Month: September 2018

Neon Nights: Leon Spinks, Richard Pryor & $1.50 of Coke

leon

A hangover/holdover of the Studio 54 era, Leon Spinks staggered, knock-kneed and disco-biscuits screwy, into the sputtering 1980s. After upsetting Muhammad Ali in 1977 for the heavyweight title, Spinks went on a one-man spree nearly devoid of glee. But chaos? Sure, there was plenty of that. After all, Spinks had the impulse control of Dirty Harry Callahan and worse luck than Seth Brundle. His bodyguard, Mr. T, was a Mohawk blur trying to keep up with “Neon” Leon, and the same could be said of his entourage, urban piranha weighed down by gold chains. Dead presidents were the kiss of death for this confused young man who had grown up in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project. With lottery-sized earnings from two fights against Ali, the 1976 Olympic gold medalist and ex-Marine went AWOL from reality for the rest of the decade. When he returned, in the midst of 1980s excess, he must have been surprised at how little glitz was reserved for him. By 1981, “Neon” Leon was inspiring headlines like “Another Spinks Mishap.” Ironically, Spinks had nary a bad bone in his body, and the first of his last days as a prizefighter—the beatings, the court proceedings, the police blotters, the flesh peddlers nibbling—add up to an uncommonly sad sad. Even, it has to be said, for boxing.

By the late 1970s, Leon Spinks seemed to be a permanent headline, as well as rich material for late night talk shows and comedians. It was only natural, considering some of the absurd adventures “Neon Leon” went through after becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. Even Spinks could laugh along with the rest of the sporting nation. “What’s that man…that tells jokes on The Gong Show…has a bag on his face?” Spinks asked Phil Berger. “Yeah. Unknown Comit. He made a joke on me one night. Said, ‘I’m going to do an image of Leon Spinks.’ Turns around, took the first bag off, put another bag on his face. Had the whole front of the bag black, with two teeth missing …. That gassed me, man. I die laughing. I went in and holler out to my wife. Said, ‘This fool is doing an image of me.” But it was Richard Pryor who turned a notorious Spinks cocaine bust into an uproarious skit. A few years later, though, during the dark days of the 1980s, things would not be nearly as funny for Leon Spinks.

 

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Read about the night “Neon” Leon Spinks defeated Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world.

JAGGED EDGE: When Iran Barkley and Michael Olajide Waged War In NYC

JAGGED EDGE: When Iran Barkley and Michael Olajide Waged War In NYC

March 6, 1988

He had a scowl that could clear out the D train during morning rush hour. Iran Barkley, once a member of the Black Spades when street gangs roamed the lawless, lightless badlands of the Bronx during the Golden Age of urban blight, was a rawboned powerpuncher fueled by rage. Barkley was all seething ire for much of the “Me, Me, Me” decade. The targets of his anger? The top money ranks, embodied by the trio of Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, and Ray Leonard, who cashed oversized paychecks with both glee and regularity. Despite showing promise as an amateur, Barkley never got a signing bonus. An Olympic medal was as far away from him as the Khyber Pass was, and CBS, NBC, and ABC, alas, had no interest in him when he turned pro. So it was years of toil on the Atlantic City tour, and on one of his hard-labor stops along the way—in just his 9th paid bout—Barkley was overmatched and taken out by Robbie Sims, 18-3-1, in six slashing heats.

The memory of his struggles as a club fighter turned Barkley sour. So, too, did the superstars of his day. “Their name alone stopped other people from getting money,” Barkley told KO Magazine. “People hear Leonard may fight, and they set aside the big purses for him. Hagler and Leonard make me angry. They should bow out gracefully. If they were out of the way, people like me could make some money.”

More than anything, “The Blade” wanted to slice and dice Ray Leonard to pieces. Leonard had more money than a junk bond king and a boyish grin that made his sting grate all the more. Luckily for Barkley, however, he never got the chance to fight Sugar Ray. But the day finally came when he got a pretty boy in the ring with him.

olajide

Eloquent, cosmopolitan, and photogenic, Michael Olajide was as big a deal in The Big Apple in the mid-1980s as Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam was. To make matters worse—depending on your perspective—he was also a dedicated fashionista with a side gig as a model. Olajide, nicknamed “The Silk,” was a media darling of the Tri-State press for years—or until he failed to beat milquetoast Frank Tate for a portion of the middleweight title—but by the time the opening bell rang for his intercity/inner city rumble with Barkley, he already looked like a runway model rode hard and put away wet after two grim years on the catwalk circuit.

Oh, Olajide could fight, all right; he proved that against Troy Darrell, “Dangerous” Don Lee, and a sawed-off shotgun named Curtis Parker. But no one cared for jheri-curls, an eyebrow wax, and fringed trunks anymore. And the flashy leather jacket with tassels? As obsolete as Betamax. By 1988, New York City was Chuck D, Sonic Youth, KRS-ONE, and the Cro-Mags. Barkley hated him. “Nobody likes the hard-working guy who gets to the top,” he lamented. “They like all these guys with jheri-curls and fancy boots, stuff like that. Nobody likes the guys who just pound people into the ground. The only guy like that who is loved is Mike Tyson. He pounds them. I guess I’ve got to keep pounding guys into the floor and make people respect me, too.”

They traded knockdowns in front of a raucous crowd, heckled each other during the action, launched punches—near and far, far and near—with bad intentions, and tried smiling through the hurt. But in the end, it was Barkley, all scar tissue and 24/7 sneer, who had the last sinister laugh echo out.

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