to come.

REDUX: Watched the replay on HBO and must admit I may have been off on my eight rounds to four scoring for Floyd Mayweather Jr. Don't see how I could have given Oscar de la Hoya the third round and I'm not even sure about the seventh. In other words, though Mayweather was far from dazzling, it wasn't close.

PENTHOUSE:  I think I should thank the many writers who influenced me over the years, from the obvious - Shakespeare, Marvell, Joyce, Hemingway and Liebling - to my many mentors on the beat:

Barney Nagler, Vic Ziegel, Pat Putnam, Bob Waters, Fast Eddie Schuyler, Red Smith, Dave Anderson, Larry Merchant, Ken Jones and good old Al, as in “et al.”

I'm not exactly announcing my retirement (how could I tell, anyway?),  but I love Social Security.

OUTHOUSE: Greg Leon has been bugging me to put him in the PENTHOUSE. This is as close as you get. Leon says economics could make this my last column for I believe the Wolfman Be Saved club (or WBS) should put desperate pressure on Leon and you can read them here first:

Write your congressman.

Ring his doorbell and run.

Send money to Save the Children.

Support mental health.

Send him audio tapes, with the decibels turned way up, of Harold Lederman explaining the ten-point scoring system.

Of course, none of this means I would return.

I can always get a job putting jelly in jelly donuts.


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