Spinks trying to shake obscurity


WASHINGTON -- Save for the new chin whiskers and more scar tissue around the eyes, the face of Leon Spinks, former heavyweight champion of the world, was unmistakable as he sat restlessly in a hotel lobby, two days before today's scheduled 10-round bout with journeyman John Carlo at the D.C. Convention Center.

It was this tragicomic face with the gap-toothed grin that inspired talk show hosts to use Spinks as their favorite punching bag in the late 1970s after he managed to win and lose the title to Muhammad Ali in a matter of three months.

The older of the fighting Spinks brothers from St. Louis was treated more as a curiosity than a celebrity. His habit of driving the wrong way down one-way streets fueled comics' routines. His former bodyguard, Mr. T, would become richer and more famous.

Because of his penchant for living in the fast lane, close to $1 million slipped through Spinks' fingers in a matter of months after Ali frustrated him in their rematch in 1978.

As Ali said: "When I became champion the first time, it took several years, and I kind of knew what to expect. But Leon came out of the ghetto into fame almost overnight, winning the title after only seven pro fights. He just didn't know how to handle the situation."

Spinks, 41, has spent the past 16 years in boxing's twilight zone, trying to regain his brief moment of glory.

An unsuccessful bid to win the cruiserweight crown from Dwight Qawi in 1986 began a long slide into obscurity. He would lose seven of his next nine fights, being stopped by pugs named Rockie Sekorski, Angelo Musone and Tony Morrison.

During several lengthy layoffs, he would try his hand as a Detroit bartender or at jobs in which promoters hoped his once-familiar name might attract a few extra customers.

Asked once where his life was heading, Spinks replied, "No one finds himself, 'cause if he finds himself, he knows the future."

The immediate future for Spinks is fighting. The combination of a family tragedy and the lure of the ring has him joining former champions George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Roberto Duran in boxing's growing over-40 set.

"Boxing is still in my blood," Spinks said. "I still have a dream of becoming a champion again. I'm not worried about money now, just to keep fighting until the big chance comes."

In recent years, he had been content to watch the progress of his three teen-age sons, Leon Jr., Darryl and Tommy, as amateur boxers.

"Leon Jr. was the best, a real prospect," said trainer Charles Hamm, now training the father.

Four years ago, Leon Jr., then 20, was killed in a drive-by shooting in East St. Louis.

"I think that was what drew Leon back to boxing," said present manager Charles Farrell. "After losing Leon, he wanted to stay closer to Darryl and Tommy."

Farrell said that Spinks, who once took to training as kids do to spinach, is not simply going through the motions.

"I don't think he was serious about it before," Farrell said. "He never really got himself in shape. But this time it is no novelty act. We're planning on getting him four or five fights in rapid order to test him. If he survives, we're talking seriously about a big-money match with Holmes.

"After that, there's all kinds of possibilities. [World Boxing Council champion] Oliver McCall is almost as old as Leon. [International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Association king] Michael Moorer doesn't even want to be champ. Leon just has to stay focused."

For Leon Spinks, fighting always came naturally.

"The toughest part ain't inside the ring," he said. "Outside, someone's always trying to hurt you. But you're never sure who it is."

Spinks headed for the hotel elevator. All the laugh lines in his face had vanished.

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