SI Vault
 
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
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
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

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5

"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.

The brothers 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 Ali.

Leon, a 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.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5