"If you lost
in the tournaments, you had to go home," says Claudell Atkins, a friend of
Michael's who fought at 106 pounds. "We didn't like to go home because
every day on the road they gave us five dollars to eat. We'd just put the five
in our pockets. If you kept winning, them fives were adding up."
In 1976 the U.S.
was preparing for the Olympics by sending fighters abroad for international
seasoning. In January of that year, Michael, then 19, confronted the Soviet
champion at 165 pounds, Rufat Riskiev, in Tashkent. "That Russian knocked
me flat on my back," Michael says. "All I know is I woke up and I was
sitting down. I saw my team in the corner, and the guys were saying, 'Get up!'
The count went to five...six...seven. I got on up. I stayed low and he was
hooking me. It felt like I had a big hole in my chest." Riskiev won a
decision. "My mouth was sore and my teeth were loose," Michael says.
"I couldn't eat for about two weeks."
In the spring of
'76, the leading St. Louis contenders for the Olympic boxing team were thought
to be Carbin, a 156-pounder, and Atkins. But Atkins got married and cut down on
training, and Carbin fought only when inspired. The Trials were held in June in
Cincinnati, and as Atkins and Carbin faded, the Spinkses blossomed. Michael,
who in the preceding months had trained in the afternoon and washed dishes at a
hotel at night, decisioned Navy champion Keith Broome in the 165-pound division
to win the Trials and join 178-pound Leon, then a Marine stationed at Camp
LeJeune, N.C., on the U.S. team.
"When I got to
Montreal, every time I thought of Riskiev I did 10 pushups," says Spinks,
who drew a bye, won two forfeits and beat Ryszard Pasiewicz of Poland before
meeting Riskiev in the finals. In the second round, an overhand right, later to
be known as The Spinks Jinx, floored Riskiev. In the third, after a series of
jarring body shots, the Soviet fighter bent over as if he'd been hit low. The
referee awarded the fight to Michael, and Leon later knocked out Sixto Soria of
Cuba to give the U.S. team its fifth gold medal; the others went to Ray
Leonard, Howard Davis and Leo Randolph. The brothers Spinks returned home to a
parade through downtown St. Louis. "My sister said, 'Mike, you're both
celebrities now,' " Michael says. " 'What's that?' I said. 'Celebrity?'
I didn't know nothing about all that."
But a hard-nosed
Philadelphian named Butch Lewis did, and he went after the Spinks brothers with
the same hard sell he had employed as a used-car dealer in Chester, Pa. In May
of '76 Lewis had promoted the Muhammad Ali-Richard Dunn fight in Munich. He was
working for promoter Bob Arum then, but when he signed Leon and Michael, he put
them under his own promotional wing.
stayed at Lewis' home in Wilmington, Del. before settling in Philadelphia,
which is the best place for a fighter in an upper weight class to hone his
skills. The City of Brotherly Love indeed. Sparring sessions are wars, and the
beaten are often referred to as "dog-meat." Everyone, including future
champions Matthew Saad Muhammad and Braxton, went after a piece of Michael in
the gym. Meanwhile, Leon—after defeating the likes of Pedro Agosto and Alfio
Righetti and fighting a draw with Scott LeDoux—took his 6-0-1 record to Las
Vegas in February 1978 for a title fight with a 36-year-old, ill-prepared
prohibitive underdog, won on a split decision. While the new champ was carried
around the Las Vegas ring, flashing his 7-10 bowling-split grin, Michael was in
the midst of the celebration, weeping. Perhaps he had a premonition of what lay
ahead. Leon turned his finances over to Detroit attorneys Ed Bell and Lester
Hudson, and he left both Michael and Philadelphia.
"When Leon won
the title," Michael says, "he turned into a huge piggy bank and
everybody tried to get inside. Leon became a different person in Detroit.
Flamboyant clothes. Big diamond rings. He was convinced that this was the way a
champion was supposed to look.
"I was always
the one who could talk to Leon. I loved Leon. I cared for him." But now,
when Michael phoned his brother, he was told that Leon wasn't at home. "One
day he was back in Philadelphia," Michael says. "All the bums were
leeching on him. I told him how these guys didn't mean no good. He said to me,
'That's deep.' And I kicked him. His face wrinkled up, and he was getting ready
to hit me. I said. 'Here I am telling you something for your own good and you
want to beat me up. Go ahead, but don't ever say nothing like that to me.' Then
we both broke down and cried."
The people in
Leon's camp told Michael he had no right to meddle in Leon's affairs. When Leon
was preparing for his September 1978 rematch with Ali, the brothers had an
argument and Michael was kicked out of the gym. Leon skipped rope with tears
sliding down his face.