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Thad Spencer was a bad, bad man and also a great lost fighter

Thad Spencer
Steve Bunce tells the story as only he can of heavyweight contender Thad Spencer turned drug abuser and dealer who was shot seven times in 1975

HE was known as “The Babe” and he was one of the original Lost Generation of heavyweights. Thad Spencer was meant to fight Muhammad Ali in 1967, the latest in line, then Ali lost to the American government and was gone; Spencer beat Ernie Terrell in the tournament of eight created by the WBA to find a champion. Terrell had lost over 15 rounds to Ali six months earlier.

The neglected starting list for the WBA tournament in 1967 was Terrell, Spencer, Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, Karl Mildenberger, Leotis Martin, Oscar Bonavena and Floyd Patterson. There was no room for Sonny Liston at the rodeo. It was won by Ellis when he beat Quarry in the April 1968 final; Quarry had beaten Spencer in the semi-final. It remains my favourite knockout tournament – all seven fights in eight months, proper matchmaking. Incidentally, Spencer was arrested for drunk driving just 10 days before the Quarry fight. He was lost then.

Thad Spencer is famous in British boxing for a night at the Royal Albert Hall in May 1968 when he lost in nine brutal rounds to Leotis Martin. I was always told it was one of the greatest heavyweight fights seen in a British ring. It is clearly a desperate fight, two men in a foreign land in a weird, savage brawl at the ancient venue. They left black and white images behind, filled the heads with memories of every witness, made peanuts and then stepped back on the greasy American heavyweight merry-go-round. But, Spencer was never the same, the career of the man once called “The Black Gene Tunney” was in freefall.

“Man, that fight was something else – we fought like two fogs,” Spencer told me in 1995 just a few days before George Foreman fought Axel Schulz in Las Vegas. Spencer had been in camp all week with Big George, I had tried to place him. In the end, the insider told me – Gene Kilroy knew: “That’s Thad Spencer and he was a bad, bad man.” I remembered the Martin fight, the stories I had heard from veterans, the reverence in the retelling and then I sat with Spencer for over two hours by the MGM’s pool and in the fading light of a Las Vegas day I took his extraordinary testimony. It was a privilege talking with The Babe.

‘A girl I knew threw me a gun and I just turned and shot him though the eye. He died. I was supposed to’

Spencer had seven more fights after losing to Martin. He lost six, drew one and in June 1971 he was drifting. His travels turned bloody very quickly.

He was selling drugs and women, pimping and dealing. In and out of different cities, avoiding the law, fighting prison. The boxing was long over, it hurt him to see how close he had been and how quickly he was lost to the scene. And then in 1975 he was shot seven times.

“Oh man, 1975 was a crazy year,” Spencer told me. “I was out of control and out on the streets dealing and pimping. These things happen.”

It was all new history to me, I knew by then he had promoted some of Foreman’s comeback fights, I knew he was working on various crime schemes, working with gang members.

“I was in Fred’s Place in Portland, my home town, when I was shot,” remembered Spencer. “A girl I knew threw me a gun and I just turned and shot him though the eye. He died. I was supposed to. I had three .32 bullets in me from a woman friend of his and he put two .44 Magnums in me. The cops came but they could see it was self-defence.” Now that is a bar fight.

Spencer chuckled a few times, a big, beaten man of 52 that day, hunched heavily onto a seat. He went back on the road again. More gun tales to come.

“I left Portland for a break and went to visit my friend Huey Newton – you know, the former Black Panther – in Oakland,” continued Spencer. “I was in an after-hours club when I heard a pop. The woman I was talking to fell to the floor and I was hit twice by a shotgun. Man, I still got the lead in me and limp from that night.” In Oakland seven had been shot, one killed: There had been two weeks between shootings, three weeks later he was attacked again and run over. Spencer was playing loose with life, make no mistake. 

He told me that he only killed the one man for definite, but that there might have been others: “I was ugly then, pure ugly.” And it stayed that way – drugs, women, the very edge of violence – until one afternoon back in Fred’s in 1982 when the most unlikely of saviours changed Spencer’s life. There are twists to come, stick with me.

“I was sitting with men I’d seen kill and others I had seen left for dead,” continued Spencer. On the television that day was an American football game, Notre Dame against USC. Somebody pointed out that one of the USC’s backfield was Spencer’s son, Todd. He denied it: “No it ain’t, I told them. I ruined my life so why should I ruin his?” But, his cover was blown a second later when OJ Simpson, working on commentary, announced the facts for the entire bar to hear.

“You may remember Todd’s father, Thad, who was the number one contender for the heavyweight crown in the Sixties.” There was a cheer, but Spencer left as OJ praised him.

“I just crawled out of that bar burning with shame for denying my son and from that day I have been clean. OJ turned my life round,” finished Spencer. He finished with selling women and cocaine that day.

He stayed clean, a few years later he promoted Foreman’s return, his son, Todd, had an NFL career and they were reconciled. They promoted together. The Babe was sorted. By 1995 he was helping the type of people that tried to kill him so many times. The same lost souls he had shot.

Kilroy was right, Spencer was a bad, bad man. He is also a great lost fighter.

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