For those who were wondering, Mike Tyson's mother-in-law will not be in the ring with him on Monday night at Atlantic City's Convention Center. No, Ruth Roper will have to be content to shout advice from ringside. This is a fistfight, two guys banging heads, and despite the soap-opera shenanigans that figure to continue right up to the opening bell—in particular, efforts by his wife, Robin, and Roper to gain more control of Tyson's career—nothing will matter except which of the two, the undisputed heavyweight champion or the 4-to-1 underdog Michael Spinks, survives.
For Tyson, the first bell should come as a blessed relief. He is a pure warrior, and in battle he can turn his broad back on the pressures of the real world and concentrate on what he does with the best of bad intentions—chopping down the man in front of him. In the week before the fight, Tyson was forced to respond in print to allegations by Robin's sister, Stephanie, that he has, on at least one occasion, physically assaulted Robin during their young marriage. "People say he must be upset by all the things that have been happening to him," says Larry Holmes, the former heavyweight champion whom Tyson knocked out in four rounds last January. "But getting him upset just makes him more determined, and the more determined he is, the harder he fights."
Which does not bode well for Spinks, the 31-year-old challenger who won the heavyweight crown from Holmes in September 1985, defended it in a close and controversial rematch seven months later, then was ordered by the IBF to relinquish it when he accepted a multimillion-dollar fight with Gerry Cooney. Says Spinks, "I'm afraid that all that has happened to Tyson will just make him meaner."
Mind you, Spinks won't be looking to negotiate an early cease-fire. "Don't be fooled by all that nice talk and that quiet stuff," said Tyson, who will be putting his undisputed title on the line for the fourth time. "He gives you all that gentleman stuff outside the ring, but inside it he can be real mean."
June 26, 1988
Spinks's credentials seem to support Iron Mike's contention. The 1976 Olympic middleweight gold medalist (at 165 pounds), Spinks is undefeated in 31 professional fights. He won the WBA light heavyweight title in July 1981, unified the title in March 1983, and successfully defended the unified crown four times. Twice he was victorious in defending his heavyweight championship. In his last fight, he knocked out Cooney in the fifth round. But, ask the skeptics, is he a genuine heavyweight? Holmes was old and well beyond his prime when he faced Spinks. Steffen Tangstad, the last opponent Spinks faced before he was stripped of the IBF's share of the heavyweight crown for choosing to fight Cooney, was a cream puff And Cooney was but a shadow of his former overrated self.
"There is a great misconception about Michael," says Eddie Futch, Spinks's sagacious I trainer. "Everybody thinks of him as just a blown-up 175-pounder. He weighed as much as 214 in training camp, and it's not an artificial weight. I expect he'll come in at 208 or 210, and that's legitimate. That's 20 pounds more than Rocky Marciano or Jack Dempsey. That's 10 to 15 pounds more than Joe Louis was at his peak. Jersey Joe I Walcott never weighed 200 pounds his best day."
None of those gentlemen, of course, ever fought Tyson, who is expected to step through the ropes at around 220 pounds. "Spinks may be heavy enough, but that just makes him a heavy runner, and slower," says Holmes. "He won't be able to run from Tyson, because Tyson will swarm all over him. He's not hard to catch, and when Tyson catches him in the corners, it will be all over."
In the early going the bout will be more a footrace than a fight, with Spinks performing a circling retreat and Tyson pursuing while trying to trap Spinks in a corner. Within the first two rounds, Spinks will have to make a stand; he must try to slow Tyson's pursuit with at least one hard, clean punch. "I know I am going to have to take a chance," says Spinks. "You've got to make him think, too. But"—he smiles before going on—"you have got to watch out that he doesn't hit you while you are trying to hit him."
It will be a chess game, only the moves will be made with hammers. "We've got to make Tyson sit back and think," says Futch. "Everybody believes Tyson comes in with a steel plate in front of his chin. But to come in he has to expose himself, and when you have a guy back there with two guns, you're not going to feel like doing all the things you'd like to do. It's not like hitting a heavy bag. Michael has to hit him early and hard to establish respect."
Spinks does possess power. Twenty-one of his 31 victories have come by knockout. And while he is best known for his right hand, which he has labeled the Spinks Jinx, some of his more stunning knockouts have been set up by left hooks.
"People think that Mike ought to be easy to hit," says Kevin Rooney, Tyson's trainer. "But Mike takes pride in his defense. That's what we learned from Cus D'Amato, and that's what I emphasize—move your head and don't be there. They think they can hurt him? They can't hurt him if they don't hit him with a clean shot, and I don't think they can do it. It's a one-sided fight. The best Spinks can hope for is to run, stink out the joint and try and get Mike frustrated and steal the decision."
Futch believes Tyson has weaknesses that Spinks will exploit. "I've got a big book on him," says Futch. "But I'm not going to talk about them. I did that once already, before the Tyrell Biggs fight, and Tyson came out in that fight and had corrected all the things I said he was doing wrong. [Tyson knocked out Biggs in the seventh round.] I think they hang on everything I say so they can correct what he is doing wrong. Tyson was walking straight in and with a guy as big and strong and with as good a jab as Biggs, he would get hit with a lot of punches. But in that fight, he started bobbing and weaving again. No, I'm not going to do any more talking like that."
If Tyson does have a serious flaw, it is that he often leaves his feet when he punches. "Yeah," Futch says, "that's a very vulnerable moment, especially against a guy with mobility. If you leave your feet and you see that your man has anticipated it, well, there is nothing you can do about it. You're up there in the air just waiting to get hit. All the other guy has to do is decide which hand to hit you with."
But the champion reduces his vulnerability with his catlike quickness. "One moment he is out there somewhere and you feel safe," says Rufus Hadley, a Tyson sparring partner, "and the next thing he is in your face, so sudden it's scary, and hitting you upside your head. And when he hits you, man, he changes the taste in your mouth."
Tyson will need all of his speed to track down Spinks, who uses the entire ring with awkward but marvelous agility. Tyson has to cut off the ring. When Spinks circles to his right, Tyson must move left, rather than follow him, angling toward Spinks, and then change direction quickly when Spinks is forced to his left. Only when he runs out of ring does Spinks plan to stand and fight.
"My whole object in winning is trying to hit without getting hit," says Spinks. "I will have to move a lot because I don't like getting hit by anyone. It's not a finesse game Tyson possesses; he just wants to hammer you. Anytime he can land one he will hurt you, and he's not looking to do it gracefully, either."
While winning all 34 of his fights, Tyson has KO'd 30 of his opponents. None of them fell gracefully, either. "We got to trap Spinks in a corner where Mike can go to work on his body," says Rooney. "That will slow him down. Then we can quit chasing him and take him out of there."
Tyson should begin catching up with Spinks in the third round. Spinks's graceless style may prove troublesome for Tyson at first, but the 21-year-old champion has matured well as a fighter. He no longer becomes frustrated when he fails to hit a home run every time at bat. And as Tyson's body shots begin to take their toll, Spinks, in desperation—and because he will not go quietly—will try to fight his way out of trouble. That will put the bout into the trenches, where Tyson is happiest.
With Spinks no longer able to retreat, Tyson will shift his sights to the head. As a professional, Spinks has never been off his feet. Pride and courage will keep him around, if not always erect, until the seventh round. However, as Spinks said when asked if the long negotiations for the fight had bothered him, "No, not at all. I never was all that thrilled about getting in the ring with this guy anyway. No, this is no big thrill for me."
Spinks's thrill will come on Tuesday, when his $13 million—about half of what Tyson should earn—is deposited in the bank. The hurt goes away; the money stays.