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.
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."
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.