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.
"I blew it." Johnson said.
Justice was as swift as Spinks's right hand. With less than a minute gone in the seventh round, the two boxers were fighting in close when Referee Larry Hazzard stuck a hand between them. Although it appeared the fighters were in a clinch, they weren't. Hazzard said to them, "Punch out." That is, no need to break; merely fight your way out of the close quarters. Spinks stood his ground. Johnson stepped back and dropped his arms, his chin like a lantern in a storm. Spinks hit Johnson with a left uppercut to the body and followed that with a whistling overhand right to the chops—which he calls the Spinks Jinx—that "stung me real good," Johnson said.
Johnson stumbled back and fell. Upon arising, he just managed to regain his legs. Standing there, he wavered like a drunk. Spinks rushed in.
"How do you feel?" Hazzard asked Johnson.
"I feel all right," the fighter answered.
"He's not all right, ref!" Spinks said. "Stop the fight." Hazzard ignored him and waved the two together. One Spinks left hook later, Hazzard stopped it.
"I committed a cardinal sin," Johnson said "I dropped my hands. I was taught ever since I was knee high to a puppy: Come out of the clinches low, hands up. I stepped back with my hands down. That's my fault. And I make that mistake when all the marbles counted!"
Johnson's tactical lapse gave the 25-year-old Spinks occasion to demonstrate to the millions who watched the fight on CBS that he can be a resourceful opportunist and that he's more of a professional than his 18 pro fights might suggest. Hazzard had to warn the champion repeatedly not to use his elbows, a trick usually found in a veteran's bag.
The sneaky right at the end came out of a different bag. "An old Russian tactic," Spinks said "Vonzell should have known about that He fought the Russians, too."