A former No. 1 contender for the heavyweight championship, Thad Spencer’s boxing career became a cautionary tale that he frequently opened up about to keep others from following a similar path.
Spencer died in his sleep on Dec. 13 in Vallejo, Calif., where he lived with his son for more than six years since beginning to suffer from dementia. He was 70.
Thad Spencer Jr. was born on March 28, 1943, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the third of 12 children born to Thad Sr. and Marie Spencer. He was 3 months old when his father’s job brought the family to Portland.
Growing up with meager means in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Northeast Portland, Spencer began boxing at the Knott Street Gym, now known as the Matt Dishman Community Center and Pool.
He spent one year at Roosevelt High School and one year at Jefferson High School before dropping out and focusing on his fighting career. At 16, Spencer captured the Pacific Northwest Golden Gloves championship in Seattle and seemed to be on a straight path to compete for the United States at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.
But at only 17, Spencer had two children on the way with two women. His amateur career and Olympic aspirations took a backseat to monetary needs and he made the decision to turn pro.
“In the Olympics, you have the head-gear. You have better trainers and better coaches,” said Kenny Spencer, his younger brother. “He took a lot of hard knocks that he probably would not have taken (otherwise).”
Although Spencer’s professional career began sooner than intended, his talent soon took him to the top of the sport. He amassed a record of 30-5 by the time Muhammad Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship for his refusal to join the U.S. military after being drafted to serve in Vietnam.
Spencer, ranked as a top contender by the World Boxing Association, was then entered into an elimination tournament to determine the WBA heavyweight champion. In the tournament’s first bout, Spencer defeated former champion Ernie Terrell by unanimous decision at the Houston Astrodome.
Three months later, in November 1967, Spencer graced the cover of Ring Magazine, with the headline above asking, “Can Spencer match Frazier’s KO punch?” in reference to then-top contender and eventual heavyweight champion “Smokin'” Joe Frazier.
But the Terrell victory was to be Spencer’s last. In the lead up to the fight against his next tournament opponent, Jerry Quarry, Spencer was charged with a DUI in Oakland. It was a dire sign that he was not taking his training seriously.
“Thad used to joke about how he’d leave (training) and say he was going for a run,” said Kevin Spencer, his other living brother. “He’d go party, then throw water on himself (before coming back).
“He just thought that his talents would overcome not training, drinking and doing drugs.”
Spencer lost to Quarry via 12th round TKO in Oakland on March 2, 1968, and never won another professional fight. Spencer lost eight of his final nine bouts, with the other result draw.
By 1971, at 28, his career was over. The life of the man who once seemed destined for a title shot with the legendary Ali, took a dark turn. Alcohol and drugs, specifically cocaine, soon consumed him.
“I became a coke head because I thought that was what rich people did,” Spencer said in a 1994 profile in The Oregonian.
In 1975, Spencer was shot five times by an associate and the associate’s girlfriend while at a bar in Portland. He was then passed a gun, which he used to shoot and kill his attacker in self-defense. A month later in Oakland, Spencer was shot in the leg during a shooting in a bar. And later that year, back in Portland with a cast on his leg, he was run over by a car after another altercation. thadspencer-ali.jpgView full sizeThad Spencer, left, never got to fight Muhammad Ali, right, since Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title for his refusal to serve in the U.S. military. Ali attended an event in 1993 for Spencer’s 50th birthday.Photo courtesy of Global Sports Entertainment & Development
But despite Spencer’s miraculous survival through three near-death experiences, it was not until he saw Todd, his oldest son, on television playing fullback at USC in 1982 that he made the decision to get clean.
When a bartender asked if Todd Spencer was his son, Thad denied it. Not long after, commentator O.J. Simpson said of Todd, “You might remember his father, Thad Spencer, who back in the ’60s was a top heavyweight contender,” according to the 1994 piece in The Oregonian.
The embarrassment of that moment persuaded Spencer to quit cocaine and rekindle his relationship with his children. Lance Spencer, Todd’s younger brother, soon came to live his father in Northeast Portland, often going on one- to three-hour walks with him to help him kick his addiction.
“That was how we formed our relationship,” Lance Spencer said. “(My mother) always planted a good seed (about him).
“It was an open flower. It just needed to be watered.”
Although his boxing career ended in addiction, Spencer stayed close to the sport late in life. He started multiple promotion companies, splitting his time between Portland northern California and following big fights wherever they took place. He was an annual guest of honor at Golden Gloves events hosted by the Grand Avenue Boxing Club in Portland.
“He enjoyed sharing his knowledge of boxing with young people and trying to help them … not take the same path that he did,” Kevin Spencer said. “Spiritually, he was always in a great place because he always had this dream that something great was going to materialize.”
By the mid-2000s, dementia began to set in and Spencer moved to Vallejo with his son Lance.
“He enjoyed his life and his experiences that he had,” Kenny Spencer said. “I think the only regrets that he probably had were that he got mixed up in some things that were detrimental to him and the people that he loved.”
Thad Spencer is survived by his mother, Marie Spencer; brothers, Kenny and Kevin; sisters Loretta Ganter, Cynthia Lovell, Maudine Smith and Gerry Orr; children Tamara, Todd, Lance, Mister, Taron, Joseph, Carmen Andria Jones; step-children Duran Beasley and Lisa Beasley; 16 grandchildren and one great-grandson.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Word Assembly Church, 9507 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland, Calif. Remembrances and well wishes can be sent to McNary-Morgan-Greene & Jackson Mortuary, 3630 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, Calif.