Requiem for a heavyweight — and for boxing

Leon Spinks’ recent death at 67 recalls the good ol’ days of a sport that is more in the hucksters’ hands than ever nowadays.

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Leon Spinks lands a right hook against Muhammad Ali during their first fight for the world heavyweight title in 1978 in Las Vegas. Spinks won the title in his eighth pro fight.

Leon Spinks lands a right hook against Muhammad Ali during their first fight for the world heavyweight title in 1978 in Las Vegas. Spinks won the title in his eighth pro fight.


Leon Spinks died last month at 67, and it got me thinking.

First off, Spinks, in only his eighth pro fight, pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history by beating reigning world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali by split decision in 1978.

‘‘It was considered a mere joke,’’ retired boxer George Foreman, of grillin’ infomercial fame, recalled of Spinks being in the ring with Ali.

Spinks wouldn’t hold the title for long, losing a rematch to Ali seven months later. But he got his smiling, front-toothless face on the cover of Sports Illustrated after the upset, and, my goodness, he was famous for a moment.

Then think of boxing now. Does anybody care about it at all?

Mixed martial arts and the gore/submission thrall of the UFC has relegated boxing to the dust closet, sort of where squash and indoor bike racing have gone.

There was a time when everybody knew the name of the heavyweight champion of the world.

Now? Ever heard of Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury?


But if you’re young and thrive on social media (which billions of people now do), then you’re more likely to have heard of, say, Felix Kjellberg. Yep, the Swedish gaming and video ‘‘influencer,’’ also known online as PewDiePie, has — according to, which deals in this stuff — close to 230 million subscribers across all media sites.

I met Spinks one time at the St. Andrew’s gym on West Addison Street. There was a Golden Gloves tourney going on, and one of my buddies, plumber Petey Nelson, and I had gone, as we often did to low-level boxing events, just to see the variety of humanity entered in these slugfests.

Spinks, who had zero Internet presence — his only influencing had been done with combinations to dudes’ heads — was there, standing amid the sparse, rowdy crowd, cheering on his boxing son.

What I remember is that he was wearing a dark-green military coat, had his front teeth in, was quite gracious and was drinking a huge cup of beer. He told Petey and me that he had been petrified before fighting Ali the first time.

Not sure about the rematch, which was held in New Orleans. Spinks had a serious drinking problem, and it already was spiraling out of control.

‘‘He was drunk every night he was here,’’ promoter Bob Arum said after that fight. ‘‘Leon went to places our people didn’t dare go. I’m surprised he didn’t wind up with a knife in him.’’

I felt sorry for Spinks as we talked, for the way he had been buffeted to the top and bottom of a tidal wave he barely understood, let alone could master.

But who can understand what is happening in boxing now?

Its flickering existence is dominated by, yep, social-media influencers, the new power elite in our digital lives. Specifically, there is a guy named Logan Paul — well, yes, and brother Jake — who can get people to watch (more important, pay for) their boxing adventures.

The Paul brothers are what have been described as ‘‘You Tube provocateurs.’’ Their ‘‘profession’’ demands you be shameless, do stuff ranging from cool to beyond idiotic, make lots of noise, attract attention and monetize the results.

Maybe you saw Jake Paul knock out former NBA dunk champion Nate Robinson (the bouncy guy went off for 35 points one night for the Bulls). What was that all about?

Logan Paul, with a pro record of 0-1, is reportedly ready to fight 44-year-old Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a pay-per-view that is as stupid as it is potentially lucrative.

If Paul gets a good-sized portion of his 22.8 million subscribers and 19 million Instagram followers to cough up, say, $60 apiece to watch Mayweather dance away from all harm and possibly knock the bejeezus out of the young carnival barker, so be it. We already know Mayweather will do anything for money.

Boxing is not good for the brain. Spinks, I am certain, was demented when I spoke with him. Studies had shown his brain had shrunk, certainly from blows to the head.

Former child star Danny Bonaduce fought former child star Donny Osmond in a three-rounder in 1994, with Ben Bentley and Spinks himself doing commentary.

Manute Bol once boxed William ‘‘Refrigerator’’ Perry. It looked like a fireplace poker taking on a medicine ball. (The poker won.)

Boxing has been in demise for years. If these new charlatans are its salvation, maybe death is preferable.

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