Updated: Jul 10
The Oxford English dictionary defines undisputed as being something that everyone agrees on or with. In the case of Michael Spinks, his boxing career took him to that level of greatness only reserved for the very few, being crowned the undisputed light heavyweight champion. Many of Michael’s nights he can remember fondly, though there remains one which continues to live in infamy.
Given issues of time differentiation and unreliable WIFI connectivity, the conversation with Michael started out pretty bumpily. However, once the conversation got going it was evident how much Michael enjoys discussing his boxing career, despite the fact that since he retired in 1988, he must have discussed it hundreds of times.
Michael Spinks made his first stamp in boxing back in the 1976 Olympic games in Montreal, Canada as part of a star-studded team which featured his brother Leon, and a name that would go on to create history in the sport: Sugar Ray Leonard.
It was not the expectation that Michael would walk away with a medal, despite him having a well accomplished amateur record which saw him win the golden gloves tournaments at super welterweight and middleweight in 1974 & 1976. He would face some tough European opposition, but went on to whitewash his opponents with ease and ultimately walked away with a gold medal. Having been part of such a successful Olympics, both for him and the USA, I wanted to find out what it was really like to have been part of such historic games:
“The Olympics was a great experience. It made it even better that I was a part of that team with my brother Leon, who also won a gold medal, but for me, all I wanted to do was just make the team, and I actually never thought about winning a gold medal. As I progressed through the tournament it did not really dawn on me on the magnitude of where I was at until I got to the final and a teammate said, “In your next fight its either a gold or a silver,” and at that point I felt well why can I not win a gold. I want to win a gold”
In this current generation, the majority of fighters that go to the Olympics tend to immediately turn professional - with the lure of a big-money deal from a major promoter waiting for them - but some decide to stick it out in the amateur scene for a while longer, competing in further tournaments whilst waiting for that lucrative offer. When Michael Spinks returned from Montreal, a hero alongside his brother, there was no big-money offer on the table initially, and whilst his brother did turn professional, it took Michael a year and a convincing chat with Butch Lewis (who was Leon’s manager at the time) to actually make that decision. And it was in-between the time that it took from winning a gold medal at the Olympics to turning professional, that Michael actually ended up taking a steady job at his local factory to make ends meet.
“I took a job instead of turning professional. I actually did not want to turn professional because of the business side of the sport and how fighters were always being ripped off of their money. So I was just content with taking a job and making money that way, but then before I knew it Butch Lewis turned up wanting to sign me up and I had to go away and really think about it. Once I had consulted with my brother, who was already a professional at this point, I then decided to turn professional myself.”
During our conversation, I really wanted to find out about his legendary light heavyweight campaign, as he had fought some tough fighters who were either former world champions, future world champions or the nearly men of the sport – those who had been unsuccessful in their attempts. The first name that came up was Yaqui Lopez, who at the time had a record of 49-10 and had lost twice to Victor Galindez for the WBA title and twice to Matthew Saad Muhammad, who was the WBC king for a little while in this highly competitive division.
“The fight with Yaqui was pretty tough for a while, It took me a few rounds to really get going, but when I did, that is when you see the step up in level, and getting the win really helped me along in what was a pretty tough division at the time. Guys like Marvin Johnson, Murray Sutherland, those fights really helped me to prepare for the fights that I was heading for.”
Michael’s first taste of glory was in 1981 when at twenty-four years old, and only sixteen fights into his career, he beat Eddie Mustafa Muhammad 38-5-1 (32KOs) to capture the WBA light heavyweight title and thus start a run in the division that has yet to be matched even today. Five defences of the title later and he then came up against a fighter with whom he had previously shared the ring within numerous sparring sessions, the man who was the current WBC champion, Dwight Muhammad Qawi 19-1-1 (12KOs). What made this bout even more significant was the fact that the winner would be crowned the unified light heavyweight champion.
“Before I fought Qawi, I actually used to box him in Joe Frazier’s gym, and I remember him saying to me that he would not want to fight me for a championship. And the next thing you know he was the WBC champion and I held the WBA title so our paths were destined to meet, and it was a great fight, one of my best nights in boxing.”
1983 saw the formation of a new sanctioning body known as the International Boxing Federation (IBF), whose goal was to become another highly respectable and recognised title. When the opportunity arose in 1984, Michael was pitted against Eddie Davis 27-3-1 (17KOs) to fight for this newly formed title, in a contest which would then crown the winner as the undisputed champion of the division. Michael would go on to subsequently beat Davis and thus be crowned the undisputed light heavyweight champion, putting himself in the history books and right there alongside the likes of Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore.
“The advantage I had going into the Davis fight was that Leon had fought Eddie and his brother Johnny in the amateurs, and he told me that Eddie was a tough dude and that I would have to be mindful of his tricks in the ring. Well when we were getting in close, Eddie would stick the thumbs of his gloves in my armpits and then hit me. He was a slick fighter in the ring but I handled him and it was great feeling be crowned undisputed.”
Michael would make two more defenses of his undisputed crown before the IBF contacted him, explaining that because he was their champion and he was moving up in weight, they would happily grant him an automatic shot at their heavyweight champion, who at the time was 48-0 longstanding champion, Larry Holmes. At the time, Larry was looking to equal the record of heavyweight legend Rocky Marciano, who had retired from boxing as an undefeated champion, with a record of 49-0, but for Michael this meant nothing;, he was not there to make up the numbers or was even phased by the underdog label. In fact, he went on to prove everyone wrong and beat Larry Holmes to become the world heavyweight champion, as well as a two-weight world champion.
“When I was in the ring with Larry, I called his bluff, I acted like I was going to stand toe to toe with him, and in the first round, he actually showed me respect, which let me know he was not going to be as courageous as I thought he would be. Yet I was ready for him to be chasing me all around the ring. I was expecting to be on my toes all night. It was a close fight and I got the decision making me a two-weight world champion, which was not something that had been done very often and it was a proud moment for me in my career.”
In 1986, Spinks and Holmes fought a rematch as part of the heavyweight unification series, produced at that time by iconic broadcaster HBO and promoted by the ubiquitous, infamous promoter, Don King. The rematch had nearly the same result, though this time Spinks won a fifteen-round split decision. After that, he retained the world heavyweight championship once again, by a knockout in four against Steffen Tangstad. However, in 1987 he was stripped of the crown by the IBF for refusing to fight their mandatory challenger, Tony Tucker, and instead accepted a higher offer to fight Gerry Cooney. Spinks knocked out Cooney in five rounds, and after Mike Tyson had unified the heavyweight belts, boxing fans started clamouring for a fight between them, with many still recognising Spinks as the legitimate lineal champion, following his aforementioned victory over Larry Holmes in 1985.
Speaking about the hype surrounding the fight, and the seeming aura of invincibility which surrounded Mike Tyson at that time, Michael spoke of his memories in the build-up to that now-infamous night in Atlantic City:
“I knew I had a tough fight on my hands. He was hitting pretty hard and knocking most of his opponents out, so I had to be ready for him, but I was confident in my ability and at the time I believed if I could have weathered the early storm then I could have taken it through the later rounds.”
The rest is history as Mike Tyson obliterated Michael in just ninety-one seconds with pundits dubbing the bout the ninety-one-second massacre. There have been many stories over the years of how “scared” Michael looked when entering the ring that night - some say that it was from hearing Mike hitting the wall so hard in the changing room that Michael immediately lost his confidence. All of this is, of course, is speculation and for Michael, it is something that is just simply not true.
Following the defeat to Tyson, and to much surprise, Michael Spinks retired from boxing at the age of 31, when seemingly at the peak of his career. I have often wondered why he made that decision to retire: was he embarrassed about the manner of defeat to Tyson? Or was it that he had just reached his full potential and felt that there was nothing left for him to longer do in the sport.
“I always said to myself that if I ever lose a fight, then that will be the end of my career, and fortunately for me, I lost after achieving more than I ever expected to achieve. I did not feel like there was anything else I could achieve. I mean, I was undefeated and undisputed at light heavyweight, then I moved up beat Larry Holmes and won a world title at heavyweight, so what more was there to do?”
Since retiring from the sport, Spinks has largely remained away from boxing, only attending events in honour of former champions or hall of fame ceremonies, where he would enjoy meeting up with former foes and fellow fighters. Michael is one of the rare instances in boxing where a fighter is able to walk away from the sport with money in his pocket and his health in good stead.
“Since retiring from the sport life has been good. I have just been being who I am and doing what I want to do with my life. I don’t follow the sport anymore it is very rare I sit down to watch a fight because for me boxing is just not how it used to be.”
At this point of our conversation, I found it only right to find out what Michael considers to be his greatest night in boxing because it was pretty obvious to many that follow the sport what his worst night in the sport was, but in reminiscing about it Michael instead began chuckling:
“My greatest night in boxing was when my manager, Butch Lewis, got me the fight with Larry Holmes; and against what everyone thought, I beat him and won the world heavyweight title. Then my worst night, well that had the be the night I lost to Mike Tyson, not because of how I lost, but because I actually lost a fight.”
When looking back on the career of Michael Spinks, and given all of his achievements in the sport, it made me wonder why he is so often overlooked by the current generation of boxing fans? And it has begged a few questions in my mind such as: is it because of that one infamous night against Tyson, or is it because he walked away from the sport and has since never looked back?
Spinks has so many famous nights in the sport; his fights with Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad stand out, but then the fact that he became the only fighter in history to move from light heavyweight to heavyweight so successfully against Larry Holmes, are all reasons why he has been inducted into the international boxing hall of fame. However, it seems to only be that one infamous night against Mike Tyson that fans continue to remember him by, but for Michael, he certainly does not hold any regrets about his career and his achievements:
“I have no regrets about my career at all and I think I did pretty good. I walked away with my health intact and money in my pocket, which is more than what most fighters that leave the sport can say.”