Artwork by Gian Galang
In the mid 1980s the heavyweight division was in a poor and fractured state, and that is something which fans and pundits have been echoing with short intermissions ever since. Between 1978, when Leon Spinks bested a near antique Muhammad Ali, and 1985 there had been a dozen world champions crowned with various combinations of letters prefixing their 'heavyweight champion of the world' accolade. Michael Dokes, Mike Weaver, Greg Page, Tony Tubbs, Gerrie Coetzee, John Tate, Pinklon Thomas, Tim Witherspoon, Larry Holmes, Michael Spinks and even old Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton had claimed various incarnations of the crown—or as the public saw it, fragments of the crown.
HBO's Seth Abraham was sick of it and when Don King inquired what it would take to have HBO televise his latest WBC title fight between Pinklon Thomas and Trevor Berbick, Abraham insisted that King be able to use the fight as part of a tournament with all three organizations' heavyweight champions. So at great expense and after much negotiation, HBO put together a heavyweight tournament akin to that following Muhammad Ali's exile from the sport through 1967 and 1968, attempting to unify the titles and bring some weight back to the championship.
It went swimmingly for a short while. Berbick surprised Thomas and captured the WBC belt. Rising superstar and the main ticket mover of the tournament, Mike Tyson crushed Alfonso Ratliff and then took Berbick's title in his next fight. James 'Bonecrusher' Smith upset Tim Witherspoon with a first round knockout for the WBA heavyweight title, then lost over the distance to Tyson in his next bout. And IBF heavyweight champion, Michael Spinks after besting Larry Holmes by split decision in their rematch, dusted off Steffen Tangstad in four rounds.
Tyson's destruction of Trevor Berbick.
This is where things got complicated. Spinks and his manager, Butch Lewis opted out of the tournament to take a match with the always lucrative 'Great White Hope', Gerry Cooney. The fact that all three belts were held by black men meant that the one willing to offer Cooney another shot would be able to draw a huge audience, sad as that is. Spinks' management figured that they could take advantage of the obvious flaw in the tournament structure that Joe Frazier exploited in that 1968 tournament. If you have a belt or title to leverage, you can sit out the tournament taking more lucrative fights, waiting for some other mug to collect all the belts and then come for yours after the tournament has concluded. For Frazier, that mug was Jimmy Ellis. Ellis put together the best year of his career through that tournament, putting the top heavyweights in the world on blast. Frazier, the highest regarded heavyweight in the world, refused his invitation to that tournament however, and simply waited it out to take a single fight with Ellis at the end—which he promptly won.
Obviously, there was backlash to Spinks' decision. In addition to threats of legal proceedings being brought against him, the IBF stripped Spinks of the title and put it on the line in a bout between Tony Tucker and Buster Douglas. Tucker won the bout, then immediately fought Tyson to a losing decision. But Spinks was in the curious position that his lack of a belt didn't matter, because he was the lineal champion. This means that tracing the line of succession down from John L. Sullivan to the modern era with no regard for belts or governing bodies, only for victories and defeats, Spinks was still the world champion. It is an unusual situation for a lineal champion to have no belt to his name but amid the politicking and title stripping of modern boxing it is entirely feasible. For boxing purists, this meant a great deal and The Ring, perhaps honoring the memory of its founder, Nat Fleischer who was a stickler for this sort of stuff, ranked Spinks as its heavyweight champion as well.
Something that is lost in many retellings of this story is just how good a boxer Michael Spinks was. Firstly, Spinks was a natural light heavyweight and at that weight he was one of the most accomplished fighters in the sport's history. In an era of remarkable depth at that weight, Spinks defended his title ten times before moving up to challenge for the heavyweight title. When he did move up in weight, he met Larry Holmes—one of the all time greats at heavyweight and a man who had fought to twenty victories since winning his title. Holmes was past his best, no doubt, but Spinks was considerably smaller than Holmes and Holmes looked downright confused by Spinks' awkward style. Reluctant to throw his right hand, Holmes found his jab being easily patted away and Spinks returning with wild flurries of activity.
Spinks' style was downright ugly. Throwing out a handful of punches against the opponent's guard to land one good one. Slap, tap, tap, bang was the constant dynamic of Spinks' offensive flurries and his ability to gauge his opponent's reactions and know where they would be at any given point was reminiscent of that master of the set up, Alexis Arguello. This was compounded by his frequent use of the lead uppercut, another Arguello favorite. When the good blow landed and stunned his man, Spinks would get serious and suddenly every blow would be coming hard and fast. He was a terrific example of two handed hitting power from all sorts of angles, but his right hand especially was given almost mythical status as 'the Spinks jinx'. Where Spinks was often lacking was in his movement, which is traditionally an invaluable commodity when fighting up in weight. Often wearing a knee brace in his later bouts, Spinks' legs sometimes weren't able to move as quickly as needed on defense and he relied heavily on covering and moving his head under fire in later bouts, though he still covered distance offensively with surprising rapidity in spurts.
Reportedly Spinks' manager, Butch Lewis made such excessive demands in negotiating to fight Tyson that Tyson's own management felt they would never reach a deal. The idea of a 'winner-take-all' match for a $20 million purse was thrown around which drew from Spinks the famous quote: “And what if I lose? I got to go home sad and poor too?” Supposedly it was Tyson who insisted the fight be made when his management could have happily walked away from the table. The idea of answering questions about the other or 'real' heavyweight champion for the rest of his career didn't appeal to Iron Mike.
When the fight came, Tyson advanced from the opening bell. Spinks, now wearing two knee braces, did his best to circle out buy still suffered clubbing blows around his guard. After failing to cover up against Tyson's flurries on a couple of occasions, Spinks attempted to clinch. His old foe, Larry Holmes had shown Tyson to be easily frustrated and flummoxed in the periods in which he applied the old Ali style clinch, holding the back of Tyson's head with one hand and his triceps with the other, but Spinks was not Holmes or Ali, he was largely ineffectual with his tie ups. A traditional Tyson forearm strike across the jaw came in on one attempt at the clinch.
Tyson recoiled Spinks' head with a Spinks special, the lead uppercut. Both Tyson and Spinks excelled in pouring in blows against an opponent's guard—the problem was that Spinks was the type of fighter to hide behind his guard, while Tyson was one built around movement. Tyson shifted into a southpaw stance and found Spinks' chin with another left uppercut, followed by a lead right hook to the ribs which sent Spinks to a knee.
Spinks rose well in time to beat the count, but as he returned to the center of the ring to meet Tyson he dipped low to his left to throw a right hook. Standard practice when a savvy fighter knows an aggressive opponent is about to swarm for the kill—throw something hard and get the hell out of the way. What followed was perhaps the finest punch of Tyson's career. Hard punchers are a dime a dozen, but the ability to put a lead on an opponent's movement and find them with punches which are forced to travel at strange angles to find their mark—and to do that with any meaningful power—is a terrifically rare skill. In an instant Tyson recognized where Spinks' head was going, and his right hand was already there in a stretching uppercut. Spinks could never have expected to be caught so clean and crashed to the mat, unable to rise.
With that perfect punch, Tyson had done it. In ninety seconds he had completed the final stage of the task that had taken a decade and millions of dollars to bring to fruition: getting the heavyweight titles—real or conceptual—back together. He had become the first undisputed heavyweight champion since Michael Spinks' elder brother, Leon in 1978 and had restored belief in the heavyweight title and interest in the heavyweight division.
Michael Spinks got up, left the arena, and never fought again. He is remembered through highlight reels and by Tyson fans who don't grasp his importance to not only Tyson's legacy, but to boxing. One of the greatest light heavyweights of all time, one of the few light heavyweights to make the successful transition to heavyweight, the first man to beat Larry Holmes and the only man to do it twice. His sole loss in the professional ring can also be considered his greatest success. For all the respect and accomplishments, Spinks had not made the big pay days. His thirteen million dollar purse against Mike Tyson supposedly amounted to more than he had earned in his entire career. He might have been going home sad, but he was by no means going home poor.
For Tyson this marked another kind of watershed in his career. This was the last fight in which Kevin Rooney would play the role of Tyson's trainer before Don King forced him out of Tyson's life. The disappearance of Rooney can be readily seen in Tyson's work—his head movement became less sharp and then largely disappeared. He ceased to embody 'elusive aggression' and becomes just 'aggression'. He never recaptured the technical form he was on that night and three fights later, Tyson lost it all to Buster Douglas. Many will look back on this bout and think 'easy fight' for Tyson, beating up a blown up light heavyweight. But perhaps it is better to recall how much Spinks accomplished, how sharp Tyson looked through the tournament, how quickly Tyson finished Holmes and Tubbs for their first KO losses coming into this bout, and consider this to be Tyson at the height of his powers. The finished product. Perhaps our last look at the man many consider to be the greatest talent in heavyweight history.
See more of the Gian Galang's amazing art on his website.
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