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."
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.