Michael Spinks recalls his battles with Larry Holmes and Mike Tyson
Light-heavyweight king Michael Spinks wasn’t planning on invading the land of the giants until his manager told him he had eight weeks to prepare for a September 1985 challenge to unbeaten Larry Holmes. As Chris Walker finds out, that jump to heavyweight – that began 32 years ago this week and culminated in defeat to Mike Tyson – did strange things to Spinks’ mind
THE chaotic heavyweight scene of the 1980s can be split into two contrasting eras of dominance. Firstly, fans and media witnessed the steady rise of Larry Holmes, “The Easton Assassin” who entered the decade as leader and spent the next four years marshalling a ragged cast of contenders who would be labelled ‘The Lost Generation’. This was a slightly unfair collective description for a number of talented but tainted competitors who swapped the alphabet trinkets with alarming frequency, while also balancing their chosen sport with numerous dramas away from the bloodthirsty audiences of Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
Later, Mike Tyson’s freakish emergence resonated with mainstream audiences, especially once he relieved Trevor Berbick of his WBC crown – and senses – in 1986. An angry America had a sporting superstar that inspired, outraged and fascinated them in alternating doses. Tyson’s ruthless ascent to the top of the glamour league ensured the faded division once again became a central part of the public consciousness.
Bridging this warped age of heavyweight boxing was a St Louis hero now peacefully retired in a rural Delaware community. Michael Spinks, a 1976 Olympic Gold medallist alongside his brother, Leon, was every bit as special a light-heavyweight champion as Archie Moore and Bob Foster before him, and Roy Jones Jnr in more recent times. Unfortunately, his reign at 175lbs brought only acclaim, as riches evaded him due to the lack of marquee fights that could be made at his most comfortable weight. Holmes, 48-0 and chasing one more victory to equal Rocky Marciano’s legendary record, would provide Spinks with his inaugural heavyweight assignment and with only eight weeks to adjust his body to the most fearsome task in boxing, Spinks gained 24lbs but still conceded almost the same amount of weight to his decorated opponent.
“It was time to make money and that’s all the Holmes fight was intended to be at first,” reveals a composed Spinks. He seems content. “He beat the s**t out my brother so asking him for advice was pointless and it came down to doing what I did better than him and that was all on my speed and movement. I can still remember my manager, Butch Lewis, coming up to me after I’d beaten Jim Macdonald and saying to me, ‘Get ready Mike, I think we’ve got Larry Holmes next,’ and I couldn’t sleep after that because it was a fight that made me real anxious and I used to panic quite a lot, because when you’re in with heavyweights it gets a whole lot more real and Larry had hurt a lot of people. Although I only had eight weeks for that fight I had to spend a lot of time getting my mind and focus right but I was ready for it once the night arrived.
“I’d sparred with heavies before but nothing like I was facing against Holmes; guys like Tex Cobb who wanted me for my speed, and I was just happy to spar anyone because it wasn’t easy getting sparring when you’re Michael Spinks and I certainly had no money to pay guys, let me tell you that much. Sparring with the big guys was the best chance I had of getting good work in the gyms and I always did as well as I could but there’s a lot more in the mind when you fight compared to when you spar. A fight can do funny things to your mind and that stuff can happen five weeks before a fight or five minutes before the bell goes.”
In a stunning upset, Spinks took the heavyweight strap from Holmes with a narrow but deserved unanimous decision, handing the veteran his maiden professional loss. The finances he once craved now accompanied the less valuable pats on the back and Spinks had achieved this status via the most difficult route. ➤
“You want me to be honest with you?” he asks. “I didn’t think Larry was all they made him out to be. Okay, he had this jab and a nasty side that we sometimes saw, but I was scared in that fight and the thing I did straight away was meet him head-on because I had to get his respect. When I did that he started to blink a little, so I knew right there, early on, that he had the same fears about me that I had about him. He even closed his eyes in some of the exchanges and the first thing you ever learn from your coach when he first puts the gloves on you is to keep your eyes open and keep them on your opponent. Larry was making basic of mistakes and for a guy who was unbeaten and the best heavyweight for a long time, it surprised me but gave me so much confidence at the same time.”
After exposing and dethroning the fancied emperor, Spinks strengthened his grip on the division’s top spot with another win over Holmes seven months later, this time with a split decision in a contest that saw “Jinx” survive a hellacious 14th round. Those in attendance at the Las Vegas Hilton greeted the verdict’s announcement with contempt, believing Holmes’ increased aggression, compared to their initial encounter, deserved greater reward, but Spinks insists the call from the ringside judges was the correct one.
“Even taking three or four rounds off and taking a rest I won that fight,” Spinks declares, and he sounds entirely sincere. “There was no way I had 15 rounds in me that night and Larry came with a lot more purpose, but if I could just win enough rounds clearly then I could pick or choose when I had my breaks. Larry was a good champion but there’s no way he could beat me. I had his number. Even if Larry was to roll in here while I’m speaking to you and want a third fight, then I’d still beat him now. He did a lot of great things as champion but there’s no way he could’ve beaten me. That rematch was probably one of the worst I’ve felt in the build-up but I still got the job done.”
That Nevada night firmly slammed the door on the brief but explosive Spinks-holmes rivalry and the Missouri man embarked on a paper chase, still seeking to expand his burgeoning finances. European ruler, Steffan Tangstad, was disposed of routinely and a bulging purse against Gerry Cooney, where Spinks won in five rounds despite being a betting underdog, allowed Michael the opportunity to improve both his sporting and monetary worth.
The fight with the handsome New Yorker allowed the now-familiar ugly face of alphabet politics to overshadow proceedings, as Spinks was stripped of his IBF crown for not facing their mandatory challenger, Tony Tucker. Although Spinks was widely recognised as the lineal champion, all the the alphabet belts were strapped around the impressive frame of Tyson and a contest between the pair was the biggest fight that boxing could offer. It occurred in June 1988 and Spinks would make more money in 91 seconds than he had earned throughout his whole career combined. The outcome in the ring, however, was one of the most shocking and brutal heavyweight fights ever seen as Tyson obliterated Spinks moments after the first bell had sounded.
“He was too much of everything for me,” Spinks concedes, thankfully without shame or embarrassment. His honesty is refreshing. “Just too much. Whatever I thought I had going into the fight wasn’t enough and I thought I had more than enough to be going in there against someone who I thought was just a bully.”
Tales since the fight, from various spectators, have perpetuated the myth that Spinks was struck with fear in the minutes before succumbing to the only defeat of his 32-fight career. A product of the notorious Pruitt-igoe housing projects, a hotbed of violence and disorder, and the conqueror of every opponent he had ever encountered, was Spinks overcome with dread at the mountainous task that lay ahead when opposing the volatile Brooklynite? “Man, I wasn’t scared one bit,” he declares dismissively. “There are always nerves and worries, if you’ve had a problem in camp or something like that, but I went in feeling okay. There were times I felt like I might get knocked out, but I’ll say every single Mike Tyson opponent has had to imagine that, but I wasn’t scared in the slightest; I knew what I was up against. Mike had me beat on power, strength and youth but I had the legs, experience and speed. It’s the speed that let me down.
“That first exchange, like the one I had with Larry, I knew there and then, at that very moment, that Mike had me beat on speed too and that threw me off a little bit. I stood there and fought too long and you don’t fight long with someone like Mike Tyson.
“Muhammad Ali was shouting all sorts of advice to me at ringside but it meant nothing. Once Mike was on top, there was no way back for me.”
After extinguishing Holmes’ dreams of emulating Marciano, Spinks saw his own legacy perhaps unfairly tarnished by the New Jersey Monday when he was shot down in seconds by boxing’s latest superstar. The man who disposed of Holmes’ legend was the catalyst in enhancing Tyson’s, and he would never fight again.
“There was a promise I made to myself early in my career that I was only going to climb the ladder one time and when I fell off, I wasn’t going to climb it again,” Spinks recalls. “It was an easy decision and one that I never ever thought about going back on, even though there were other guys out there that I knew I could’ve beat. I was always number one until the day that I first lost and not many fighters can say that, can they? At lightheavyweight I was number one and I beat guys that no one thought I could beat, and then I went straight up to heavyweight and fought the best guy that was out there and I became number one there as well. Not many have taken that route and there’s a reason for that, but I knew what I could and I decided to do it.”
I HAD HOLMES’ NUMBER, BUT TYSON WAS TOO MUCH OF EVERYTHING FOR ME. BEFORE THE THE FIGHT I THOUGHT HE WAS JUST A BULLY’
TYSON THRASHING: Spinks tumbles to the mat, on his way to defeat