Last Saturday afternoon, at the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas, Michael Spinks became the fifth of the five gold medal winners from the memorable 1976 U.S. Olympic boxing team to get a title shot, and the fourth to turn that golden opportunity into a championship. Lift another glass to Michael Spinks, the Montreal champ who hasn't made 7-Up commercials or done backflips in the center of the ring. Michael Spinks, the one who hasn't done his roadwork in discos, the one in good odor with the National Safety Council. You know, Michael Spinks, the only '76 Olympian who has never lost a professional fight.
Spinks won the WBA light heavyweight championship by defeating Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, who had to shed 26¾ pounds after making an ill-fated foray into the heavyweight division two months ago, losing a 10-round decision to Renaldo Snipes. It will always be a matter of conjecture whether Spinks would have handled a fine-tuned Mustafa Muhammad as easily as this possibly enervated version. Only 16½ hours before fight time, Mustafa Muhammad had to sweat off nearly two pounds to make the 175-pound limit. Nevertheless, with this, his 17th straight victory, Michael Spinks stepped out of the long shadows cast by his Olympic teammates Sugar Ray Leonard and brother Leon. And now Spinks can look forward to a unification fight with WBC champ Matthew Saad Muhammad.
Well, maybe. If boxing were not the administrative disaster it is, Spinks vs. Saad Muhammad would be as obvious as Mustafa Muhammad's swollen right eye, which began to close in the eighth round, the turning point of their bout. Saad Muhammad, Spinks and Mustafa Muhammad were the only big names in the light heavyweight division before Saturday, and now there are two. (Though he says he can come back, his mediocre showing against Spinks on the heels of his slow-motion loss to Snipes puts the future of the 29-year-old Mustafa Muhammad in jeopardy.) Saad Muhammad is a good draw because of his tendency to impersonate a punching bag before rallying dramatically. And Spinks is a good draw because his name is Spinks, even if he is so colorless as to observe the speed limit.
But who knows? Saad Muhammad, who had helped his good buddy Mustafa Muhammad shed the weight before the fight, appeared at Spinks' postfight press conference to announce that he felt Mustafa Muhammad had won the fight. He didn't say he would give Spinks a fight. Saad Muhammad might be an underdog against Spinks, just as Mustafa Muhammad was. "I think if Saad's people sit down and see the way he's been looking in his past fights, barely coming through by the skin of his teeth, the payday with Michael alone would warrant their signing," said Butch Lewis, who has a promotional contract with Spinks. "The way things have been going with Saad lately, he could lose everything for a very small amount of money." Still, there's no obligation for Saad Muhammad to sign. "I know that," said Lewis, "but I also know there's a great demand for this fight. They finally got Hearns and Leonard to the table, didn't they?"
July 26, 1981
As decisively as Spinks beat Mustafa Muhammad, knocking him down in the 12th round and winning by eight points on one judge's card and six on another's, the nationally televised fight highlighted some of the built-in weaknesses of the light heavyweight division. Spinks has power, but not the power of a heavyweight, and speed, but not the speed of a middleweight. The fight wasn't exciting, with Mustafa Muhammad playing hide-the-face to protect his right eye, and Spinks often missing awkwardly with his favorite punch, an overhand right, which he calls "The Spinks Jinx." The purse wasn't exciting, either—an estimated $350,000 for Mustafa Muhammad and $125,000 for Spinks. Mustafa Muhammad has long railed against the poor pay for light-heavies; it was for that reason he moved up to heavyweight, with a long-range goal of fighting Larry Holmes or Gerry Cooney. That dream now appears to be dead.
Some chroniclers of the family Spinks are undoubtedly waiting for Michael to start acting up like his brother. But they seem likely to be disappointed. Michael has been unpredictable in some ways in the 4½ years of his quiet pro career, but he fights his battles alone. "Whatever has happened to me," he said two days before the fight, "I can say I've done it my way." Sinatra, himself, couldn't have said it better.
Michael, who turns 25 this week, and Leon, now 28, were raised in the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project of St. Louis, fighting the same survival war. "I was a weird little guy," says Michael. "At six o'clock in the morning everybody would be sleeping and I'd go outside and play, listen to the birds sing and lie in the grass, looking up at the sky. I never wanted to be like the in crowd. See, around us, everybody was a boxer and there were tough guys everywhere. I was getting jumped on all the time." In self-defense, Michael followed Leon into amateur boxing, and he took his lumps. "I wasn't a success right away like Leon," he says. "I just didn't have the strength of a lot of guys. And, at first, I probably didn't have the heart, either."
Michael even "retired" briefly, but returned a short time later when Leon ragged him about it. At 15 he started getting stronger and he trained seriously, winning national Golden Gloves titles in 1974 and 1976 while pointing to the '76 Olympics. It was never easy. For a time Michael had a 3 p.m.-to-midnight job 20 miles outside St. Louis and had to do his roadwork in the middle of the night after work—but he and Leon emerged from the Olympic Trials with spots on the team.
At the Olympic camp, Michael lost a decision to Keith Broom that forced a box-off. He won that on a first-round knockout and hasn't lost since. In Montreal, Michael twice advanced through default and never had the crowd-pleasing victories of Leonard or Leon. But he was still an Olympic champion, and afterward it was all there for him to grab.
Why has it taken him so long? You have to start with Michael himself. Though he's a superb natural athlete who trains seriously, he has always been somewhat the reluctant warrior. He admits he doesn't like boxing—the training, the sacrifice, the need to administer punishment. Perhaps it will always be that way for the boy who listened to the birds in the St. Louis ghetto. His career has also been hampered by a lack of guidance. Nick Miranda of St. Louis has been his only manager, and he lasted for just two months back in '78. And Michael had promotional problems early in his career after signing with Bob Arum's Top Rank Inc. For example, he made $20,000 in 1977 in his third pro fight, against Joe Bordon, and two months later only $4,000 in his fourth, against Jasper Brisbane. That's not what you call progress.
Then there is his intense relationship with his brother. Though Michael is three years younger, he says he's always had a proprietary feeling about Leon. Michael originally signed with Top Rank not because he wanted to, he says, but because he wanted to be with Leon and help him, and Leon had signed with Arum. Michael has frequently subjugated his career to Leon's, abandoning his own training while Leon was preparing for a fight. "Leon is very weak in some points," Michael once said. "He has a tendency to trust people he shouldn't. All those smiling faces and shaking hands, and he just trusts. He should check people out."
In his zeal to help Leon with his checking, some observers say, Michael overstayed his welcome in Leon's camp, particularly when Leon was in training for championship fights. "Michael always seemed to want to dominate Leon," says Sam Solomon, who was Leon's trainer when he beat Ali in 1978 and now trains Saad Muhammad. "Michael always thought he had the answers to Leon's problems. But what this led to was constant bickering between the brothers. Sure, Leon wanted him there. He's his brother and they're close. But he wanted Michael to stay out of his business."
Solomon was also Michael's trainer while Michael was under contract to Top Rank for his first seven pro bouts. "He just didn't take to advice," says Solomon. "Michael should've been in the forefront long before this. But by interfering in Leon's business, worrying about Leon's affairs, he hurt his own career."
Possibly so. On the night Leon beat Ali for the heavyweight title, Feb. 15, 1978, Michael won a 10-round decision over Tom Bethea. But Michael didn't fight again until December, three months after Leon lost the title to Ali in the rematch. As Leon's career headed for the skids in 1979, Michael stopped training and he had only one fight that entire year. To be sure, he was bothered by a knee injury. Michael wasn't with Leon when his brother was training for his fight against Holmes in June. But when Leon was knocked down in the third round, there was Michael, trying to get into the ring to comfort Leon while being restrained by his trainer, Nelson Brison, Lewis' half brother.
For his part, Michael says too little guidance hasn't hurt him. He says too much advice, not too little, has hampered most boxers, including Leon, who has had four different managers for only 15 pro fights.
Whatever has occurred in the past between the brothers, there could be no doubt of the sincerity of their embrace and the tears that flowed after Michael's victory last week. "Me and my brother have never had any troubles," said Leon. "Sam Solomon is always saying something. That's why he's not with either one of us right now. I want my brother around. I know one thing—I won't have to watch my back like I do when some other people are around."
Still, Michael's future is uncharted, particularly if he can't get Saad Muhammad in the ring. Though he has a lawyer and an accountant, he is his own manager of record. "I make my own decisions because I'm the one who has to live with them," he says. Nevertheless, he had three cornermen Saturday, Brison, Percy Richardson, the chief boxing inspector for New Jersey, and Eddie Futch, Larry Holmes' trainer. All three gave instructions, but their collective wisdom didn't immediately work. Michael started slowly against Mustafa Muhammad and he often looked confused and off-balance in the first three rounds. He started to connect with his jab in the fourth, and by the end of the eighth his opponent's eye was swollen almost shut. Mustafa Muhammad, who was treated at Desert Springs Hospital after the fight, said Spinks thumbed and elbowed him in the eye. Referee Richard Greene allowed that the fight was "pretty rough," but said Spinks did nothing illegal. Spinks didn't know what punch or punches got through to Mustafa Muhammad's eye, only that he looked up and saw the swelling. "After that I was aiming for the eye," he said, "but I don't know how often I got it. By the end of the fight I was just aiming for anything above the neck."
Despite the cut, Mustafa Muhammad battled back gamely until the 12th, when a left hook followed by an overhand right put him down for a nine count. "My right eye was closed and I couldn't see, so I had to hold my head up," said Mustafa Muhammad of the knockdown. "With my head up like that he just came right over and got me. He hit me hard, but I just got up and looked at him." However, it continued to be Spinks' fight, even though he had never gone more than 10 rounds before.
Preparing for the title defense had been aggravating for Mustafa Muhammad. To lose the weight he had to give up his two favorite foods, bean pie and ice cream. But he didn't lose enough. At 12:30 a.m. on Saturday, the time the boxers themselves had chosen for the official weigh-in, Mustafa Muhammad stripped, stepped on the scale and watched it register 176¾ pounds. It was off to the nearby Las Vegas Sporting House to jump rope for 30 minutes as his followers cheered him on to new heights of perspiration. He returned to the scales at 2:20 a.m. and weighed in at exactly 175.
Still another aggravation for Mustafa Muhammad was what he considers the pampering Spinks has gotten for being an Olympic gold medalist. He feels he was cheated out of a spot on the 1972 team (Jesse Valdez decisioned him) and says being a non-Olympian has cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in purses.
Unlike Leon, Michael has considerable aplomb. When Saad Muhammad boorishly interrupted his postfight news conference, Michael said "I don't mean to cut you off, but I was talking. Will someone please remove this man from the premises."
Before the fight, he had said, "I've always been aware that people believe boxers must be the dumbest people alive to get inside that ring and start hitting each other, and I wanted to show them I was different. That's why, believe it or not, Leon and I never talk about boxing when we get together. I didn't want to be always talking boxing, or walking around like this [he bobs and weaves] so people could say, 'Yeah, there goes one of those punch-drunk boxers.' That's why I was so glad for 1976 and Montreal. People got a chance to see there were fighters who could use their heads, who knew something besides fighting." And a lot about winning.