Obituary: Sam Solomon

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The Independent Culture
SAM SOLOMON was a teacher of fighters in Philadelphia whose career peaked when Leon Spinks, an un-complicated, naive man-child, upset Muhammad Ali to win the world heavyweight title in February 1978.

Solomon had no chance of keeping Spinks, one of boxing's legendary party animals, disciplined for long, but he did inspire him to the triumph for which he will always be known. "Neon Leon" acknowledged as much. "Sam Solomon is more than a trainer," he said before the rematch with Ali, when he was beaten. "He is like a father to me. Sam doesn't only teach me about boxing. He talks to me about a lot of things besides."

Spinks was genuinely grateful for the efforts Solomon made for him, and sorrowful when it went spectacularly wrong. Spinks's promoter Butch Lewis recalled the dreadful time before the rematch when Spinks was merrily conducting a six-month bender instead of dedicating himself to training. Sometimes he was so far off the rails that Solomon would lock the errant champion in his hotel room. And somebody would sleep on a makeshift bed by the door.

One morning Lewis himself was on "guard duty" when Solomon woke him up, with the terrible words "Where's Leon?" The heavyweight champion of the world had escaped out of his window, crossed roofs and dropped down into the street. Solomon and Lewis found him playing pool in a bar. For all his failures, Spinks acknowledged Solomon's efforts. "He never got the full credit he deserved for what he did in helping me beat Ali," he said. "Sam was patient with me."

Spinks, who had won the 1976 Olympic light-heavyweight gold medal in Montreal, was a seven-fight professional novice when they threw him in with Ali. He had no right to box for the championship, but at 36 Ali was buying what time he could against opponents he considered safe.

As well as technical coaching - Solomon taught Spinks to shorten his punches and to counter the moves Ali would make - there was a great deal of pyschological work to be done.

There was friction in the Spinks team long before the rematch, partly because of the man's own character and partly because of rivalry and friction between Solomon and the younger Philadelphia trainer George Benton.

Benton, a former world class middleweight and later a widely respected trainer, went on record as saying Solomon did not want him stealing any limelight. Worse, he said Solomon was there merely for the money. "All of a sudden it dawned on me," he said. "These sonsabitches don't think this kid can win this fight . . . but they're going to get a payday."

In the dressing-room after Spinks had won, Benton recalled bitterly: "I couldn't get next to him. Everybody was pushing me out of the damn way. Leon was Sam Solomon's champ now . . . I put my clothes on and walked out." The two trainers made up, but fell out again during the rematch in September 1978, which led to Benton leaving the corner in mid-fight. Spinks lost on points and was effectively finished at 25.

Solomon was a long-time resident of Philadelphia, who had around 300 amateur contests and knew one of the greatest trainers in boxing history, Jack Blackburn, who taught heavyweight champion Joe Louis. As well as boxing, he was a serious competitor at baseball - a catcher in the Negro League of the time.

From 1950, he was a boxing trainer, and at different times worked with two other heavyweight champs, Sonny Liston and Ernie Terrell. When Spinks lost to Ali, Solomon faded from the world stage. He was never one of the great coaches but he remained in the game, working with youngsters in Philadelphia until his retirement in the late 1980s. In old age he suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

Leon Solomon, boxing trainer: born 1915; married (one daughter, one stepdaughter); died Philadelphia 13 December 1998.