Tyson - Spinks: Memories Of Tyson's Prime

mike tyson28.06.06 - By Stuart Cornwell: They billed it, “Once And For All," and it was the heavyweight showdown the world had been waiting for, the most lucrative fight in history to date. Eighteen years ago to this day, Mike Tyson took on Michael Spinks in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in a bout that was to decide, once and for all, who was the true champion of the world. Both men were undefeated as professionals, both had for some time been compared to the greats of the past, and both had legitimate claims to the heavyweight championship of the world. At a time when boxing’s most recent box-office blockbusters had been showdowns at welterweight and middleweight (Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard), the Tyson-Spinks match promised to bring back the glamour and the glory (and millions upon millions of dollars) to the HEAVYWEIGHT division.

There can be no denying that Mike Tyson was the draw. He had been a professional fighter for just over 3 years, and was not quite 22 years of age, yet he had captured the public’s imagination and attention, and impressed virtually every knowledgeable voice in the boxing community. By the way, he had exploded onto the heavyweight boxing scene, scoring knockouts with his venomous punches and blistering attack (often ending his contest in the opening round), knocking over seasoned professionals with frightening displays of speed and power. He entered the ring bare-chested like the gladiators of old, intent of doing damage and always going for the knockout from the first bell.

When Tyson spoke, it was always about boxing. All he seemed to want to do was fight, train and watch old films of the legendary fighters, two of his particular favourites being Jack Dempsey and Roberto Duran. Dempsey and Duran, visceral, animalistic men in the ring, men whose pure savagery was diluted not one bit - but in fact enhanced - by the learned skills they possessed and brought with them into the heat of battle. Tyson was from the same mould. Writers often used the term ‘throwback’ when describing Tyson, a word that not only evoked memories of the hard-punching warrior heavyweights who dominated the sport before the arrival of Muhammad Ali (and a whole generation of second-rate copies) but also suggested the primeval, the prehistoric, the primitive fighting instincts of mankind. Tyson’s fighting style embodied the spirit of the caveman.

Michael Spinks was the underdog. He had made his reputation fighting in the Light-heavyweight division, where he had dominated against such a high-quality field of opponents, that he was considered one of the all-time greats in the division. Spinks was a masterful boxer and a respectable puncher. Fighting in a unique and unorthodox style, circling his opponents somewhat awkwardly and punching from unexpected angles, he combined a tremendous instinct for strategy with effective defensive and offensive techniques. Spinks was pure quality. As an Olympic gold medalist (1976 middleweight), and world champion as a professional at both Light-Heavy and Heavyweight, he was certainly one of the greatest boxers of his time. He had scored a huge upset by defeating Larry Holmes over 15 rounds in September 1985 to take the Heavyweight championship in his first fight at heavyweight.

By doing so, he also bettered the efforts of Billy Conn, Archie Moore and Bob Foster (among others) in becoming the first reigning Light-heavyweight champion to wrest the heavyweight crown. A repeat win over Holmes was controversial as many thought Holmes had done enough to win his old title back. This was in April 1986, and at the time promoter Don King (along with HBO television) was putting together a series of fights that would unify the various competing heavyweight “championships” (IBF, WBC, WBA). Spinks held the IBF title but his claim was stronger than just that. Most independent voices in the boxing community had considered Larry Holmes to be the true champion, in fact a lineage could be traced back through all the champions back to the 1950s. Therefore, Spinks held the championship that Ali, Frazier, Foreman and Liston had all held. The erstwhile “bible of boxing”, Ring magazine, listed Spinks as their heavyweight champion.

By the time Tyson-Spinks was made it was Mike Tyson who had unified the WBC, WBA and IBF belts and was being introduced as “The Undisputed Champion of the World." Of course, Spinks’ supporters, Ring magazine and boxing traditionalists were disputing Tyson’s claim. On the other hand, many thought Tyson’s willingness to take on and beat the best men in the world far eclipsed Spinks’ right through lineage to be called champion. Among Tyson’s victories since collecting the three belts was a devastating knockout of Larry Holmes in four rounds. Holmes, who had not agreed with the judges’ decision to hand his title to Spinks in their first fight, let alone the rematch, expressed the opinion that it was now Tyson who was the real champ. The majority of armchair fans agreed with him; Tyson seemed to be fighting on TV all the time, and completely dominating everyone is his path, knocking men senseless, while Spinks looked to be in hibernation.

Tyson’s magnetism has to be considered the primary reason for the fact that his fight with Spinks took on epic proportions, there is no way we can overlook the shrewd genius of Spinks’ manager, Butch Lewis. The fight took place on June 27, 1988 and grossed enough to guarantee Tyson a reported $22 million, with Spinks taking $13 million. There is no way a Tyson-Spinks showdown could have taken close to this amount if it had happened in summer of ‘87, as had been the preferred schedule according to the Don King/HBO unification series. Spinks had, as IBF champion, at one point been scheduled to face the winner of a fight between the WBC and WBA champions (who turned out to be Tyson and James “Bonecrusher” Smith).

Butch Lewis, though, did not fancy putting Spinks in with Tyson (who he figured to win against Smith) for an estimate $3 or $4 million. Nor did he see any reason for Spinks to fight Tony Tucker, who was being pressed as a “mandatory” challenger by the IBF title. A Tony Tucker fight would have paid Spinks about $500,000. The way Lewis saw it, Spinks was fighting in the heavyweight division to make BIG money. He had long been trying to negotiate a big-money fight with the box-office attraction Gerry Cooney, a white giant extremely popular among American audiences. When the IBF stripped Spinks of his title (for refusing to fight Tony Tucker, according to them.), Butch Lewis made Spinks-Cooney and promoted it as for “The People’s Championship”, a 15 round fight arranged for Atlantic City and billed as “The War at the Shore."

Running with the fact that Spinks held the linear championship, Lewis had a beautifully ornate championship belt made for Spinks, one that was far better than the cheap-looking belts awarded by the alphabet boys. The fight against Cooney was the only fight Spinks had in 1987 and it earned him far more than a fight with Tyson would have earned him that year. On top of that, the way Spinks performed against Cooney made his stock rise further, as he dispatched his giant foe within 5 rounds. While some said he was “running scared” of Tyson, he remained unbeaten and the talk of Tyson-Spinks grew louder the longer it did not happen. While Tyson stayed busy eliminating all significant opposition, the interest in a potential Tyson-Spinks match increased month by month. Butch Lewis knew that eventually he would get the deal he desired for his fighter.

When fight time arrived there were not many people out there who thought Spinks was going to win. Tyson had looked so powerful and overwhelming in his previous fights that Spinks would have to produce something truly inspiring to pull off a win. Muhammad Ali was perhaps the most notable of those who favoured Spinks. My own view was that he had a great chance because he could probably stick and move and trick and spoil his way into the contest, show Tyson a few things he was not accustomed to, present a few puzzles. After all, Spinks was a great fighter. And an undefeated one at that. I am not saying I thought Spinks would beat Tyson, but I was prepared for that if it happened. I would not have been surprised or shocked by such an outcome. I at least expected Spinks to give Tyson a run for his money for a few rounds.

The fight took place in Atlantic City. I was on the other side of the Atlantic, so I had to stay up until the early hours of the morning to catch the superfight live as it happened. I was only fourteen at the time and my mother wondered why I needed to get up in the middle of the night to watch a fight that was being repeated the following evening! Or why I could not use the VCR.

What I remember most is an eeriness to the boxing that night. I remember sitting through a rather boring match between Carl Williams and Trevor Berbick, and a match featuring Harold Brazier, or all which seemed designed to give the impression that a storm was brewing. Stranger still was Buster Douglas against Mike Williams. The ripped-physique muscleman Williams was being felled by jabs from Douglas. He looked helpless and mystified by the situation. The TV commentators were a bit confused by it too. The eeriness increased as Michael Spinks entered the arena. He looked unprepared for battle during his walk to the ring. People say now how he look terrified - maybe he was - but at the time I thought he looked calm, too calm. It was my brother, who was watching it with me that night, who remarked on how dry Spinks looked. He was right. Spinks looked dry and cold. He also looked a bit soft (he scaled a career heaviest 212 at the weigh in, and that extra weight looked to be fat weight). All this was brought into sharp contrast by Tyson’s torso, glistening with sweat, more so then ever, honed and forged into fighting shape.

Tyson did not look calm, he looked hungry, anxious, edgy. The scene had an unreal quality. Although I do not think I said it, and I might not have consciously thought it, there was this sense, a feeling, that this was Tyson’s night. A feeling that this was definitely not Spinks’ night. A lot has been written about how Spinks was terrified and folded through fear and intimidation. But when I watch the film of the fight, whether he was scared or not, I think it is fair to say he came to fight. He did not run, he did not hold, and he got up when Tyson knocked him down. He even tried to take Tyson out with a last desperate right hand. No one can criticize Spinks. He went out like a champion. While in hindsight we might say he was never going to defeat Tyson because he probably never really believed he could, we can also say he took on the toughest challenger out there and let the issue be settled in the ring.

As for Tyson, no one can say his win over Spinks was not a meaningful win. Some people will try to downplay Spinks’ status by emphasizing how he was a guy that had built his reputation at Light-heavyweight. Others will say Spinks was paralysed by fear and had no game plan whatsoever. Whatever they say, they cannot change the fact that it was Mike Tyson the fighter, and the punches of Mike Tyson that ultimately vanquished Michael Spinks, his most highly-touted rival at the time, in 91 seconds of the first round. The fight was the last time we saw Michael Spinks in a boxing contest (he rode off into the sunset and into the boxing pantheon). And it was probably the last time we saw the truly vintage version of Mike Tyson, too.

Article posted on 28.06.2006

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