Tim Dahlberg, Associated Press Columnist

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Mr. T was his bodyguard, which right away tells you something about Leon Spinks and his brief yet wildly entertaining stint as the heavyweight champion of the world.

Someone had to keep watch over Leon and his full length fur coat. Someone had to know where his false front teeth were, and Mr. T and his gold chains had yet to make it big in television.

Ah, yes, the teeth. His ex-wife once had custody over one set of them during their divorce proceeding, and Leon lost another in a mugging in Detroit that also cost him the $45,000 fur coat.

“I was trying to bite the guy and they came out and he stole them,”the St. Louis native would say years later. “It’s so damn weird, people taking my teeth.”

A lot of weird things happened to Spinks on his meteoric rise to the top and equally quick fall back down. So many that Spinks could be excused for not always flashing the gap-tooth smile that even Muhammad Ali found so endearing.

He was still smiling just two years ago, as he went to find out the results of tests on his brain at the Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health in this fighting town.

“If it’s gonna be bad, don’t show me,” Spinks told the doctor, chuckling at the thought.

It was bad, though that was probably little surprise to anyone around Spinks in recent years. The mood swings and worsening speech were caused by a shrinking of the brain, which was in turn likely caused by the punches Spinks took in the ring and the alcohol he drank outside of it.

What was perhaps more surprising was that it wasn’t the punches to the head that finally put him in a Las Vegas hospital. He is there at the age of 61 trying to come back from not one, but two, emergency abdominal surgeries that had friends fearing the worst.

“It’s going to be a long road ahead, but he’s strong and he’s starting to recover,” his wife, Brenda, said this week.

Back when the heavyweight title really meant something, Spinks was perhaps the most unlikely story in a sport where unlikely stories abound. He was an Olympic gold medalist but had only seven pro fights when Ali — looking for a soft touch late in his career — picked him to challenge for the heavyweight title at the Las Vegas Hilton on Feb. 15, 1978.

Spinks swears the story isn’t true, but it has become part of the Spinks lore. In the week before the fight, Ali rose early one morning as usual to do his roadwork. As the elevator door opened into the hotel lobby, there was Spinks, coming in from a night on the town with a woman on each arm.

In his dressing room before the fight, a CBS executive asked Ali to let the bout go a few rounds so the prime-time television audience would have something to watch. They ended up getting 15 rounds of an energetic young Spinks wearing Ali down to win the heavyweight title in one of the great upsets in boxing history.

Of course, it couldn’t last. Spinks wasn’t prepared for title or the lifestyle, and lost a decision to Ali in the rematch just seven months later before 63,350 at the Superdome in New Orleans.

He got $125,000 for the first fight, $3.5 million for the second. The figures were just abstract numbers to Spinks, who blew through his big paydays and kept leaking cash in a career that went far too long before he finally retired in 1995 at the age of 42.

Spinks ended up in Nebraska, working as a custodian at a YMCA and at McDonalds, where he earned minimum wage and 50 percent off all the Big Macs he could eat. He and Brenda moved to Las Vegas three years ago so he could try and make a living signing autographs at boxing shows.

On that day at the clinic, Spinks shuffled slowly out of the facility and lit up a cigarette. No one walking by seemed to recognize him, despite the hat he was wearing that read “Leon Spinks, World Champ, 1978.”

He had promised to do exercises for his balance and brain, though he wasn’t quite as forthcoming on cutting back on the alcohol.

“My brain has got to let me know I’m doing all right,” Spinks said. “I’ve got to do things to help my brain now.”

The words were hard to understand, even with his teeth in. But Spinks hadn’t really changed much since the night he shocked the world by beating the world’s greatest fighter.

About the only thing different was Mr. T was nowhere to be seen.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg


Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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