IN the minutes before the ring walk a gathering of desperate souls tried their best to act like they had a clue what was going on. They stood in a dressing room, knowing that out there, down the corridor, 63,350 people had packed the New Orleans Superdome to watch the rematch between Muhammad Ali and Leon Spinks; the fans were chanting and booing and drinking. A model stripped at ringside, Rocky took applause. It was heavyweight boxing’s maddest sideshow.
In the dressing room, Neon Leon, Mr. T, Uncle Bob Arum, a man called Butch, a broken-hearted trainer called George and a dozen other merry men had no idea what type of apocalypse they were walking to. The toilets in the dressing room were jammed with the agitated – this was mayhem.
Let me take you back a few hours, a few days and try and paint the picture of the chaos when so many people with so few eyes raided the city.
First, in February of 1978 at the Hilton in Las Vegas, Spinks in his eighth fight had won the world heavyweight title on a split from Ali. That win and that money set loose the carnival. The rematch was made for New Orleans in September. Ali hired Greg Page, Michael Dokes and Tony Tubbs to batter his body back to shape; all would win world titles.
Meanwhile, in another part of the boxing planet. Spinks hired anybody in his sights for six months of spending, benders, sex, drugs, drinks, fur, car, houses and police skirmishes.
George Benton, his trainer and the sage in the corner of the first fight, could do nothing to stop the lunacy. Neon Leon was just out of control and the people he called friends were delirious to be part of the ride. In New Orleans, in the days before the fight, Benton was told that he would be on rotation on the night. “I knew there would be too many people in the corner,” Benton added. He deserved better.
So, Ali and Angelo Dundee, his trainer, and Gene Kilroy, his ears and eyes, arrived in New Orleans. They found a quiet house, they found routine, they found the groove. Ali is 36 and he wants to win the title for the third time. “It’s a perfect scene, you couldn’t write a better move than this,” said Ali.
Spinks arrived, gets off the plane, smiles and talks to the press and is ushered away in a sheriff’s private car. He is meant to have taken out and lit a joint. It is the first of the New Orleans tales, some true, some fake, but all fun.
Ali avoided the fight hotel downtown to prepare in solitude, his big house open for informal visits from the travelling press. They found a man consumed by history; a man devoted to his craft. A man at peace with his life in the ring.
The fight hotel’s location meant that Spinks could meet and greet the city’s finest in their finery. Spinks, the papers said, was making 3.75 million dollars and you best believe that figure motivated every hustler in a city of hustlers to find Spinks.
Butch Lewis, who worked for Arum at the time, tried his best to build some protection, but it was impossible. “Leon does what Leon wants to,” Butch said. And what Leon wanted to do in New Orleans in the week of the fight was have a party every day and night.
There is a story about Ali going out for a run in the morning and Spinks meeting him in the hotel lobby as he returned from a night out. The story is partly true, it did happen, but it was not Ali going running. Ali was away, sleeping soundly in the suburbs. Spinks was just away with the fairies.
Arum was witness to the fight’s early mess. He watched as Spinks came and went, hosted people and acted like he was running a festival for one.
“There were so many people surrounding him, all telling him what he wanted to hear, it was impossible to keep up,” said Arum. Even Mr. T, the nominal head of security and camp coordinator, was struggling. On the afternoon of the fight, Leon Spinks, heavyweight champion of the world, went missing. It got later, teams had left for the Superdome, the crowd was coming in and Leon could not be found. Two men found him, they went in a car to a motel flop on the wrong side of town and knocked on a door. There was Leon in bed with a woman, the essential midnight debris of a good or bad night was spread out on the bedside tables. It was sordid and seedy, make no mistake. She was not happy losing her new dream man, Leon was not happy having to get out of her bed. It was either two hours before the first bell or ninety-minutes. The story is true. Kilroy shakes his head and smiles even now.
In the dressing room the men that mattered stood watching Leon getting ready. They knew it was over.
The first bell sounded. Benton started to pack his tools and he left after four rounds. He faintly heard somebody saying: “George, George, no, no.” He was gone before the fight’s final bell. Dundee knew it would be fine as soon as Ali moved. The indoor crowd of 63,500 stood. Across town a woman in a scruffy motel room woke to find her latest lover gone. Had it been a dream? Kilroy relaxed at ringside and what was left of the Greatest started to fight.
“My mind was not on the fight,” admitted Spinks. He lost his belt that night, but his mind was lost somewhere on the way to the forum. It can be a damaging road to a big fight – Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury and their backers, schemers and dreamers will find that out soon. Their fight will hopefully not have any major Neon Leon moments.