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Ali, Spinks, and the Battle of New Orleans

" 'Lookit this crap,' I tell Ali, your new friend signed your name for $3,600.' But Ali says, 'He's doing what he thinks is right and who's to say he's wrong?' So we ended up paying for it. Stuff like that went on all the time."

This time, the hangers-on were hooking into Spinks, the St. Louis ghetto kid punching for $3.75 million. A few minutes past midnight, three days before he returned Ali's title, there was a crush of people near the Hilton's front door. On the steps leading to the bar stood Leon Spinks, smiling his jack-o'-lantern smile, surrounded by members of his cabinet. The people with Spinks waited for a sign. Hotel guests at the foot of the stairs stared up at Spinks. One of them asked if he could take a picture. Leon smiled in his direction. Another wondered if he might pose with Leon and he was told to mount the steps. Leaving a wife and camera behind, the man moved to Spinks's side. The flashbulb missed and the man urged his wife to try again. The second time was fine. He half trotted away from Spinks.

"Who are all those guys with him?" The question came from a young man in a Tulane sweatshirt.

"His entourage," I answered.

"What does he do?" He pointed in the obvious direction—at Mr. T., shaved head, dark glasses, one earring with a gold half-moon and star.

"The bodyguard."

"Where's the guy who tells him to go to bed?"

Spinks didn't fill that opening.

"He's just a softhearted kid," says Butch Lewis, "but he gets caught with his pants down a lot." Butch was the vice-president of Top Rank, Arum's organization, who helped to deliver the Spinks brothers, Olympic champions, to Arum.

"Leon's always looking for somebody to say he doesn't have to do something. And the people around him want to keep a smile on his face. They're afraid of him when he gets to growling. He's got a lot of tap dancers around him all screaming, 'Yeah, champ.' He says, 'I think I'll go out tonight; it won't hurt me.' There they are, 'Yeah, champ; anything you say, champ.' He's surrounded by people who don't know anything about boxing. They're scufflers."

Incidentally, Butch's last favor for Arum was finding the Louisiana backers who paid Top Rank $3 million to stage the fight in the Superdome. After the fight, Arum fired Butch.

Dr. Ferdie Pacheco worked in Ali's corner all the way back to when the name on the robe was Cassius Clay. The urbane physician's recently published Fight Doctor included two or three teasing sentences about Ali's sex life. Three too many. His fifteen-year association with Ali ended before the first fight with Spinks.

"After the Norton fight in Yankee Stadium [September 1976] I told him not to fight anymore, to walk out. What I'm saying to him he doesn't want to hear right now." Pacheco's in New Orleans to broadcast the fight by satellite. He hates what he sees.

"What can Ali do but further deteriorate his legend? With each beating he takes, he gets less able to take a beating. I hope to hell I'm wrong, but if he could get lucky and beat Spinks it would be the unluckiest thing that ever happened to him. He would go on to so-called easy fights. But there are no easy fights for this guy. The body doesn't know whether you win or lose, and his body is getting beaten up on the way to the fight."

When Ali trains he often lets sparring partners beat on him. He calls it building resistance to punches.

"That's not what nature intended," Pacheco insists. "You don't toughen up the brains and kidney by letting them get hit a lot. It's not the same as putting calluses on hands. Cosmetically he looks the same, but his reflexes are not there. His legs used to get him out of trouble, nobody could hit him. Now everybody can hit him. And now he's slurring his words. Which is the sine qua non of brain damage. It hurts me to see the way he is."

The 48 hours before the fight take too long. Another visit to Bourbon Street was out of the question. On the first, a pilgrimage was made to Preservation Hall, where a dollar thrown into a basket is the only charge for the privilege of listening to jazz's founding fathers. Percy Humphrey, a trumpet player shaped like a walrus, opened a set by lifting himself off his chair and grumping, "No smoking, no taping." The band spent the next twenty minutes giving new evidence of the decline of the American dollar's buying power.


  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Oct 2, 1978 issue of New York
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