Michael Spinks was born in St. Louis, Missouri on July 13, 1956. He came from a boxing family, and racked up an amateur record of 93-7 (31KOs). His honors included winning two National Golden Gloves titles (1974 and 1976) and the Gold Medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. These were the same games that saw his older brother Leon Spinks and “Sugar” Ray Leonard also win Gold. His nephew Cory Spinks went on to become undisputed world welterweight champion. He turned pro in April 1977, and went on to establish a career that would put him on at least an equal footing with great light heavweights like Billy Conn, Archie Moore, Bob Foster, and Tommy Loughran.
Spinks was 6’2″ with a 76″ reach. He was a lanky, boxer-puncher with pop in both hands. His straight right, dubbed “The Spinks Jinx” was infamous, but he also threw a devastating left hook and left uppercut.
Living in Interesting Times
The 175lbs division is often cursed with being between the middleweights and the heavyweights, and have often looked boring by comparison. This was not the case in the time of Michael Spinks, for he was blessed to live in interesting times for the light heavyweight division, giving him a handful of serious contenders to test his mettle against. In May 1980 he beat Murray Sutherland, who would later capture a super middleweight world title.
Spinks was still a relative novice – 13-0, 24 years old, a pro for little more than 3 years – when he met 49-10 Yaqui Lopez in Atlantic City. He was a solid contender who had just come out of a losing championship effort with Matthew Saad Muhammad (Lopez would challenge for world titles 4 times in all). Spinks knocked him down and then out in the 7th.
In March 1981, he fought Marvin Johnson, a past and future light heavyweight champ. Spinks stopped his man cold with a beautiful left hook in the 4th. He later said: “I saw the picture-perfect left hook and then I took it. I don’t think anybody could [have thrown] a better left hook,. Hey, if he got up from that, then I would have quit.” The fight with Johnson earned Spinks a shot at WBA Light Heavyweight Champion Eddie Mustafa Muhammad in July 1981.
29 years old, Muhammad was a world class 175 pounder in his prime. He was making his 3rd defense of his title, held past wins over Matthew Saad Muhammad and Marvin Johnson, and his only recent loss had been a stab at heavyweight and a Split Decision loss to undefeated Renaldo Snipes (who would go on to floor heavyweight champ Larry Holmes the next year). He easily outpointed this dangerous man, took his title, and became a light heavyweight champ at age 25.
In 1982 came a rematch with Murray Sutherland; Spinks improved on his performance and stopped him this time. In all, between 1981 and 1982 he defended his title 5 times with 5 knockouts. Tragically, Spinks’s wife was killed in a car crash in January 1983. However, this did not derail his focus or his career: Spinks was an exciting fighter who was heading for a March 1983 showdown with WBC 175lbs champion Dwight Qawi Muhammad.
This Muhammad was a 19-1 buzzsaw who had knocked out Matthew Saad Muhammad twice, and had not lost a fight since the earliest days of his career. He was a confident, aggressive champion in his prime. But the fight was as much a test of Spinks’s willpower as of his boxing mettle, of his character as much his body. His wife had been killed only two months before, and in the dressing room his young daughter asked him if she was coming to the fight. Spinks almost broke into tears, but one wonders if the trauma drove him yet harder to make a future for the family he had. Spinks beat Muhammad in a clean points decision, becoming the Undefeated, Undisputed World Light Heavyweight Champion.
Spinks was pretty idle for the remainder of 1983 and all of 1984, defending his crown only twice, as he was on hold for a rematch with Dwight Qawi Muhammad that never materialized. However, that did include a bout with Eddie Davis over the newly created IBF strap, securing his standing as Undisputed Champion. He defended twice more in 1985, and then went on to scale the mountain: challenging the world heavyweight champion.
Spinks vs. Holmes
What Michael Spinks was setting out to do had never been done before. Many times the reigning 175lbs champ had challenged the reigning heavyweight champ, and had lost every time. The closest a light heavyweight had ever come to achieving this feat is when Ezzard Charles, frozen out of the light heavy title, moved up to heavyweight and won that title instead. Even more intimidating is that Spinks was going against 48-0 Larry Holmes , defending his title for the 21st time. Spinks could have gone after the WBA or WBC heavyweight champion and easily picked one of them off (indeed, Roy Jones would take that very route three decades later), but instead he went straight after the man.
They met in September 1985, Holmes outweighing Spinks by a full 20lbs. Yet it was Spinks who came out and attacked Holmes from the opening bell. Holmes worked his jab well for the fight, constantly putting his stick in Spinks’s face and causing the smaller man’s face to puff up. Still, for once the “golden jab” of the Easton Assassin was not enough: Spinks would get inside, throw a several punch combo, and get out. He ate a few jabs getting in and out, but Holmes was never able to land his big right hand to good effect. The effort was telling on Spinks, who increasingly sat panting in the corner after each Round and startd to slow down. Holmes, sticking the jab, started to in Rounds. By the end, Spinks was down to flurrying at the start and stop of a Round (a classic tactic to impress the judges), and was otherwise being pushed around by big Larry and his jab.
It was Spinks’s hardest fight yet, and he barely won it: 143-142 twice, with only the third card putting him way ahead at 145-142. Still, he had done it: Spinks had defeated the Undefeated World Heavyweight Champion and scaled the mountain, the first light heavyweight to ever accomplish such a feat. In a footnote, this also made Michael and Leon Spinks the first set of brothers to become world heavyweight champions (the Klitschkos would later do the same). t was The Ring’s 1985 Upset of the Year.
Spinks and Holmes had a rematch in April 1986, with Holmes improving on his performance and in the eyes of many observers, he won the fight. Unfortunately for Holmes, he didn’t avenge himself as only one of three judges saw it that way. Instead of suffering his first defeat and losing the IBF Heavyweight Title, Spinks won a Split Decision over the unpopular Holmes.
Spinks only defended his title once more. He declined to defend it against the #1 contender, gigantic Tony “TNT” Tucker , preferring instead to take a big payday with Gerry Cooney instead. The IBF stripped him of his title. He beat Cooney by knockout. That led to the Waterloo of Michael Spinks: “Iron” Mike Tyson .
Spinks was only 31 years old and still undefeated, but the Mike Tyson he fought was at the peak of his powers and would have been a match for any heavyweight in history that night. Tyson destroyed Spinks in 90 seconds. Spinks, rather than continue to campaign as a heavyweight, decided to hang up the gloves.
Spink retired with a 31-1 (21KOs) record, but that is deceptively modest given the scale of his accomplishments. He went 11-0 as a light heavyweight champion, reigning as Undisputed Champ and standing as the only 175lbs champion to never suffer a loss while still in that division. He went on to become the only light heavyweight champ to beat the heavyweight champ, and not taking the easy route that Roy Jones later did. On the basis of these two accomplishments alone, Spinks is arguably the greatest 175 pounder of all-time.
Sources:Sports Illustrated; YouTube; ESPN Classic Sports; boxrec.com