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A Yawning Gap In His Life
Calvin Fussman
March 14, 1983
His wife dead, Michael Spinks faces his biggest fight, with tiny Michelle as the special someone in his corner
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March 14, 1983

A Yawning Gap In His Life

His wife dead, Michael Spinks faces his biggest fight, with tiny Michelle as the special someone in his corner

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Spinks has been haunted by experiences beyond his control for most of his 26 years, dating back to his childhood in a St. Louis ghetto. In 1978 he was showered by the fallout from Leon's bizarre ascent to and descent from the heavyweight championship, and now there is the automobile crash that killed his wife. Ever since he first went to a gym to give boxing a try, at age 13, Spinks has found refuge in the ring, where he's able to dictate his own fate. On March 18 in Atlantic City's Convention Hall, Spinks, the WBA light heavyweight champion, will face his greatest challenge. He'll fight Dwight Braxton, the WBC champ, in a title unification bout that promises to be as interesting as the contrasting physiques and styles of the principals. Spinks is 6'2½" and has a classic, stand-up style, while Braxton is a 5'6¾" pit bull of a man who has promised to pound Spinks with his straight-ahead, crablike style.

"I don't know what an average person goes through in a lifetime," Spinks says, "but I've been through a lot up to now—and I have lived life as cautiously as I possibly can. My life hasn't been a bowl of cherries."

What once was a festering sore is now a scar. The former site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project on the north side of St. Louis is now a vacant lot littered with weeds, gaunt trees, ragged furniture and bald tires. By 1976, roughly two decades after the complex was hailed as an architectural masterstroke, the Federal Government dispersed the remaining 2,000 of what had been 12,000 inhabitants, brought in a demolition crew and leveled it.

"You want to know what it was like living in Pruitt-Igoe?" asks Leland Spinks, 20, one of Michael's five brothers. "On New Year's Eve you'd turn out the lights, pull down the shades and get down on the floor—and if you lived to see another day, you were very thankful." On one New Year's Eve, Leon stood up to pull down the shades and a bullet blasted through the window, narrowly missing him, and then ricocheted around the room.

"There'd be shooting just about every day and every night," says Don (Pelo) Carbin, one of Michael's friends. "You'd be standing on the corner and someone would get their head blown off a few yards away. I always felt I was lucky it wasn't me. But Mike didn't have it as bad coming up as Leon. Everyone picked on Leon. Leon would fight one person and a thousand others would jump in. The best thing he could do was try to make it to his house."

Michael walked the streets with his neck swiveling and his eyeballs darting, always watching his back. A sensitive child, he was lost in Pruitt-Igoe. He joined a gang at an early age, but quit when he refused to fight a fellow member, as he was instructed. Occasionally he was beaten up on the streets; more often he was taunted and chased home. "They used to call us the ugly Spinks family," Michael says. "For a long time I hated the name Spinks." He was always tall for his age and that contributed to his awkwardness, which was another source of his insecurity.

Leon Sr., who is a sign painter, left home when Michael was four, and Kay Spinks took various jobs to support her seven children. A deeply religious woman, she spoon-fed them the Bible, but still there was hunger. Michael would scoop into the wishing wells near the St. Louis Gateway Arch for change or shoplift clothing from department stores and sell the items to buy food. "I can remember eating out of the incinerator," Michael says. "Me and my sister found a piece of cornbread. It was perfect, not stepped on or nothing. We went upstairs, put a little water on it. Salt and pepper. Put it in the oven. Then we spread on some peanut butter and shared it."

Boxing was a means of survival—physical for Leon and psychological for Michael. In 1969 Leon started working out at a neighborhood recreation center called the Capri, and the street beatings ceased when word of his fistic prowess spread. "I kept calling Mike a sissy," Leon says, "and soon he followed me."

"I remember being in the ring for the first time," Michael says. "Leon was hitting me and I was crying. I said, 'You're my brother.' He kept on hitting me. Then I hit back, and pretty soon I was putting mouses under his eyes." Michael's self-esteem grew with each workout. When trying on clothes in a store, he'd pose in front of a mirror, fists clenched in a boxing stance.

Michael emerged as the man of the household. Leon, though three years older, was wild even then. The younger brothers, Leland, Kenneth, Evan and Eddie, and their sister, Karen, also looked up to Michael. He sold newspapers on a street corner, and as his business prospered he found corners for Leland and Kenneth. All the while, he was maturing in the ring under the guidance of Jim Merrill, who coached boxing at the Capri. After cleaning up on the local competition, Michael started making out-of-town trips.

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