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It Was Spinks, Hands Down
William Nack
November 16, 1981
In one moment of carelessness, Vonzell Johnson discovered last Saturday how unforgiving of error the bittersweet science can be. Johnson was on his back in the ring of Atlantic City's Playboy Hotel & Casino—his head spinning, legs gone, eyes glazed. In one stroke, he had lost whatever chance he'd had of lifting Michael Spinks's WBA light heavyweight title Gone, too, perhaps, was all hope of winning a championship he'd been fighting for since he turned pro in 1974.
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November 16, 1981

It Was Spinks, Hands Down

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This was Spinks's first defense of the title he won on a unanimous decision from Eddie Mustafa Muhammad in Las Vegas on July 18, and to his credit, he didn't pick a tomato can for it. Johnson can fight He has been working at it off and on since he walked into a gym in Columbus, Ohio in 1967.

Johnson, whose parents named him after George Burns's old sidekick Harry Von Zell, won the national Golden Gloves and AAU 165-pound titles in 1974 and captained the American boxing team—Ray Leonard and Aaron Pryor were on it—that toured Russia for three weeks that year. Then he turned pro, forgoing a tryout for the '76 U.S. Olympic team Had he remained an amateur, he undoubtedly would have fought Spinks for the 165-class berth "When he turned pro, it was a relief for me," Spinks says. "But I knew that one day we would fight."

Of course, Spinks made that Olympic team, won a gold medal and became the last of five team members to win world titles—following Leo Randolph, Leonard, brother Leon and John Tate.

Early this year Johnson got the title shot he'd been waiting for, in a Feb. 28 bout against WBC champion Matthew Saad Muhammad. Although he had just three weeks' notice for the fight, "I felt I might get lucky," he said. Johnson led in the early rounds but tired in the ninth. In the 11th, Saad knocked him out. Then Spinks won the WBA title in July. For his first go, he picked Johnson—short on seasoning and confidence, long on heart. This time Johnson got to train hard.

So did Spinks, and he took the fight to Johnson in the third. Disdaining the challenger's jab, he scored sharply with combinations—the jab and the overhand right, the right uppercut off the left hook, and one fiery left-right-left. Johnson slowed. In the fourth, Spinks had him in trouble. He staggered Johnson with a right after a left to the body. Spinks finished the round, easily his, with a hook that snapped Johnson's head back.

"You're doing nothing!" Trainer Angelo Dundee told Johnson before the fifth. "You're fighting his fight!" Johnson charged back to win the fifth. Spinks had his jab working again, but Johnson caught him with a right to the body and a right uppercut. Johnson backed Spinks up for the first time, forcing him across the ring with four left-right combinations. The sixth was closer, with furious exchanges, from which Johnson emerged with his left eyelid bleeding.

"Watch that elbow," Hazzard warned.

Between rounds Dundee told Johnson, "If he hits you once more with the elbow, kick him!" Dundee closed the cut, but Spinks reopened it early in the seventh and Johnson was bleeding when Spinks caught him going backward with his dukes down.

Having lost consecutive title fights, Johnson's future is cloudy, despite his 22-3 record. Spinks's is clear. Saad is still the WBC champ. They have begun the preliminary bantering. Saad calls him Michael Stinks. Spinks calls him Matthew Sad, as in sad is what Saad will be. "I'll be more than happy to unify the title," Spinks said. "Let me be the undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world. Saad will make it come true."

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