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45 Greatest Fighters Of The Last 45 Years – 15: Michael Spinks

Coming out of the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Michael Spinks was content on taking care of his mother and supporting his brother Leon’s pro career while working at a St. Louis chemical factory despite winning a gold medal like Leon did. This all changed in 1978 after Leon lost the world heavyweight title back to Muhammad Ali. As Leon’s behavior became more and more erratic, Michael decided it was time to take his own pro career seriously.

Michael’s first major victory occurred in just his 14th fight, a huge seventh round technical knockout win over perennial 175-pound contender Yaqui Lopez on October 18, 1980. That fight was the fight that convinced my father that Michael was for real. Lopez had given Matthew Saad Muhammad and Victor Galindez hell when fighting for their versions of the world light heavyweight title. After Spinks dismantled Lopez, my father felt at that point in time that Spinks was the best light heavyweight on the planet. It would take less than a year for Spinks to prove my father right.
On March 28, 1981 Spinks fought former two-time 175-pound champion Marvin Johnson, the winner to receive a shot at the WBA champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. Spinks at 6’1 always attempted to fight tall and with his potent left jab and even more potent right cross keeping his always shorter opposition at bay. Johnson was a 5’10 southpaw who was one of the most aggressive fighters in the history of the division. For the first three rounds, Johnson had the advantage by pressuring Spinks on the inside. Then in the fourth round, Johnson walked into a screeching left uppercut that put the Indianapolis native out to pasture. Spinks had earned the right to fight for a 175-pound title by stopping both Lopez and Johnson, the boogeymen of the division.

My father was a big fan of then WBA champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. He loved Muhammad’s counter punching acumen and patience. He knew Spinks was a better fighter and expected Spinks to win because he thought Eddie’s style was too passive to defeat Spinks’s style of constant jabbing. Once again, Spinks proved my father right in his assessment. The first 10 rounds were very close as Mustafa was able to successfully counter Spinks’s jab several times. However, beginning in round 11, Spinks began to assume command of the fight as he had all but closed Muhammad’s left eye. In round 12, Spinks knocked down Muhammad with his patented right cross, aptly named the “Spinks Jinx.” The remaining three rounds saw Muhammad in survival mode as Spinks outworked him en route to an unanimous decision in capturing the WBA crown.

Over the next 18 months, Spinks successfully defended his crown five times in relatively easy fashion. Then right as he was training for the biggest fight of his career, a 175-pound unification title fight with WBC champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi, tragedy struck. Two months before the scheduled March 18, 1983 fight with Qawi was to take place, Spinks’s wife Sandy was killed in a car crash. Boxing fans and experts weren’t sure if the Qawi fight would go on as scheduled. Despite a heavy heart, Spinks didn’t pull out of the fight and that night put on an incredible display of boxing brilliance and discipline. Qawi at 5’5 was an aggressive inside fighter with a bob and weave style, similar to Joe Frazier. Spinks stayed outside and used his eight inch height advantage to maximum use by tying up Qawi anytime he ventured inside. Spinks won an unanimous 15-round decision and not only claimed the Undisputed Light Heavyweight crown, but he also won the claim to being the best 175-pound fighter in the golden age of light heavyweights which included Qawi, Mustafa Muhammad, Galindez, Lopez and Saad Muhammad.

Spinks would successfully defend his title four more times before moving up to heavyweight in an attempt to become the first reigning world light heavyweight champion to win the heavyweight championship of the world. Legendary light heavyweight champions such as Archie Moore and Bob Foster failed in their attempts to become heavyweight champion. My father felt the same fate would occur to Spinks when he signed to fight the legendary Larry Holmes for his IBF and Ring Magazine heavyweight championship.

On the night of September 21, 1985, Spinks entered the ring against Holmes as a 6-1 underdog. Just a few days before this fight took place, my father volunteered to enter treatment for his addiction to alcohol. Right before he left to go to the Upstate New York rehabilitation facility, he had predicted that Spinks had no shot in the world because despite the fact that Holmes, at almost 36 years old, was seven years older than Spinks, Holmes’ all-time great left jab would still be too much for Spinks to overcome. Pop felt that Holmes’ jab was all he needed to defeat the smaller Spinks. Shockingly, the reverse occurred.

For the first 10 rounds of the fight, Spinks employed a herky jerky style that completely threw off and confused a very lethargic and slow Holmes. For the first time in his career, Holmes’ devastating jab was completely nullified by the unorthodox movement utilized by Spinks. Spinks was the first fighter I ever saw out jabbing Holmes. Holmes made a spirited comeback the last five rounds but it was too little, too late. In winning a 15-round decision, Spinks became the first light heavyweight champion to win the heavyweight title. A few months later, on January 17, 1986, Don King and HBO announced the beginning of a heavyweight title tournament to crown an undisputed champion. One of the fights announced was a rematch between Spinks and Holmes.

The rematch took place on April 19, 1986. This time, Holmes’ booming jab was much more effective in combating the same Spinks herky jerky style. On a few occasions late in the fight, Holmes came very close to knocking Spinks out. When the 15th and final round ended, it seemed a forgone conclusion that Holmes had regained the title. Amazingly, Spinks retained his title via split decision. A frustrated Holmes immediately retired. After destroying fringe contender Steffen Tangstad five months later, Spinks decided to fight Gerry Cooney instead of fighting the IBF number one contender Tony Tucker. It was both a financial and calculated reward for Spinks. Had he fought Tucker, he would’ve only received $500,000 to defend his title. Despite being stripped of his IBF title for refusing to fight Tucker, Spinks made four million to fight Cooney. A win over Cooney would make Spinks even more money against the eventual winner of the tournament, Mike Tyson. All Spinks had to do was beat the single most overrated heavyweight in boxing history.

On the night of June 15, 1987, Spinks entered the ring that night an 8-5 underdog. My father and I laughed at these incredible odds. Cooney was a one-trick pony. All he had was a left hook and absolutely no defense whatsoever. Spinks was too skilled a technician to lose to a fighter who despite being three inches taller and much heavier, didn’t have to skills to compete with such a master boxer. Pop placed 100 dollar wagers with six different people. That’s how confident he was in Spinks winning. My mom was scared shitless as Pop lived paycheck to paycheck. A $600 loss would hurt our household exponentially. I told my mother not to worry. This was guaranteed money.

That night went exactly as we thought. Spinks completely dominated Cooney before dropping him twice in the fifth round and referee Frank Cappuccino wisely halted the fight right before the end of the round. Inexplicably, Harold Lederman, one of the three judges, had Cooney winning three of the first four rounds! Over the next three days, my father collected his winnings and gave every single dollar to my mom. The sex between them that night had to have been some of the best sex they ever engaged in.

With Spinks’ destruction of Cooney and later on during the summer Tyson defeating Tucker to win the undisputed tournament, the fight with Tyson was made. On the night of June 27, 1988, Spinks was to make 15 million dollars, proving his strategy to abdicate his title and heavyweight title tournament a huge financial victory. It would be the only victory he achieved that evening.

The fight was a complete mismatch. On the night of the fight, my father and I were at a dingy night club in Greenwich Village to watch the fight. The tickets were only 15 dollars a pop, so I can’t complain that much. As we sat in a packed club anticipating the fight, my father, who was completely inebriated, predicted the fight wouldn’t go 90 seconds. He was wrong. It lasted 91 seconds.

The reason Pop predicted it wouldn’t go 90 seconds was because Spinks delayed his ring entrance which infuriated Tyson to the point where he punched a hole in a dressing room wall and that Spinks had braces on both knees. He was a sitting duck as evidenced from the very beginning of the fight. Tyson came straight at Spinks and dropped him with a thudding right to the rib cage just over a minute into the fight. Spinks got up at the count of four. After referee Frank Cappucino’s mandatory eight count, Spinks immediately walked into a thunderous right cross that sent his head bouncing off the canvas. Spinks, in his attempt to get up, almost fell through the ropes as Cappucino counted him out. Tyson was finally the universally recognized world heavyweight champion.

Spinks, three weeks shy of his 32nd birthday, took his shot knees and $15 million payday and immediately retired. Despite being massacred in his final fight, Spinks’ legacy as the 15th greatest fighter of the last 45 years can’t be denied. He would retire with a stellar record of 31-1 with 21 knockouts.

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