February 13, 1978 12:00 PM

‘The man knows,’ says Spinks, ‘he’s gettin’ old’

On February 15 Leon Spinks’ body will be greased with Albolene, his hands wrapped with gauze and adhesive and his shoulders draped with a burnt-orange satin robe bearing his name in black—his favorite color. He will shadowbox in silence, then emerge from his dressing room in the Las Vegas Hilton Pavilion to face a murmuring crowd of 5,400 and Muhammad Ali.

The chances are very good that between rounds 1 and 15, Spinks, his face swollen and body aching, will hear Ali proclaimed winner and still heavyweight champion. But, at 24, Spinks has little to lose.

He has much to gain—for one thing, a purse of $320,000, or what’s left after he pays his retinue. (Ali will get $3.6 million.) Spinks also realizes that a defeat would not seriously affect his standing among the contenders (Ring magazine ranks him ninth) and that at age 36 Ali is unlikely to wound anything but his pride. “When you lose, you feel like Mama just took your last piece of candy,” Spinks says, adding, “but when you win, you say, ‘I be sweet to the whole world.’ ”

Inevitably, Spinks insists he can beat Ali. “You got to have a killer instinct,” he explains. “I got it from being tired of a lot of guys jumping me.” Fighting was part of survival in the St. Louis slum where Spinks grew up, the oldest of seven children. “We were real poor,” he recalls. “Mama was always trying to get enough food for us.” (His parents separated when he was young.) Though Leon dreamed of being a lifeguard, he learned welding at Versailles High instead. “After school,” he recalls, “I hung out, watchin’ my friends gettin’ killed and goin’ to jail. I expected more out of my life—so I joined the jive Marines, like a damn fool.”

He started boxing seriously at Camp Lejeune, N.C. after his reputation as a troublemaker kept him in boot camp for six months. He won three all-Marine and other amateur titles and got married before his discharge in 1976. His wife, Nova, already had a son, Charles.

Spinks won the Olympic light heavyweight gold medal in Montreal that same year. During the adulation that followed, Ali (an Olympic champ himself) telephoned. “Ali was talkin’ crazy, like he always do,” Leon recalls, “say-in’, ‘I’m bad. I’m gonna get you.’ It made me feel good! Ali’s still the greatest in my book.” Spinks adds, “But I’ll go in there trying to kill him. And he’ll be trying to murderize me!”

Though Leon has a reputation for malingering at training camp, he has lately been rising at 7, running five miles and working out to the Rocky theme. (Since he turned pro in January 1977 he has fought seven no-name opponents: six wins—five knockouts—one draw.) Spinks fortifies himself with vitamins and “foods that don’t have gases,” plays shuffleboard, listens to Santana and contemplates his future. “I’m in boxing for my pride,” he explains, “but I’d like to make money to live good.” That means a piece of land, a Lincoln Continental Mark V and “a house for my Mama. If I’m a big-time millionaire at 25,” he muses, “I’ll throw my gloves up and kick them bye-bye. I ain’t gainin’ anything if I go into the ring for more money and get my brains beat out. I want to put my feet up, have me a quart of beer and watch The Gong Show.”

Meanwhile he is conscious of the sacrifices his profession demands. “I haven’t had a woman in seven weeks,” he moans. (Nova, 25, and Charles, 9, have been living in Des Moines with relatives.) He has no home, only 55 ashtrays from his life on the road. Then there is the pain of being hit very hard by very strong men. “It hurts bad,” he says matter-of-factly. “Each time you get hit you think, if I can just stand up one more minute, that’s cool.”

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