March 28, 1983
Before he became a famous boxer, Michael Spinks was a disco king, known for getting his groove on in East St. Louis nightclubs. After he returned home in 1976 with an Olympic gold medal, "people said forget dancing," he recalls, "we want to see you box."
Today, high school senior Michelle, Spinks's 18-year-old daughter, is the dancer in the family. Her mother, Sandy, was a dance instructor until she was killed in an automobile accident in January 1983 when Michelle was two and Michael was preparing for his bout with Dwight Braxton for the undisputed light heavyweight title. "I didn't think I could fight, but I found the courage from somewhere," says Spinks. He danced—and jabbed—his way to a 15-round unanimous decision over the slugging Braxton.
Spinks's brother Leon, who was also a gold medalist in 1976, was heavyweight champion of the world by '78, but Michael had returned home to St. Louis and become a janitor. "I didn't like how people treated boxers," he says. But promoter Butch Lewis kept calling, and by April '77 Spinks had had enough of scrubbing toilets.
His defeat of Braxton made him the hottest fighter in the world, and in 1985, following four more light heavy title bouts, he moved up to stunningly defeat a 48-0 Larry Holmes for the IBF heavyweight championship. After winning a rematch and two other fights—and being stripped of his title—he pronounced himself the People's Champion and ready to meet 21-year-old sanctioned champion Mike Tyson. In Atlantic City on June 27, 1988, Spinks ran into Tyson at his dominating best. "When he hit me I lost my temper and forgot my strategy," says Spinks, who was knocked out in 91 seconds.
Spinks, now 43, never fought again. "I don't miss the attention or the bright lights, what I miss is the training and the camaraderie," he says. Spinks is prosperous thanks to years of saving and conservative investments, but he still works for Lewis training fighters.
Michael has raised his daughter in Greenville, Del., and is excited about Michelle's plans to study modern dance in college. "She wants to be like Debbie Allen," says Spinks. When he's not encouraging Michelle, Spinks visits schools—carrying his gold medal and four title belts—where he tells kids to pursue their dreams. "Most of the kids don't have a clue who I am," he says, "but they listen when they see all the gold."