He Got Up to Win His Biggest Fight

It is a story right out of "Requiem for a Heavyweight." Script by Budd Schulberg and Paddy Chayefsky. A great part for Tony Quinn.

In 1967, Thaddeus Spencer Jr. was as good a heavyweight as you would ever see, sub-Muhammad Ali. He had all the moves. The left was snake-like, the right punishing. He didn't just win fights, he choreographed them. He was being compared to the flashy Eddie Machen, who was called "the black Gene Tunney."

Thad didn't knock you out, he just shut you out. If there was one word for him, it was smooth. "Watching him fight was like watching syrup flow," his manager, Sid Flaherty, once observed.

He had lapses. Big Train Lincoln caught him with a thunderous right one night but he avenged that two years later by flattening Lincoln in San Francisco.

But that was in the ring. There, Thad Spencer was in charge.

Out of the ring, he was constantly overmatching himself. No one beat him to the punch inside the ring. Outside, he was a big underdog. Booze, women, drugs had him constantly on the ropes. Any referee in the world would have stopped it.

In the ring, Thad could handle some of the biggest, baddest dudes in the game. Outside, he was helpless against a slip of a girl. Particularly if she was handling a .32 revolver, as one of them was one night. You can't clinch with a bullet.

Thad got shot at more than an elite German division. One night, the enemy opened up on him in front with a .44 magnum while a girlfriend fired from the rear with a .22. A doctor recommended amputating an arm after that scrape, but Spencer told him thickly, "That's the arm I jab with." The doctor indicated that he would be lucky to open letters with it thereafter.

That was in Portland in 1975. A few weeks later, Spencer got shot again. In an after-hours joint in Oakland. He was a moving target. America's sieve. When you heard gunfire, you knew Spencer was in town. He had so much lead in him you could write with him.

What had happened? Well, Thad always blamed two things.

First, in 1960, he'd had a chance to go to the Olympics in Rome. Instead, he accepted from Flaherty a used car and $2,000 to turn pro. "You can't eat a medal," Machen, with whom he sparred, told him.

Well, Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson proved you could eat a medal, and Thad watched Ali become America's sweetheart while he became America's target.

The other setback involved Ali, too. In 1967, Spencer was set for a title fight with Ali, a big pay night that might have set him up for life. Trouble was Ali didn't step forward for induction into the armed services. He got suspended from boxing.

Turned out, it didn't really ruin Ali's career. But it did Spencer's.

He soundly thrashed No. 1 contender Ernie Terrell in a fight that was noteworthy chiefly because the winner, Spencer, was picked up for drunk driving a week before the fight.

It was really the kid's last fight. Spencer never won again. That's when he moved into life's gun sights. He was like a guy in a carnival. Hit this man and win a balloon.

"I figured I could never make any money with the rest of these guys," Spencer says now. "With Ali gone, fighting was gone."

Not even an elimination tournament to determine a successor could generate much interest in Spencer. The public tended to ignore the tournament--but no more than Thad Spencer did. He got knocked out four straight times, then fought a draw with a nobody, then got beaten four more times.

He hardly noticed.

"I would wake up at 3, 4 in the morning and I would smell the cocaine, hear the music, see the girls--and I would go out and do two, three, four miles of road work. But the fast life drew me, got to me. It was the call of the wild. I felt sorry for myself. I should have felt sorry for them. I thought it was glamour. It was the pits."

He got cut, shot, run over by a guy in a car who ran over him again when he saw that Spencer was still breathing. He pimped, dealt, killed.

"It was self-defense," he says of the killing. "The guy was trying to kill me."

Thad Spencer is sure hell looks from a distance like a disco. But it all came to an end for him one day, he says, when he was curled around a bar stool, watching television with some cronies. USC was playing Notre Dame and USC had a tailback named Todd Spencer.

"You related?" the barflies asked Thad.

"Naw," Thad lied. Todd Spencer is his son.

"I didn't want them to think a nice young man like that had a dad like me."

A moment later, one of the announcers gave his secret away. "Todd's father was a leading heavyweight contender in the '60s," he told the audience.

Thad Spencer stumbled out of the bar that night and decided that the party was over. The band had long since gone home, the pretty girls had all left.

"I was down to three friends--my mother, my father and my God," he says.

"I had never gone to jail. I had never stole nothing, robbed nobody. I had broken the law, but mostly I had broken Thad Spencer. The record book instead of saying, 'KO by Jerry Quarry,' or 'KO by Jose Luis Garcia,' should have said, 'KO by Thad Spencer.' "

It was for sure that Thad Spencer landed all his harder punches on Thad Spencer.

The hardest thing in pugilism is to get up. It's not too easy in life, either.

Thad Spencer made it at the count of 9. He is now a fight promoter, licensed in both California and his native Oregon. He has staged 15 successful fights in Bakersfield. He will stage another show May 5 in Richmond and has plans for one in Portland.

But the big fight for him makes "Rocky IV" a hair-pull by comparison. In this corner, the United States of America. In that corner, the terrible challenger, drugs.

"We got to realize we're at war right now," Thad Spencer said. "All we got to do is lose two generations and we're no longer the land of the free.

"We can't stop people selling drugs. But we can stop kids from buying them. You're not going to save everybody. But if you can just save one, that's worth it. Drugs steal everything from you. Look at me. It robbed me of the world's greatest jewel, the heavyweight championship of the world."

Thad would like to get even. In the time-honored pugilistic way--by teaching others how to beat it. Thad thinks he can do it. He knows every move, every sucker punch the old sneak has.

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