By Mark Workman
In November of 1967, the face of #2 ranked heavyweight contender Thad Spencer graced the front cover of Ring Magazine. Widely touted as a potential heir to Muhammad Ali’s throne, Thad Spencer would disappear from Ring Magazine’s rankings in less than 1 year and begin a rapid descent into obscurity and a life of drug-induced madness.
Thaddeus Spencer, Jr. was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on March 28, 1943. His family moved to Portland, Oregon when he was 3 month old; and his father was promptly shipped off to Africa to fight in World War II. Thad came from a large family of 5 brothers and 6 sisters. After coming home from the war, his father ran a hotel in downtown Portland and Thad lived a normal life growing up.
Thad’s first cousin, Willie Richardson, introduced him to boxing at the age of 14; but he couldn’t go to the gym where his cousin trained because it was for professionals only. Learning to box at the Knott Street Community Center in Portland, Thad’s family didn’t believe that he could become a successful boxer. According to Spencer, he racked up a 59-4 record in the amateurs and won several Golden Gloves championships in Oregon and Washington.
At the age of 15, he became a sparring partner for top-ranked heavyweight contender Eddie Machen who fought such fighters as Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, Ernie Terrell, Sonny Liston and Jerry Quarry. Thad had originally planned to fight in the Olympics but was convinced by Eddie Machen to turn pro instead so he could begin earning money. Thad started drinking alcohol and using marijuana and cocaine when he was 16 years old.
“Eddie Machen was the fighter I looked up to,” Spencer said. “He was a good fighter.”
Thad had gotten 2 young girls pregnant at the same time when he was 17. Both women gave birth to their babies on the same day, 4 hours apart. Thad married one of the girls and moved to southern California. It was there that his boxing career began to take off.
Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the United States Armed Forces during the Vietnam War due to his religious beliefs and was convicted of draft evasion and then stripped of his title for 3.5 years. "I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong," Ali said at the time. He took his case to the United States Supreme Court and it was eventually overturned. He returned to the ring in 1970, stopping Jerry Quarry on a cut in the 3rd round, just as Thad Spencer’s boxing career was dying a miserable death.
I can vividly remember the morning after Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston and became the heavyweight champion. It was all everyone could talk about. Clay had beaten the supposedly indestructible ex-convict champion. Then he announced his conversion to Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and soon became a legend.
Thad Spencer would soon begin living in the shadow of that legend, never having his chance to try and prove to himself and the world that he was the better boxer. Was it this inability to fulfill his biggest dream of fighting Ali that would cause him to begin a drug-fueled downward spiral, destroying his career and consuming his life for more than a decade?
Thad had just beaten Amos “Big Train” Lincoln in their 3rd fight, earning the right to fight Ernie Terrell in the now-famous WBA Elimination Tournament, quickly constructed to name a new champion after Ali had been stripped of his title. Thad had lost in the first 2 encounters with Lincoln, having been stopped in the 7th round of their first fight in December of 1964 and losing a 10-round decision in their 2nd fight in November of 1965. Thad was determined to beat Lincoln in their 3rd match up and stopped him in the 8th round in June of 1967.
“Amos was a big train. Amos Big Train Lincoln. He could fight,” Spencer said. “I knew I could beat him. But I partied too much [in the first 2 fights] and I got tired of being licked.”
Learning his lesson from the previous 2 losses to Amos Lincoln, Thad worked hard in the gym for his 3rd meeting with Big Train.
“I trained like a dog,” Spencer said.
Spencer continued to train hard, knowing that his chance to fight Muhammad Ali was finally going to become a reality. He had met with Muhammad Ali at Thad’s training camp right before his fight with Ernie Terrell.
“I was training for somebody else. They came with this fight, Ernie Terrell,” Spencer said. “If I beat him, they would give me Muhammad Ali. Muhammad had fought Terrell and beat him. I was at that fight. Ali called me and said, ‘Thad, I’m going to tell you how to beat him.’ So, Ali came out there to my training camp.”
Thad remembers Ali saying to him, “Whatever you do, you’re a head man. You don’t hit to the body too much. But hit that body, man. Get in shape, Thad.”
Thad Spencer went on to beat Ernie Terrell in August of 1967, knocking him down in the 2nd round and winning a 12-round unanimous decision. His fight with Muhammad Ali was now finally going to happen. The Ali fight was everything to Thad Spencer.
Remembering the Terrell fight, Spencer said, “It was no tough fight. He was tall. He was 6-6. I’m not quite 6-1. His reach was 80-something. I’m kind of in the late 60s, early 70s.”
Enjoying his triumph over Ernie Terrell and looking forward to his upcoming shot at Ali’s title, Thad still chose to party hard after the Terrell fight.
“I had a big party that lasted until the next day,” Spencer said. “Then I left town.”
But then Ali was stripped of his title and Thad Spencer’s dream of fighting the champion for his crown went quickly down the drain. He then began a descent into a severe drug and alcohol addiction that would rob him of his career and haunt him for years to come.
“Yeah, it was a big deal, man,” Spencer said. “Me and Ali, we signed the fight but I think he knew that they were gonna’ take his title. We were signed to fight for the title at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Then 2 or 3 days later the government, the GOVERNMENT, man, stepped in and took his title. I mean, what do they gotta’ do with boxing? Ali did a lot for this country.”
Next, Thad signed to fight Jerry Quarry in the next phase of the WBA Elimination Tournament, but instead of training hard went on a 6-month drug binge freebasing cocaine. On February 3, 1968, in a one-sided fight that Thad was expected to easily win, Jerry Quarry stunned the boxing world and hammered Thad Spencer continuously until the fight was stopped in the 12th round.
“I didn’t think he was too much of nothing, and I knew how bad I was,” Spencer said. “I just took Jerry for granted. I got real popular. I was living it up. Jerry was training every day. I was partying every day. 2 days before the fight I got a drunken driving. They let me go. They knew who I was. And my trainer, Willie Ketchum, wanted to call it off. He trained Davey Moore. I told him, no, no, no we’re not gonna’ move this fight. 2 days later, I was fighting Quarry and I got beat.”
“I would beat him like I did Terrell,” he said. “I was surprised he was in such good shape. He was banging. He stood up, man. I didn’t. He knocked me down. I remember it like it was 2 seconds ago.”
“He trained out there and I didn’t,” Spencer said. “At that time, I didn’t care what happened. Quarry couldn’t carry my shoes. I know that. Without gloves, without shoes, I could beat Quarry. I wasn’t upset after the Quarry fight. Cocaine became my main thing.”
Thad Spencer now alleges that his long-time trainer, Willie Ketchum, put something up his nose during the early part of the Quarry fight, taking away his strength, causing his nose and eyes to burn and causing him to lose the fight.
“I think he [Ketchum] sold me out,” Spencer said. “One time I was in the corner in the Quarry fight. He [Ketchum] put this stuff up my nose. Terrible. Terrible. It was greasy. It took everything outta’ me. Always believed it. Jerry wins, he gonna’ make a lot of money. Beating me he gonna’ make a lot of money. The guy who was training Quarry used to work for him [Ketchum], worked for him all those years, a lot of years, with Davey Moore. They were very close. So he could make a deal with Quarry’s manager. I know, Quarry know, and my trainer know what happened.”
“I asked him [Ketchum], man, what the hell you got in there,” Spencer said. “He was getting out the ring then, early in the fight. See the movie of the fight. I wouldn’t sit down in my corner no more. I wouldn’t let him stick nothin’ else up my nose. That’s why I left the training camp and that was the end of boxing for me.”
After fighting Quarry, Spencer went back to smoking cocaine hard, not training at all, right up until it was time for him to fight Leotis Martin in London in May of 1968. In this fight, Thad held his own in what was considered one of the best fights ever seen in the UK; but in the end he was knocked out by Martin in the 9th round.
“My life turned into a big party,” Spencer said. “I remember the Martin fight. I didn’t think he could before I fought him. He surprised me. I wasn’t in the right kind of shape for him. Same show. Didn’t never stop. I stayed in England for 2 weeks afterwards living it up.”
6 months later, Thad returned to London again to fight England’s adored Billy Walker. When Thad entered the ring, boxing fans were shocked by his physical condition. His once ripped and muscular body was now covered in fat. His reflexes and timing were shot, and he was a mere shadow of the future champion he had once been just a short time ago. Billy Walker battered Thad continuously until the fight was mercifully stopped in the 6th round.
“I remember that he wouldn’t no helluva’ fighter,” Spencer said of Walker. “But I wouldn’t take nothin’ from him like that. My meat was hanging all over the place. No training at all. Not a lick. I never been afraid of nobody. I was ready to go party. The fight’s over. Let’s go party.”
Fighting again 6 months later, Thad met rising Mac Foster in Reno, Nevada in May of 1969. Foster knocked Thad out in the first round. The non-stop cocaine abuse was taking a heavy toll on his body and Thad had been reduced to a man only fighting for drug money.
“I remember him,” Spencer said. “Big dude. I got outta’ there. You get hit in the first round, knocked out, what you gonna’ remember? I was through. All she wrote.”
In his next fight, 10 months later, Thad fought to a draw with Charlie Reno in Seattle, the draw more a testament to Reno’s lack of skills than Thad having anything left as a fighter. He would lose his next 4 fights over the next year and disappear from the ring forever.
“I was just fighting for the money,” Spencer said. “Nothing really mattered to me no more.”
After his career in boxing came to an ugly end, Thad Spencer made his living as a pimp and a drug dealer. He shot and killed a man during an argument but was never charged, the incident ruled as self-defense.
“I was out with scum,” Spencer said. “I’ve gotten in gunfights. I was shot 7 times. A guy shot me with a 44 magnum in the leg and his wife shot me in the back 3 times with a 32. A young girl, she threw me a pistol. I came up, POW.”
Thad Spencer finally gave up cocaine in 1982. He was sitting in a bar with some friends who had just gotten out of prison. On the bar’s television set was a football game between USC and Notre Dame. His son, Todd, was playing for USC. Todd had just made a touchdown and OJ Simpson mentioned over the air that Todd’s father was the old heavyweight contender from the ‘60s, Thad Spencer.
“My son, Todd, was playing for USC,” Spencer said. “He was in a football game. The guys I’m with, they had just got out the penitentiary. We were watching TV. Todd was playing Notre Dame. Todd had a helluva’ game.”
“Todd is that your son,” Spencer said the bartender asked him.
“Naw, he ain’t my son,” Spencer said he told the bartender.
“I’m already down here in the dirt,” Spencer said. “Why bring him? Why bring him down here? Why put him in this mess?”
“OJ Simpson got the microphone after Todd just ran a touchdown,” Spencer said. “OJ said, ‘Oh yeah, all you boxing fans out there might remember Thad’s father, #1 contender in the world at one time, Thad Spencer.’ Man, you should seen how them drunks looked at me. The guy behind the bar said, ‘Man, why you lie? That IS your son.’ That was the last day I did cocaine. I can’t even own him [Todd]. That was so bad.”
Spencer spoke of Ali’s 3.5 year exile from boxing.
“I don’t think it hurt him at all,” Spencer said. “I mean, but Ali, he didn’t drink. I think he was a virgin until he was 21. It always hurts a little bit. But he was a hard worker and a clean-liver, so I don’t think it did that much damage. Muhammad wasn’t made to be hit on. Ali was a good man. Ali is a good man.”
“Nobody could beat me,” Spencer said. “Ali couldn’t beat me. I’d put too much pressure on him. I had him all figured out. No doubt I could’ve beaten Ali. I could fight, man. All these trainers, the guys that knew me, they’ll tell you the same story…he [Thad] just didn’t take care of himself.”
“Joe Frazier never wanted to fight me, never tried to fight me,” Spencer said. “Ah, man, I could beat ‘em all, one day, same day. Everybody there knew I could fight.”
“Jimmy Fletcher was the hardest hitter I ever fought,” Spencer said. “He knocked a hole in my chest.”
Spencer offered advice to young boxers coming up today.
“If you’re gonna’ be a boxer, don’t fool yourself,” Spencer said. “You gotta’ work, you gotta’ live clean. You gotta’ work hard.”
Thad told me who he considered to be the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time.
“Joe Louis,” Spencer said. “Yeah, maybe because I know him. I knew him before he died. I boxed for Joe Louis 2 times in Los Angeles when he was a promoter. They called me the 2nd Joe Louis because I drug my right foot. Joe was always in my corner.”
Thad Spencer spoke of his finest moment in boxing.
“When I beat Terrell and Doug Jones,” Spencer said. “Everybody thought they could beat Doug Jones. They thought Doug Jones beat Ali. Ali, and all that. He shaked Ali.”
Thad Spencer spoke of Mike Tyson and his recent retirement.
“Yeah, he’s through. He’s through. He had it. He had a good day. They run out. I think he was through way back kind a ways. Leave it alone. Boxing did you good. Now, don’t go get hurt, man. He ain’t made to be hit on.”
Spencer spoke of Evander Holyfield and his current situation of being denied his boxing license.
“I don’t think it’s fair. If I was back there, I’d tell ‘em that, too. He haven’t got hurt. Look how far George Foreman went a while. Dead wrong, man.”
Thad spoke of the current state of boxing and his belief that the sport needs to go back to having only one champion in each weight division.
“I think they should stop that. I think they should have the one champion and the rest ranked fighters. Just like they did. One champion and 15 ranked fighters. That’s all.”
Portland filmmaker Rebecca A. Rodriguez ( www.luckyheadfilms.com ) is currently shopping her movie script, Chasing Greatness, which chronicles the turbulent life of ex-boxer Thad Spencer. Thad said that he’s spoken to fighters such as Lamon Brewster, Winky Wright and Roy Jones, Jr. about being in the film.
Thad said that Roy Jones, Jr. is interested in playing young Thad Spencer in the movie, although has anyone bothered to find out if the great Roy Jones, Jr. can act? Spencer also said he’d like to see football great Jim Brown in the role of the older Thad Spencer. No matter who ends up being in the film, it’s bound to be one riveting true-life story.
At the end of my interview with Thad Spencer this past weekend, thanks to my friend Portland concert promoter David Leiken, I asked him one final question: “If someone invented a telephone to the afterlife and you could call anyone no longer with us, who would you call and what would you say to them?”
Spencer immediately replied, “I’d call Eddie Machen.”
“What would you say to him,” I asked?
Thad immediately replied, “Eddie, why did you teach me how to party? You taught me how to fight, but why did you teach me how to party?”
Thad Spencer suddenly grew silent for the first time in our 90-minute interview.
Did Thad Spencer spiral uncontrollably into a life of drug-addicted madness because his dream of fighting Muhammad Ali was taken from him by the same United States Government that robbed Muhammad Ali of 3.5 years of his prime? Or was Thad Spencer simply another young and impressionable athlete who became a failed lost cause from being exposed to drugs at the young age of 16? Or is there another reason?
Only Thad Spencer can truthfully solve the mystery of why he was battered from grace.
For comments about this article, you can email Mark Workman at [email protected] .