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Leon Spinks, Dead at 67, Fell Far and Fast After Shocking Muhammad Ali

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No one could ever confuse former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, who on Friday night finally succumbed to the multiple cancers that for several years had been slowly devouring his internal organs, with handsome film star Robert Redford. But achieving a seemingly impossible goal, in real life for “Neon Leon” and on the silver screen for Redford, does suggest a possible link.

It is one thing to fulfill a dream few thought possible. It is quite another, once the dream becomes reality, to enjoy the tsunami of attention that can make a sudden and unprepared star a sort of Cinderella in reverse. In 1972’s The Candidate, Redford portrayed a young and ambitious senatorial nominee who, against all odds, wins election. In the final scene, he slips out of the victory party to be alone with his thoughts. Upon being joined by his campaign adviser who tells him he has to come back to meet with a throng of journalists, the stunned new senator-elect asks, “What do we do now?”

Leon Spinks, who someday would shock the world by upsetting the great Muhammad Ali, launched his longest-of-long-shots plan to become heavyweight champion when, at age 13 and constantly picked on by older boys in St. Louis’ notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project, he heeded the advice of a Teamster official named Mitt Barnes to take up boxing as a means of better defending himself on the street. The oldest of seven kids (six sons and a daughter) raised by his mother Kay after the father had left home, Leon proved a quick study in the pugilistic arts, if not academically. A dropout midway through his junior year of high school, he became a father at 17, enlisted in the Marine Corps at 19, and by the time his service hitch ended had won 178 of 185 amateur bouts and was fast-tracked for eventual success as a pro.  He was a bronze medalist at the inaugural 1974 World Championships, a silver medalist at the 1975 Pan American Games and then a light heavyweight gold medalist at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, at which his younger brother Michael also took gold as a middleweight.

In 1994, Michael, who would go on to win both light heavyweight and heavyweight titles as a pro, recalled how he frequently got the worst of it in sparring sessions with his older brother, until the day when he proved to himself that he at least had significantly narrowed the gap between them.

“It was back in St. Louis, in the early ’70s,” Michael said. “Me and Leon were passing by this gym, somewhere we’d never been in before. Leon said, `Hey, let’s check this place out.’ There was a ring in there, and Leon found a couple of pairs of gloves. We pulled them on and went at it for three rounds.

“I couldn’t believe I was actually winning. You have to understand, Leon had always beaten the dog out of me. He always beat the dog out of everybody. Leon was the man in those days. There wasn’t anybody who could beat Leon. There wasn’t even anybody who could last three rounds with him. He used to beat me up so bad, I’d cry. He beat me like we weren’t even brothers. But he was trying to help me, in his own way. He’d say, `Mike, I know I take it hard on you, but if I took it any easier, you wouldn’t learn anything.’

“I threw off the gloves and said, `Hey, man, I beat your ass. I got you.’ And that was it. We never sparred again. Looking back, that might have been my proudest moment in boxing. I figured if I could do that well against Leon, I could hold my own against anybody. From that point on, I was a completely different fighter. I had confidence in myself.”

Maybe Michael was even as confident in his ring abilities as was Leon, who wangled a lucrative contract with Top Rank after the Montreal Olympiad while Michael went back to his old job as a janitor at a St. Louis chemical plant, where his duties included, as one co-worker later observed, “scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets.”

For Michael, who later joined Leon in the Top Rank fold, his star turn as a pro would come later. It arrived startingly soon for Leon, who, with just seven pro fights (6-0-1, 5 KOs), was tapped to challenge WBC/WBA champ Ali on Sept. 15, 1978, at the Las Vegas Hilton. Virtually no one gave Leon much chance to even be competitive, much less win, but the 24-year-old underdog believed he had a fight plan to get the job done, one previously authored against Ali by Joe Frazier.

“I watched him fight Joe Frazier, and I knew then I had to give him pressure like he’d never seen before,” Leon said of the punches-in-bunches he intended to throw at Ali, then 36 and as overconfident as Spinks was hopeful. “By the time I got to Ali, I knew how to beat him before I ever fought him. Then I learned the pressure of being champion.”

The shocking split decision for Spinks, accomplished before just 5,298 paying spectators, did not appreciably diminish the star power of Ali, but it made the victor an instant sensation. It also changed his life and career in ways he could not have anticipated, both good and, even more obviously as it turned out, bad. Being the new heavyweight champion and conqueror of arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time had the same effect on Leon, even more so, in fact, than winning an election he never thought he could, had on Redford’s fictional character six years earlier.

In quick order, the WBC stripped Spinks of its version of the title for declining to fulfill a mandatory defense against Ken Norton in favor of a much-better-paying, much-higher-visibility rematch with Ali, who was determined not to make the same mistakes he had made the first time around. Guys from Leon’s St. Louis neighborhood and hordes of other aspiring hangers-on sought to gain the champ’s ear, and in many instances did.

The do-over was scheduled for Sept. 15, 1978, in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, the lead-up to which was a spectacle of excess to rival Mardi Gras. Some 63,350 fight fans packed the arena, among them such celebrities as Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, Jackie Onassis, Liza Minnelli, Jerry Lewis, Telly Savalas, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge and Lily Tomlin.

It was hoopla to an extent that Ali, as much as any boxer ever, could handle in stride. Not so for Spinks, who even before arriving at the fight site had demonstrated that he was crumbling under the demands of his newfound notoriety.

The late Butch Lewis, who promoted both Spinks brothers, recalled how Leon disappeared for days at a time when he should have been in the gym and focusing on the task at hand. Rumors flew that he was pub-crawling not in the comparative safety of the French Quarter, but in dives in crime-infested neighborhoods that even the local police were hesitant to go into.

“He was drunk every night he was there,” disgusted Top Rank founder Bob Arum said of Leon’s hard-partying ways. “Leon went to places our people didn’t dare go to. I’m surprised he didn’t wind up with a knife stuck in him.”

The shenanigans weren’t so amusing to highly regarded Philadelphia trainer Georgie Benton, who had been brought in to plot Leon’s strategy for the first fight and stayed on for the second, ostensibly in conjunction with lead trainer Sam Solomon. But Benton and Solomon seldom agreed on anything, and then there was the matter of Leon’s 70-member entourage, all of whom figured they merited a spot in his corner on fight night.

Shortly before the fight, Solomon told Benton that Spinks’ small army of would-be advisers would take turns working in his corner. “Sam said, `You go up one round and work and then Leon’s brother (Michael) can go up one round,’” Benton said of a mob scene unlike any seen for a fight of that magnitude. Benton’s frustration increased until, after the sixth round, he simply walked away, out of the Superdome and into the night.

“It was a zoo,” he would say later. “It was like watching your baby drown. There was nothing you could do about it. I had no more control of the guy. I was useless. All I could do was get the hell out of there.”

The unanimous decision for Ali – by margins of 11-4 and 10-4-1 (twice) in rounds – was a foregone conclusion, and pretty much evident to everyone early on. Ali was back on top, a king re-crowned, and Leon Spinks was generally dismissed as a one-hit wonder that never should have enjoyed even a temporary stay in his sport’s throne room.

“I don’t think Leon Spinks will ever fight again,” a miffed Arum said after the fight. “It’s only my opinion, but I don’t think so. He doesn’t like to fight, he doesn’t like to train. He was drunk about every night down here. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to get him back into a gym.

“He has money and he doesn’t have to go back (to boxing). To tell you the truth, I think down deep he’s glad that he lost that title. He is a simple guy. He doesn’t need the lifestyle of Muhammad Ali. Leon Spinks’ money will last a long time. He doesn’t live like Muhammad Ali.”

Well, Spinks’ career ring earnings – pegged at $5 million, with $3.75 million for the second Ali fight – didn’t last as long as Arum had predicted. Nor did Leon slip away from the fight game, never to be seen or heard from again; he did get another shot at the heavyweight title, losing on a third-round TKO to Larry Holmes on June 12, 1981, and then on a sixth-round stoppage to WBA cruiserweight ruler Dwight Muhammad Qawi on March 22, 1986. His final bout, an eight-round points loss to Fred Houpe on Dec. 4, 1995, left him with a record of 26-17-3, with 14 KO victories and nine defeats inside the distance. The only boxing Hall of Fame in which he is enshrined is Nevada’s. Michael, on the other hand, was 31-1 (21) as a pro, along the way becoming a multimillionaire and first-ballot inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994.

“I know I could have made Leon upwards of $50 million if he had disciplined himself doing the right thing for four or five years,” said Butch Lewis, who died in 2011.

After his boxing career ended, Leon lingered on the fringes of combat sports. For someone who had outhustled and defeated a legend like Ali, it had to hurt his fans to see him go into a ring with a wrestler named the Mighty Wojo who lifted him up and threw him onto a cold concrete floor. He capitalized on what remained of his celebrity status here and there, including a gig as a greeter at Mike Ditka’s restaurant in Chicago.

“I have no regrets,” Spinks, his voice a bit slurred, said during his time at Ditka’s restaurant. “I had my good times. I won a gold medal. I won the heavyweight title. I reached as high a point in sports as I could.”

And if he had to do it all over again, what changes would he make?

“People pull you here, they pull you there,” he said of his hectic seven-month title reign. “I was not the type who trusted people right away. I was trying to take care of my business and box, too. You can’t do two things at one time. It was my downfall. When I did start to trust people, they took advantage of me. I found myself with a bunch of people around me I didn’t even know. They had me running in the fast lane.”

Leon was able to find some domestic happiness with wife Brenda Glur Spinks, whom he married in Las Vegas on Oct. 9, 2011. She was by his side when he passed away, but because of COVID-19 restrictions only a few close friends and family members – including his son Cory, who won versions of the welterweight and junior middleweight title — were present.

He remained upbeat even as his medical issues worsened. In 2014 he suffered intestinal damage and was hospitalized after swallowing a piece of chicken bone, which led to multiple surgeries. Then, in mid-December of last year, the TMZ gossip site reported he was in a Las Vegas hospital and “reportedly fighting for his life.” The prostate cancer he had been diagnosed with had spread to his bladder, assuring an outcome as certainly negative as his defense against Ali had been. But he fought as he could, for as long as he could, and that is in and of itself a testament to what had once made him special.

Rest in peace, Leon. So many fighters, good ones, have never known the exhilaration of being an Olympic gold medalist, or a heavyweight champion of the world.

A New Orleans native, Bernard Fernandez retired in 2012 after a 43-year career as a newspaper sports writer, the last 28 years with the Philadelphia Daily News. A former five-term president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, Fernandez won the BWAA’s Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism in 1998 and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service in 2015. In December of 2019, Fernandez was accorded the highest honor for a boxing writer when he was named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020. Last year, Fernandez’s anthology, “Championship Rounds,” was released by RKMA Publishing.

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Tyson Fury Returns on Saturday with a Familiar Foe in the Opposite Corner

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“Tyson Fury made a name for himself last night, one that already has a ready-made ring about it and will be destined to become familiar in boxing.” Alan Hubbard, a ringside correspondent for The (London) Examiner wrote those words after Fury wrested the British and Commonwealth heavyweight titles from Derek Chisora with a comprehensive 12-round decision on July 23, 2011.

Those words were prescient. Tyson Fury did go on to become a familiar name in the sport. Indeed, one could argue that at this moment in history no active boxer is more famous.

More than 11 full years have elapsed since Fury toppled Chisora. In the ensuing years, the Gypsy King outpointed Wladimir Klitschko in Germany to win the world heavyweight title, battled personal demons that sidelined him for two-and-half years, returned to the ring with a flourish, ultimately regaining the world heavyweight title, or at least a version of it, in the second chapter of his memorable trilogy with Deontay Wilder, and rising so high in the opinion of boxing enthusiasts that he would be favored over any other boxer on the planet.

Oh, and lest we forget, since defeating Chisora in 2011, Fury whipped Chisora again, stopping him after 10 one-sided frames in 2014. Fury’s eight-inch height advantage enabled him to control the distance vs. “Dell Boy” who was never knocked down but who absorbed a great deal of punishment before his chief second said, “no mas.”

A third meeting between Fury (32-0-1, 23 KOs) and the soon-to-be-39-year-old Chisora (33-12) would seem to be superfluous. Del Boy, coming off a narrow win over Kubrat Pulev, has lost three of his last four. But on Saturday, Dec. 3, they will go at it again. The venue is London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, capacity 62,850, and by all indications, despite a chill in the air (the temperature is expected to hover around 40 degrees), there won’t be too many empty seats.

For promoter Frank Warren, Fury vs Chisora is Plan B – he was hoping to match Fury against Anthony Joshua – but he believes that Fury has become so popular that he can make a tidy profit no matter who is in the opposite corner. The Gypsy King, once referenced as the enfant terrible of British boxing, has toned down his rhetoric (one might say that he proactively distanced himself from Kanye West) and become almost cuddly, a source of inspiration for many Brits, the first member of the black sheep Traveler community about whom this could ever be said.

Fury, needless to say, is a heavy favorite. The odds are in the 25/1 range. The co-feature is likewise looked upon as a mismatch. Daniel Dubois, who shares the diluted WBA heavyweight title with Oleksandr Usyk, is a consensus 16/1 favorite over Kevin Lerena (28-1, 19 KOs) who rides in on a 17-fight winning streak. The six-foot-one Lerena carried a career-high 234 pounds for his last assignment against ancient Mariusz Wach, but the South African southpaw has fought most of his career as a cruiserweight.

The undercard includes featherweight Isaac Lowe, Tyson Fury’s bosom buddy, and Hosea Burton, Fury’s cousin, both of whom appear to be matched soft in scheduled six-rounders, plus 18-year-old phenom Royston Barney Smith in a 4-rounder against a transplanted Nicaraguan.

This is a pay-per-view event in the UK, but U.S. fight fans who subscribe to ESPN+ can see it for free. The ring walks for the main event are expected to go about 4 pm ET.

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What Path will Yokasta Valle Choose Next?

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After the recent controversial ruling that made her a world champion in three different divisions, the fans of the Costa Rican Yokasta Valle are wondering: What path will the successful boxer choose next?

On Saturday, November 26th, in a fight of continuous exchanges with the then undefeated Argentine Evelyn Bermúdez (17-1-1, 6 KOs), “Yoka” Valle (27-2, 9 KOs) came out with her arm raised at the Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, where she won the IBF and WBO belts, which Bermúdez was defending for the seventh and second time, respectively.

Although the Costa Rican fighter (pictured on the right) went on the attack for practically the entire 10 rounds, the exchanges were even, give and take, with good moments for both fighters, which made it difficult to evaluate each round. Hence the discomfort of many fans, especially in the Bermúdez camp, with the card of judge Adalaide Byrd (99-91), which apparently had Bermúdez prevailing in only one round. Neither did Judge Daniel Sandoval’s card (97-93) represent what transpired in the ring, while Zachary Young’s score of 95-95 was more accurate, distributing five rounds for each combatant.

In the case of Byrd, she also received innumerable criticism in the first fight between Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez and Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, which was held in September 2017 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas and which ended with a favorable scorecard for each boxer and another of 114-114.

At that time, Byrd had judged more than 400 fights over a 20-year span, and her discordant scorecard of 118-110 reflected Canelo winning 10 rounds and GGG only two (the fourth and the seventh). Dave Moretti leaned towards Golovkin (115-113), while Don Trella (114-114) saw it even.

CHAMPION IN THREE CATEGORIES

Born in Matagalpa, Nicaragua on August 28, 1992 and living in Costa Rica since her childhood, Valle made her boxing debut at the age of 22 in the light flyweight category. In that first experience at the pro level, she defeated Mexican María Guadalupe Gómez by unanimous decision in four rounds, on July 26, 2014, in Alajuela, Costa Rica.

Two years later, in her twelfth fight, she conquered the IBF title at 102 pounds by split decision against Ana Victoria Polo in San José, Costa Rica. In December 2017, Valle suffered her first professional failure against the local Naoko Fujioka, who won by unanimous decision at Korakuén Hall in Tokyo where they fought for the vacant WBO light flyweight belt.

Six months later, on June 16, 2018, Valle lost again by unanimous decision against German Christina Rupprecht (11-0-1, 3 KOs) in Munich, a duel that was for the WBO strawweight interim belt. Rupprecht maintains that belt and is again in Valle’s sights.

Following those two setbacks, “Yoka” Valle compiled 14 victories, including the one she obtained in Marbella against Spaniard Joana Pastrana in August 2019, which she won by split decision securing the IBF 105-pound belt.

More recently, on September 8th in Costa Rica, Valle became a two-division champion at 105 pounds, by unanimously prevailing (the three judges scored the fight 100-90) over Vietnamese Thi Thu Nhi Nguyen, who ceded the WBO title. And then with her success against Bermúdez last weekend, Valle made history in Costa Rican boxing by adding her third crown in three different divisions (102, 105 and 108 pounds).

WHERE WILL YOKASTA VALLE GO NEXT?

Valle, who now owns two light flyweight titles (IBF and WBO) could next go in search of unification with Mexican Jéssica Nery (WBA super champion) or with Canadian Kim Clavel, who holds the WBC title. (Clavel and Nery collide on Thursday in Laval, Quebec.)

However, a more viable option would be to return to 105 pounds and seek a fight with American Seniesa Estrada (23-0, 9 KOs), who maintains the WBA belt, or with Rupprecht, who remains unbeaten. That seemed to be Valle’s immediate objective, as she affirmed it in the ring after defeating Nguyen. In an indirect reference to Seniesa Estrada and Tina Rupprecht, Valle said “I want the belts. I’ve been saying it from the beginning, I want the WBC and WBA next, whoever has ’em.”

At Friday’s weigh-in for her fight with Bermúdez, Valle stated “I want to fight the best. I want to be undisputed. When Tina (Rupprecht) and Seniesa (Estrada) were not available, my team and I made the decision to move up in weight and challenge Evelyn for her world title belts. I have to fight. [MarvNation CEO] Marvin Rodriguez presented this fight to me. This is the type of fight I want. It is champion versus champion. I want to give the fans these types of fights.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Kim Clavel caught the flu and pulled out on Wednesday just prior to the weigh-in. Her match with Jessica Nery was rescheduled for Jan. 13.

Photo credit: Tom Hogan / Hogan Photos

Article submitted by Jorge Juan Alvarez in Spanish

Please note any adjustments made for clarification purposes and any errors in translation were unintentional.

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Regis Prograis Knocks Out José Zepeda and Clears the Way for José Ramírez

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American Regis Prograis had to wait three years and a month for the opportunity to hold a world crown once again. On Saturday, November 26, at the Dignity Health Sports Park, in Carson, California, Prograis faced José Zepeda for the vacant WBC junior welterweight belt. Prograis was victorious by applying chloroform to Zepeda in the eleventh round.

Previously, on October 26, 2019, Prograis (28-1, 24 KOs) had lost the WBA junior welterweight belt by majority decision to Scotsman Josh Taylor at the 02 Arena in England.

Since then, the thirty-three-year-old Prograis who is based in Houston, Texas has obtained four wins (including vs Zepeda), all before the limit, as proof of the devilish power of his powerful fists, especially the left one.

Prior to the duel with Zepeda (35-2, 27 KOs), most experts favored Prograis, who after winning the intense battle, recognized that it was the most demanding fight of his career. “That dude is tough, tough, tough. He came to fight, he probably gave me one of my hardest fights, I’m not even gonna lie,” said Prograis. “This dude is tough, bro. I’ve got so much respect for you. You prepared me to get this belt and hold this belt. I congratulate you. All the best to you, bro. Don’t stop, I feel like you can still be a world champion.”

Almost from the very beginning of the fight, Prograis showed greater speed with his hands and legs, and a general sense of technical superiority over Zepeda, who in the second round opened up a wound above his left eye with a legal blow.

From then on, Prograis’s strong impacts gradually undermined Zepeda’s resistance. Zepeda arrived totally exhausted in the eleventh round, where he received a straight left to the face, putting him in poor condition. A run with both fists from Prograis knocked him down and referee Ray Corona called the match with 59 seconds remaining in the round. This is the first setback that Zepeda has suffered by knockout in professional boxing.

On several occasions, Prograis has stated that he wants revenge against the undefeated Taylor (19-0, 13 KOs), but now, by order of the WBC, he must face American José Carlos Ramírez (27-1, 17 KOs).

Ramírez, 30 years old, is currently ranked second by the WBC. In February of 2019, in his second defense of his 140-pound belt, he defeated Zepeda by majority decision.

Twenty-five months later, Ramírez succumbed by unanimous decision to Taylor at the Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas, enabling the Scotsman to become the undisputed king of the category by winning the four most prestigious belts (WBA, WBC, WBO, IBF).

Recently, Ramírez expressed an interest in dueling with the main 140-pound contenders, including a second fight with Zepeda; although he did not rule out clashing with Prograis or Taylor. “Every fighter has the same amount of risk,” said Ramirez. “We’re a little under-promoted compared to other weight classes but I think that the best fights are at 140. You see guys fighting twice or three times, doing a trilogy. Honestly, I would love to face Regis, because I’ve never faced him. I would love to make the rematch with Zepeda, because he’s such a good fighter. Obviously I want Josh Taylor, man. I want Josh Taylor bad.”

Photo credit: Al Applerose

Article submitted by Jorge Juan Alvarez in Spanish.

Please note any adjustments made were for clarification purposes and any errors in translation were unintentional.

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