HENDERSON, Nev. — Leon Spinks has trouble swallowing these days, so his wife, Brenda, crushes the seven pills he takes every morning, dissolves them in water and loads them into a syringe. She injects the contents into the retired boxer’s feeding tube.
In June, Spinks, 66, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent three rounds of chemotherapy but the cancer spread to his bones. In November, Brenda said, one of the doctors treating Spinks said he had a about two weeks to live.
But Spinks, who shocked the sports world in 1978 when he upset Muhammad Ali and won the heavyweight championship of the world, is still fighting.
"He's a champion, he's going to keep fighting,''’ Brenda said recently as her husband maneuvered around their house with a walker.
Spinks, who also suffers from dementia, still flashes his famous smile and it's no longer gap-toothed. His missing front teeth were replaced years ago. Spinks recently started smoking marijuana in an effort to improve his mood and make him more compliant while working with a team of medical health professionals.
The couple's two-bedroom, three-bathroom house, about 20 miles south of Las Vegas, is replete with photos from Spinks’ boxing career, which include a gold medal from the 1976 Olympics and the heavyweight world championship.
Spinks made $320,000 for his first fight against Ali and more than $3 million for the rematch, according to published reports. There were no other big paydays after Ali won the second fight by unanimous decision.
Brenda, his third wife after they married in 2011, said Spinks has held private autograph sessions -- one scheduled for next month -- that the couple needs to help offset medical costs.
"When I met him, he didn't have anything," Brenda said.
In January, Spinks started taking Zytiga, a medication for people who have prostate cancer and already have undergone chemotherapy. The first bottle of 120 pills was a free sample, but Brenda said the doctor told her 120 pills cost $8,000.
“I think you can get it cheaper,’’ she said. “I don’t know. I haven’t gotten that far yet.’’
About five years ago, following emergency surgery after he swallowed a small piece of chicken bone that punctured his intestines, Spinks began lacing up boxing gloves and hitting the heavy bag as part of his rehab. The expectations are far more modest now and the demands are far greater, Brenda said.
Her 29-year-old son, Michael, has moved in with the couple to provide help, and they have a caregiver seven days a week. Brenda also said she has gotten support from Spinks' brother, Michael, the former heavyweight and light heavyweight boxing champion; Spinks' sister, Karen, who spent a month in Henderson; Spinks' sons, Corey and Daryl; Spinks' grandson Leon Spinks III; and Brenda's sister, Sherry.
And there’s ever-present Sam, a black Labrador retriever trained by America’s VetDogs. (Spinks qualified for the service dog because he served in the Marine Corps from 1973 to 1976.) Brenda said Sam got depressed when Spinks was in the hospital and a few times jumped into the hospital bed when visiting Spinks.
"He was so excited to see Leon,'' Brenda said.
USA TODAY Sports spent a day recently with Leon and Brenda Spinks and part of the team working to keep Spinks alive.
Spinks emerged from the bedroom wearing a “Neon Leon’’ T-shirt that bore the image of his face and famous grin from four decades ago. His once-protruding belly was gone.
Over the past year, Brenda said, Spinks has lost 80 pounds and is down to 194 pounds.
“He’s at his fighting weight again,’’ she said. “And boy, has he been fighting with everyone.’’
A framed colored print of Spinks and Ali, painted by famed artist LeRoy Neiman, hangs in the living room and is one of the reminders of the epic victory.
On Feb. 15, 1978, Spinks, then 24, climbed into the boxing ring at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas with a 6-0-1 record and as an overwhelming underdog. Ali, then 36, had a record of 55-2 with 37 knockouts.
Spinks scored a stunning split-decision, 15-round victory. Amid bedlam in the ring, he closed his eyes and waved his arms above his head in celebration.
Now he is often in a wheelchair.
Nasha Shigmatsu, a home health nurse, arrived at about 12:30 p.m. and Spinks' mood had darkened.
“Oh, no,'' Brenda said, "he’s turned on me.''
She reached into a bag and handed her husband a joint.
Two months after his victory over Ali, Spinks was charged with felony possession of cocaine and misdemeanor possession of marijuana. At one time, Brenda said, she used to throw out marijuana Spinks got from fans. But about a year ago, Brenda said, she started allowing him to use the drug that’s legal in Nevada.
She said he usually smokes no more than one joint a day.
“I’m so against it and now I’m going to dispensaries to buy it,’’ Brenda said. “It’s the only way I can get him to cooperate."
After a few puffs, Spinks allowed the nurse begin the exam.
“I need you to take deep breath for me, Leon,’’ the the nurse said. “Deep breath.’’
Spinks talks sparingly these days, other than brief exchanges with his wife that Brenda said most people find hard to understand. Sometimes his actions say everything the medical team needs to know, like when the physical therapist worked with him recently.
She walked alongside Spinks as he used his walker to move through the house.
“Big steps," the physical therapist said. “Good."
But Spinks he took an unexpected turn and headed from the living room into the backyard. Then circled through the master bedroom, continued through the house and onto the front porch. Ignoring the physical therapist's instructions to turn around, Spinks shuffled onto the driveway until he got to the black van with the wheelchair lift in the back.
“You’re showing off," the physical therapist said.
When the session ended, the physical therapist estimated Spinks had walked for 25 minutes – his personal record since returning from the hospital about 2½ months ago.
“Come on, Leon, high five," the physical therapist said.
Spinks scowled at the women’s raised right hand.
He also refused to take off his cap when a hairdresser arrived, and Brenda tried to coax Spinks to let her cut the back of his hair.
“You’re not cutting my hair,’’ he said, and no one had trouble understanding him.
After being diagnosed with prostate cancer, Spinks seemed to be doing better after three rounds of chemotherapy — until blood was found in his urine. On Aug. 21 he was admitted to the hospital, and he spent almost four months there and experienced multiple complications, according to Brenda.
Spinks suffered from aspiration pneumonia, a staph infection, sepsis, inflammation of the colon and showed early signs of renal failure, according to Brenda. She said they inserted a feeding tube in his abdomen because he stopped eating.
When Spinks was put on a ventilator in November, Brenda said, she resisted efforts to get her to sign a do-not-resuscitate order.
“I just couldn’t do it,’’ she said. “It was horrible because there were a few times I didn’t think he was going to make it. I just tried to have hope. A lot of people praying.''
While Brenda was reflecting on the ordeal during a recent interview, the sound of clatter came from the kitchen.
“What are you doing, Leon?’’ she said.
“Nothing,’’ he said.
“That's what you always say,'' Brenda said, and later she found a shattered bottle of non-alcoholic beer in a freezer drawer.
Later that evening, Brenda, Spinks and Sam drove to Remnant Ministries, a church in Las Vegas where former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham is the pastor. One of the churchgoers sang to Spinks when he was in an Intensive Care Unit and several others visited him in the hospital and the congregation has continued to pray for his recovery, Brenda said.
On that recent night, Spinks and Brenda made it in time for the benediction and found seats in the balcony.
During one song, Brenda leaned in close to Spinks and sang the refrain.
“I’m just so happy that he’s here and we’re just going to keep working at making things better,'' she said. "We’re not going to give up. We’re not throwing in the towel."