In one moment of carelessness, Vonzell Johnson discovered last Saturday how unforgiving of error the bittersweet science can be. Johnson was on his back in the ring of Atlantic City's Playboy Hotel & Casino—his head spinning, legs gone, eyes glazed. In one stroke, he had lost whatever chance he'd had of lifting Michael Spinks's WBA light heavyweight title Gone, too, perhaps, was all hope of winning a championship he'd been fighting for since he turned pro in 1974.
"I blew it." Johnson said.
Justice was as swift as Spinks's right hand. With less than a minute gone in the seventh round, the two boxers were fighting in close when Referee Larry Hazzard stuck a hand between them. Although it appeared the fighters were in a clinch, they weren't. Hazzard said to them, "Punch out." That is, no need to break; merely fight your way out of the close quarters. Spinks stood his ground. Johnson stepped back and dropped his arms, his chin like a lantern in a storm. Spinks hit Johnson with a left uppercut to the body and followed that with a whistling overhand right to the chops—which he calls the Spinks Jinx—that "stung me real good," Johnson said.
Johnson stumbled back and fell. Upon arising, he just managed to regain his legs. Standing there, he wavered like a drunk. Spinks rushed in.
November 16, 1981
"How do you feel?" Hazzard asked Johnson.
"I feel all right," the fighter answered.
"He's not all right, ref!" Spinks said. "Stop the fight." Hazzard ignored him and waved the two together. One Spinks left hook later, Hazzard stopped it.
"I committed a cardinal sin," Johnson said "I dropped my hands. I was taught ever since I was knee high to a puppy: Come out of the clinches low, hands up. I stepped back with my hands down. That's my fault. And I make that mistake when all the marbles counted!"
Johnson's tactical lapse gave the 25-year-old Spinks occasion to demonstrate to the millions who watched the fight on CBS that he can be a resourceful opportunist and that he's more of a professional than his 18 pro fights might suggest. Hazzard had to warn the champion repeatedly not to use his elbows, a trick usually found in a veteran's bag.
The sneaky right at the end came out of a different bag. "An old Russian tactic," Spinks said "Vonzell should have known about that He fought the Russians, too."
This was Spinks's first defense of the title he won on a unanimous decision from Eddie Mustafa Muhammad in Las Vegas on July 18, and to his credit, he didn't pick a tomato can for it. Johnson can fight He has been working at it off and on since he walked into a gym in Columbus, Ohio in 1967.
Johnson, whose parents named him after George Burns's old sidekick Harry Von Zell, won the national Golden Gloves and AAU 165-pound titles in 1974 and captained the American boxing team—Ray Leonard and Aaron Pryor were on it—that toured Russia for three weeks that year. Then he turned pro, forgoing a tryout for the '76 U.S. Olympic team Had he remained an amateur, he undoubtedly would have fought Spinks for the 165-class berth "When he turned pro, it was a relief for me," Spinks says. "But I knew that one day we would fight."
Of course, Spinks made that Olympic team, won a gold medal and became the last of five team members to win world titles—following Leo Randolph, Leonard, brother Leon and John Tate.
Early this year Johnson got the title shot he'd been waiting for, in a Feb. 28 bout against WBC champion Matthew Saad Muhammad. Although he had just three weeks' notice for the fight, "I felt I might get lucky," he said. Johnson led in the early rounds but tired in the ninth. In the 11th, Saad knocked him out. Then Spinks won the WBA title in July. For his first go, he picked Johnson—short on seasoning and confidence, long on heart. This time Johnson got to train hard.
So did Spinks, and he took the fight to Johnson in the third. Disdaining the challenger's jab, he scored sharply with combinations—the jab and the overhand right, the right uppercut off the left hook, and one fiery left-right-left. Johnson slowed. In the fourth, Spinks had him in trouble. He staggered Johnson with a right after a left to the body. Spinks finished the round, easily his, with a hook that snapped Johnson's head back.
"You're doing nothing!" Trainer Angelo Dundee told Johnson before the fifth. "You're fighting his fight!" Johnson charged back to win the fifth. Spinks had his jab working again, but Johnson caught him with a right to the body and a right uppercut. Johnson backed Spinks up for the first time, forcing him across the ring with four left-right combinations. The sixth was closer, with furious exchanges, from which Johnson emerged with his left eyelid bleeding.
"Watch that elbow," Hazzard warned.
Between rounds Dundee told Johnson, "If he hits you once more with the elbow, kick him!" Dundee closed the cut, but Spinks reopened it early in the seventh and Johnson was bleeding when Spinks caught him going backward with his dukes down.
Having lost consecutive title fights, Johnson's future is cloudy, despite his 22-3 record. Spinks's is clear. Saad is still the WBC champ. They have begun the preliminary bantering. Saad calls him Michael Stinks. Spinks calls him Matthew Sad, as in sad is what Saad will be. "I'll be more than happy to unify the title," Spinks said. "Let me be the undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world. Saad will make it come true."