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


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.



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

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