It all boiled down to that fleeting moment in the second round when the roars drowned out the chants from Leon Spinks' corner and all that seemed left of his career was the sense of ruin he had brought to it. Almost four years after Spinks had won the Olympic light-heavyweight gold medal at Montreal, just two years after he had pummeled Muhammad Ali and borrowed the heavyweight title in Las Vegas, there was Spinks on Saturday afternoon in Atlantic City—trapped in his own corner, frozen and swaying—as Alfredo Evangelista of Spain raked his jutting jaw with left hooks coming off right-hand leads. The cries of Spinks' trainer, Del Williams, were barely audible, as if Williams were howling in a wind tunnel. "Hands up, Lee! Move, Lee! Get out of the corner! Slide, Lee!"
This was what Spinks had feared more than all else. Last June 24, in Monte Carlo, Gerrie Coetzee of South Africa had handed Spinks his most humiliating defeat Disregarding his instructions, which were to box Coetzee through the first few rounds, Spinks had attacked from the opening bell, and Coetzee had seen an opening almost immediately and caught him flush. He knocked Spinks silly, and when Leon got to his feet, Coetzee nailed him again and then put him down a third time to end it in the first round. The experience rattled Spinks. "That was the first time I had ever been down," he said after the Evangelista bout. "Period. I was scared about getting in the ring against Evangelista. A lot of fighters, when they go down once, go down...down...down...They have a streak of downs. I was hurt today, but there wasn't time to be scared. I was just trying to hold myself together, to save myself somehow."
But save himself he did, somehow. Spinks fought his way out of the corner. Bobbing and weaving, his eyes vacant, his lower lip bleeding and his legs wobbling, he moved away swinging. He survived the round. And, as quickly as he seemed to lose his grip on the fight, he won it back. He took over in the third, and picked up the tempo in the fourth. He knocked Evangelista out in the fifth with six unanswered punches—three hooks, a right uppercut, an overhand right and another one that dropped the Spaniard. What made Spinks' victory all the more dramatic—the early beating he had taken aside—was that it was crucial to his career. A loss to Evangelista would have been the final blow to his reputation.
Spinks is 26, but his fight with Evangelista was only his 11th as a professional. He beat Ali in his eighth pro bout. If Saturday underscored his pluck and terrier courage, it also revealed how much he has to learn as a fighter—technically, that is, from slipping and placing punches to protecting his head by raising his hands. Larry Holmes would jab him to shreds, and a banger like Earnie Shavers would find his head an appealing target.
Unlike his 1976 Olympic teammate, WBC welterweight champion Ray Leonard, Spinks was brought to his title fight too quickly for his long-term good—if not for his short-term benefit. He ambushed an aging, unwary Ali to win the championship, but he was unable to handle the pressures that came with the title—the money, the sudden fame, the conflicting advice from family and friends and the incessant demands on his time. There were minor scrapes with the law and bad publicity. Then he trained erratically for the second Ali fight. He would disappear from camp for days on end, seeking to get out of the crush of pressure. Chaos trailed him like a cape. When Ali regained the title from him, Spinks' corner was a cacophony of discordant voices. One handler, George Benton, actually left during the fight and never came back.
If losing the championship was disappointing, the knockout by Coetzee was devastating to Spinks. Until Saturday he had been idle for nearly seven months, trying to come to terms with his failure.
Inside, I didn't accept it," he says. "I was really alone, by myself. I went out and felt sorry for myself. It stayed with me a long time. You get scared. You get afraid. Then a change went through me that never had before. One day I said, 'What the hell, everyone loses. What are you gonna do now? You're still a young man. Can't stop now. A lot of people made the same mistakes you made. Get up, take two steps forward and try again.' "
Spinks took only one step, and actually it was sort of sideways: he signed to fight Evangelista, the former European heavyweight champion with whom Ali once went 15 yawns.
Spinks went into the Evangelista fight with a new trainer, Williams, a man who learned his boxing alongside Joe Louis in Detroit "Now it's different," Spinks said. "I think my head is screwed on straight." If Williams has been in charge of keeping things straight inside the ring, Jerry Sawyer has taken over outside of it. Last July Sawyer resigned from his job as a personal trust officer for the National Bank of Detroit to become Spinks' financial adviser. "I'd like to see Leon in and out of boxing and financially secure as quickly as possible," Sawyer says. "That's our pact."
Not that Spinks, who earned nearly $4 million defending his title against Ali, is strapped. If he wanted to, he says, he could retire now and live comfortably "like, other people do." But what else could he do? "Lay around and get fat." So he agreed to fight Evangelista.
Spinks signed for a reported $100,000 and began his training in December, at promoter Don King's farm in Ohio. There was talk that there was a "new" Leon Spinks, but doubters recalled that a new Spinks had also been proclaimed before the Coetzee fight. Certainly he seemed sluggish in sparring—and vulnerable, too. One of his sparring partners, Terry Nicopolis, got the best of more than one exchange the week before the fight. But Spinks seemed unperturbed. Accessible and in good humor, he spent his days in Atlantic City relaxing in his room between training sessions. A devout follower of soap operas, he watched them for hours, advising the uninitiated as to who was sleeping with whom. He tuned in Tom and Jerry cartoons and he played Monopoly. One night, around midnight, he was found playing the silver-dollar slots. Feeding three machines simultaneously, he hit a $100 jackpot and let out a whoop. "No more!" he said, scooping the silver into paper cups. "Quit while you're ahead." Though he's a night owl, Spinks nonetheless raised eyebrows with his late hours. In fact, early Saturday morning, about 12 hours before his 1 p.m. fight, he was sitting in a hotel disco listening to Joe Frazier, the former heavyweight champ, sing songs. "What's so wrong with going to the disco for a few minutes?" Leon would say later.
Unlike most fighters, who do roadwork early in the morning, Spinks ran at 10 a.m. and worked out in the gym into the early evening. He steadfastly kept his own clock and remained himself. "I want the world to accept me as myself," he says. "Before, I was trying to satisfy everyone. Now I want to satisfy me. I'm not going to bite my tongue for anyone. Before, I was afraid of what people would think of me. Not now.... People say I'm dumb, because of the mistakes I've made. But it was all new to me. I'm more serious about my life now, and I'm going to satisfy Leon for a change."
He satisfied himself on Saturday, and, he says, he's back in the game in earnest. He is going for the championship. He recognizes he has things to learn, especially after the fight with Evangelista, when he said, "I can be better than I was. Now I have to go back to training—next week. I want it bad. It's my goal. God bless, I'm gonna make it."
After a slow start, Spinks (left) was the aggressor.