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For a long moment, the words of ring announcer Chuck Hull resonated in the stillness of the chilly Las Vegas night air: "...and the new heavyweight champion...." And then the full impact, so stunningly unexpected, swept with electric force across the United States and onto the pages of boxing history. Larry Holmes, heavyweight champion for the past seven years, had come into the ring with the pen, but it was Michael Spinks, 29, with the odds and tradition set imposingly against him, who had written the legend.
As a 5-to-1 favorite, the undefeated Holmes had been confidently expecting his 49th consecutive victory, which would have tied him with the late Rocky Marciano for the best record of all heavyweight champs. Instead, the undefeated Spinks, carrying 25 extra pounds and a heart that repeatedly rallied him beyond the limits of pain and exhaustion, became, with his 28th straight victory, a unanimous 15-round decision, the first light heavyweight champion to win a heavyweight title.
Heavyweights have scored stunning upsets in title challenges: Ingemar Johansson, a 4-to-1 underdog, knocked Floyd Patterson down seven times in the third round, for a TKO in 1959; Muhammad Ali, an 8-to-1 underdog, dethroned the vaunted Sonny Liston in 1964 when Liston didn't answer the bell for Round 7; and Michael Spinks's older brother, Leon, also an 8-to-1 underdog, gave Ali a 15-round whupping in their 1978 bout. But they didn't carry the heavy pressure of trying to capture a dream that had escaped the grasps of such light heavyweight champions as Billy Conn (who tried twice), Gus Lesnevich, Archie Moore (twice) and Bob Foster.
Since 1906 there had been 13 challenges for the heavyweight crown by nine light heavyweight champions or former champions. The last was by Foster, who was knocked cold by Joe Frazier's left hook just 49 seconds into the second round of their Nov. 18, 1970 bout.
After winning his light heavyweight title with a 15-round decision over Eddie Mustafa Muhammad on July 18, 1981, Spinks was seemingly content not to follow in Foster's steps. The younger of the 1976 Olympic gold medal brothers from St. Louis stated repeatedly that he had no intention of ever fighting as a heavyweight, a decision he strongly underlined after he watched Holmes savagely stop Leon in three rounds in 1981.
Money, $1.1 million in fact, changed his mind. That's 11 times what Spinks made in his 10th and latest light heavyweight title defense, an eighth-round TKO of James MacDonald in June.
Surely another inducement for Spinks was the fact that Holmes, who will be 36 on Nov. 3, had had several close calls in his recent fights and had not been an overpowering, intimidating fighter since that night in June 1982 when he TKO'd Gerry Cooney in the 13th round. In May 1983 Holmes won a highly controversial 12-round decision over Tim Wither-spoon. In November 1984 he had to go the full 12 rounds before winning a decision over the inexperienced Bonecrusher Smith. And last May he had a close call against still another raw-boned heavyweight, one Carl (The Truth) Williams.
"I'm going to be like a man on the moon trying to get back to earth," said Spinks after signing for the Holmes fight. "I want glory from this, and I'll get glory from this."
At 6'2½, Spinks decided he had the underpinnings for additional weight. As a pro he had never fought at more than 174½ pounds; in his defense against David Sears earlier this year, he weighed only 170½. His average fighting weight was 173. To bulk up for Holmes, Spinks brought in New Orleans nutritionist Mackie Shilstone, 34, a former Tulane football player, who put him on a 4,500-calorie diet sliced into 65% carbohydrates, 20% protein and 15% fat. It was mostly made up of vegetables and grains.
Or, as Spinks said: "I'm eating nuts, bolts, screws, razor blades and sledgehammers. I can eat as much as I want, but only what Mackie says I can eat."