A jinx – someone or something that curses a person with bad luck. Michael Spinks cast a devastating spell on the 175-pound division when he arrived in 1977, which would last through to his final title defence in 1985. During that time, he established himself as the greatest light heavyweight of that epoch – an era loaded with some serious talent. It would take a destructive heavyweight named Mike Tyson to end that hex years later. This is the life and underrated career of the Jinx.
Born July 13, 1956, Michael Spinks endured a tough childhood. His family resided in the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in northern St. Louis, Missouri. The crime-ridden estate had a fearsome reputation, and the Spinks children were targeted by the local gangs throughout their early years.
The six Spinks brothers were responsible for protecting the women in the household. Their father had abandoned the family when Michael was four, leaving mother, Kay, to care for her seven children on her own. She was an admirable figure, working long hours as an ordained minister to put food on the table for her offspring. Michael did his best to assist financially, by selling newspapers locally. He also secured paper delivery jobs for two of his younger brothers.
Michael’s older brother Leon, a future world heavyweight champion himself, responded to intimidation from neighbourhood thugs by taking himself to the Capri Boxing Gym, to learn how to defend himself. It didn’t take long before he developed a passion for the sport and persuaded his brother Michael to join him.
During his teenage years, Michael began earning “chump change” through boxing. The Capri head coach Jim Merrill would frequently send a team of talented fighters from his gym to attend interstate tournaments. Each boxer would be handed five dollars per day for food and drink, but most of the youngsters skipped meals and pocketed the money. Winning served as a strong incentive, as it meant they would be retained for future competitions – resulting in more money.
As an amateur, Spinks would claim some respectable accolades. In 1974, he would win the Golden Gloves at light middleweight by defeating Wilber Cameron in Denver, before losing in the final of the National AAU 165-pound Championship Competition in 1975, earning a Silver Medal.
He repeated his Golden Gloves success in 1976, this time up at middleweight with a three-round victory over Lamont Kirkland in Miami. That same year, he and his brother Leon both secured their place at the 1976 Montreal Olympics for the U.S. national team. Michael claimed Gold at middleweight, whilst Leon also secured the sport’s top amateur prize up at light heavyweight. Michael would leave the amateur game boasting an impressive 93-7 record.
Following his Olympic success, Spinks took a sabbatical from boxing. He returned to St. Louis and assumed a janitor role at a Monsanto industrial plant, which provided him with a dependable, well-paid line of work. The job wouldn’t last, though, as he was unceremoniously sacked after falling asleep on the job.
This prompted Michael’s decision to join his brother Leon, who had already turned professional with popular promoter, Butch Lewis, in the paid ranks. They relocated to Delaware, where they could live with less distraction and travel to Philadelphia for regular, high quality training and tougher sparring.
With Leon making waves up at heavyweight and becoming a star on the ABC television network, Michael had some catching up to do. He kicked off his career in 1977, destroying Eddie Benson in a single round. The following year, he claimed an eight-round decision victory over Tom Bethea, on the undercard that saw his brother Leon dethrone Muhammad Ali to become world heavyweight champion.
1980 saw him begin the ascent to the world title, knocking out the best contenders the division had to offer in David Conteh, Ramon Ronquillo and Alvaro Yaqui Lopez. The most eye-catching victory came in the form of a unanimous decision against Murray Sutherland, who would later drop down to super middleweight and win the IBFstrap.
Spinks posed an awkward, unorthodox style – often described as a herky-jerky. He threw shots from unorthodox angles and although it wasn’t the prettiest on the eye, it proved effective. The addition of an efficient engine and a sturdy set of whiskers made him an elite boxer, albeit a notoriously slow starter.
He was also renowned for a dynamite right hand, nicknamed “The Spinks Jinx”, as it brought bad luck to whoever tasted it. However, his most potent weapon might well have been the left hand. With it, he could control the opponent behind the jab, enabling him to launch hooks and uppercuts from a variety of positions.
His impressive run of victories, including a four-round dismantling of former WBC and WBA world holder Marvin Johnson in 1981, propelled Spinks to the position of number one challenger with the WBA.
Spinks overwhelmed Johnson for three rounds and closed the show emphatically in the fourth with a highlight reel knockout. A beautiful lead left hook, delivered from an unconventionally low position, left the former champion unconscious on the canvas.
The stage was set for a date with Eddie Mustafa Muhammad for the WBA championship in Las Vegas on July 18, 1981.
Spinks would drop the champion in round twelve en route to a convincing fifteen round decision victory. Muhammad, known for his boring but effective counter-punching style, had no answer for Spinks’ awkwardness or power. He was forced to spend most of the fight with severely impaired vision; his right eye swollen from a barrage of thudding shots.
UNDISPUTED AND TRAGEDY
Two successful defences followed. The first, a unanimous decision, over Vonzell Johnson in 1981, preceded a knockout victory over reigning lineal light heavyweight champion Mustafa Wassaja, who had previously knocked out the long serving ruler of the division, Bob Foster, back in 1978.
By this time, the boxing faithful were clamouring for a mouth-watering unification fight with WBC champion, Dwight Muhammad Qawi. However, Spinks’ life would change forever in January of 1983, when he lost his twenty-four-year-old wife in a car accident, Sandra Massey, leaving him a single father of young daughter Michelle.
Despite the profound grief, Michael was determined to honour Sandra’s memory by pursuing the unified championship. The fight with Qawi was pencilled in for March 18th, 1983.
Qawi (born Dwight Braxton) suffered a defeat and a draw in his first three fights but turned things around to go unbeaten in his next eighteen fights and become WBC and Ring Magazine light heavyweight champion, stopping Matthew Saad Muhammad in ten rounds.
He was a legitimate champion who posed a serious threat to the unbeaten Spinks, and this fight would leave no doubt as to who was the main man at 175-pounds. On the night of the fight, members of Spinks’ camp famously recount that their fighter was reduced to tears before walking to the ring after his daughter questioned whether her mother would be ringside to watch him do battle.
Once he regained composure, he made his way to the squared circle and proceeded to control the fight from the outset. He utilised his ramrod jab to stop Qawi from closing the distance, and then followed up with hard straight right-hands to force him onto the back foot.
Although Spinks suffered a questionable knockdown in the eighth round, he continued to dominate and used his ring intelligence to steer clear of trouble and nullify Qawi’s attacks. After fifteen hard-fought rounds, Spinks was awarded the decision by all three judges, crowning him the unified WBC and WBA champion.
Qawi would later cement his legacy and become a legend in his own right, by winning a championship up at cruiserweight, where he would share two enthralling encounters with Evander Holyfield and gain some revenge against the Spinks family by defeating older brother Leon.
THE HEAVYWEIGHT JUMP
In 1984, after two successful defences, the rematch was set between Spinks and Qawi, but the challenger was forced to pull out due to a training injury. Instead, Spinks claimed a twelve-round unanimous decision over Eddie Davies, which prompted the IBF to install him as their recognised champion.
Now a three-belt holder (plus the Ring Magazine belt), he completed two further successful defences, stopping David Sears and Jim MacDonald, before making the daunting jump up to heavyweight in pursuit of a new challenge.
Spinks bulked up in weight and challenged the long-reigning ruler of the division, Larry Holmes, who was undefeated in forty-eight fights and looking to tie Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 record. Despite being 6-1 underdog to ruin the unbeaten run, Michael earned the award of Ring Magazine Upset of the Year for 1985, with a points victory over fifteen rounds.
The fight had been close, and the decision was disputed amongst viewers. The victory confirmed Michael and his brother Leon as the first pair of siblings to become world heavyweight champions (a feat repeated by the Ukrainian Klitschko brothers, Vitali and Wladimir, two decades later). The controversy sparked demand for a rematch the following year, in which Spinks edged another fiercely fought contest.
A PAINFUL FAREWELL
His first defence of the crown was a fourth-round stoppage of Steffen Tangstad. He was subsequently stripped of the belt for refusing to defend against mandatory challenger Tony Tucker, instead facing “Great White Hope” Gerry Cooney in a lucrative match-up. Spinks dispatched Cooney inside five rounds.
The IBF title had been assumed by Mike Tyson, who also held the WBC and WBA straps. Despite the ferocious Tyson being the undisputed champion, many still recognised Spinks as the lineal heavyweight champion – the man who beat the man. This led to calls for a showdown between the two Mikes, which was locked in for June 1988 at the Convention Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Tyson, in his fighting prime, was a freak of nature; a short, compact machine that would bob and weave effortlessly, before jumping into range and exploding with venomous blows from every angle.
Despite Tyson’s menacing demeanour, many felt that Spinks would prove too experienced and crafty for the hot-headed champion – an opinion shared by the likes of Muhammad Ali.
However, Tyson justified his self-titled moniker as “baddest man on the planet” by stopping Spinks inside ninety-one seconds, inflicting the first and only defeat of his career.
Michael, who had never tasted the canvas legitimately before, was floored twice. Following the humiliation, he waved goodbye to the sport with a record of 31-1-0 (with 21 knockouts).
It is an unfortunate reality that most fighters find it difficult to accustom to a normal lifestyle after leaving boxing. Many struggle to fill the time that would have previously been spent training and there is little to replace the adrenaline felt during sparring or fight night. There are countless stories of boxers who turn to drugs and alcohol to replace the highs of professional boxing and others who experience depression, leading to moments of madness. Some take their own life or end up in prison, whilst others return to boxing in forlorn attempts to relive their former glories.
Michael Spinks, thankfully, avoided those pitfalls. His relationship with the sport had ended amicably, financially stable and with his health fully intact. Aside from the occasional public appearance and motivational speech at local schools, Michael has managed to avoid the limelight and live a happy life. He resides in Delaware with his family, in a beautiful seven-bedroom house on a five-acre estate.
The boxing dynasty didn’t end with Michael or Leon, his nephew Cory Spinks was the unified welterweight champion during the early 2000s, with notable victories over Rafael Pineda, Ricardo Mayorga and Zab Judah.
The Spinks brothers are often criticised by the boxing fraternity. Leon was scorned for the shortest heavyweight title reign in history and was mocked for his toothless grin in post-fight press conferences. He also experienced personal problems, involving numerous traffic accidents, and bankruptcy – forcing him to live on the streets for a time.
Michael’s achievements have been unjustly devalued because of the manner of his defeat to Iron Mike. His résumé at light heavyweight stacks up against the very best throughout the history of the division. He went unbeaten at the weight during a cut-throat era, defeating every top contender and champion available. What made him special was his versatility: his ability to morph into several different styles to suit the opponent. He was a careful, disciplined boxer against Qawi, a sleep-inducing puncher against Marvin Johnson, and an unpredictable whirling dervish against Holmes.
He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994 and was ranked forty-second on Ring Magazine’s list of the 80 Best Fighters of the Last 80 Years. When it comes to rating Spinks in a historical context, he is a top-five light heavyweight and a top fifty boxer of all-time.