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Larry Holmes-Michael Spinks 1: When The Jinx shot down The Easton Assassin

Michael Spinks' first 15-round decision over Larry Holmes was Ring's 1985 Upset of the Year. It also marked the first time a reigning light heavyweight champ dethroned the heavyweight champ. Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As heavyweight championship bouts go, the Sept. 21, 1985, first pairing of long-reigning Larry Holmes and moving-up-from-light heavyweight Michael Spinks, at Las Vegas’ Riviera Hotel and Casino, was competitive and entertaining, if not necessarily an all-time classic. But it was the mother lode of subtext that set that fight apart then and even now, with a raft of high-grade storylines that allowed writers and broadcasters to mine the many rich veins of material as if they were prospectors who poured into California after gold nuggets were discovered at Sutter’s Mill on Jan. 24, 1848.

The most compelling aspect of Holmes-Spinks I — won by Spinks on a close but not unduly controversial unanimous decision – was its historical connotations, for each fighter. For the 35-year-old Holmes, a world champ since 1978 who came as The Ring champion and IBF titlist at 48-0 with 34 KOs, it was the prospect of matching the 49-0 career mark of the late Rocky Marciano, a legendary predecessor upon the heavyweight throne. For Spinks (27-0, 19 KOs), the unified light heavyweight ruler, it was his long-shot bid to ascend to that throne after 13 former or then-current light heavyweight champs had come up short, a drought that dated back to 1906.

Although Holmes at 35 was six years older than the bulked-up challenger, and with more extensive mileage on his pugilistic odometer, having been in tough with his three most recent opponents (Carl “The Truth” Williams, David Bey and James “Bonecrusher” Smith), the prevailing belief was that a good big man always beats a good little man. That hoary axiom seemed especially apt considering that the “little” man in this instance had presumably gorged his way from the division-limit of 175 pounds he came in at for his most recent defense, an eighth-round stoppage of Jim MacDonald on June 6, 1985, to 200 for Spinks, just three-plus months later. It surprised no one that Holmes was an opening-line 7-1 favorite (bet down to 5-1 by fight night), and few knowledgeable observers gave Spinks any hope of succeeding where such other outstanding, Hall of Fame-quality light heavies as Georges Carpentier, Tommy Loughran, Billy Conn, Joey Maxim, Archie Moore and Bob Foster had failed.

Even Conn, who had been leading heavyweight champion Joe Louis on the scorecards in their June 18, 1941, title bout until, in a miscalculation borne of overconfidence, he went for the knockout of the “Brown Bomber” instead of sitting on his points lead until the final bell (Conn’s impudence resulted in his being starched in the 13th round), viewed Spinks as little more than another soon-to-be-failed entry in the long list of light heavyweight hopefuls bidding for their sport’s grandest prize.

“The guy has no chance – not because of the weight difference, but because he’s just not that good a fighter,” Conn said when asked to assess what he expected to happen. “Who has he fought? Nothing but a bunch of bums.” And it wasn’t as if Conn was alone in offering that less-than-laudatory opinion of Spinks; it was more or less shared by Maxim, Moore and Foster when they were asked to weigh in on the subject.

Holmes was supremely confident of victory over the light heavyweight king. Photo by The Ring Magazine/ Getty Images

In addition to Conn and other skeptical former light heavyweight titlists, more than a few of the nation’s top boxing writers also dismissed the younger of the two fighting Spinks brothers – more on that a bit later – as the purchaser of a lottery ticket that had scant chance of being cashed.

Wrote Michael Katz, of the New York Daily News: It comes down, inevitably, to Larry Holmes, 225 pounds, against Michael Spinks, maybe 195. It comes down to heavyweight power against a light heavyweight slowed by extra weight. It all comes down to a mismatch. Spinks can’t win.

And this, from The Baltimore Sun’s Mike Littwin: Holmes is 48-0. At 35, he’s too old to take chances. And fighting Spinks, the unbeaten light heavyweight champion, is not exactly like trying to make 10 the hard way. Light heavies don’t beat heavyweight champions. Ever.

You want more subtext? While not perhaps of the magnitude of Holmes’ attempt to sidle up alongside the esteemed Marciano, Spinks, a gold medalist at the 1976 Montreal Olympics as a middleweight, was seeking to join older brother Leon as the only set of siblings to hold the distinction of having been world heavyweight champions as professionals, “Neon Leon” having gained his title on a shocking, 15-round split decision over Muhammad Ali on Feb. 15, 1978. Leon had not long maintained his status as an elite or near-elite heavyweight, however, and he was taken out in three rounds in a bid to unseat Holmes, then the WBC and The Ring magazine titlist, on June 12, 1981, in Detroit. It was Michael who, screaming frantically, had tossed a towel into the ring in an attempt to prevent his brother from absorbing more punishment. Referee Richard Steele did, in fact, wave the increasingly one-sided bout to a halt, although he said his decision to do so was his own and not the result of the towel that fluttered into the ring like a parachute.

“The pain of seeing my brother rolling on his back still hurts me,” Michael said in recalling Leon’s battering at the hands of a man many believed would do the same thing to him. “If it hadn’t been stopped in time, Leon could have been killed.”

The simmering prefight gumbo that was Holmes-Michael Spinks I, whose ingredients included heaping doses of possible history-making, thus was made even tastier by the familial revenge factor, not to mention any ghostly apparitions provided by Rocky Marciano, who had perished in the crash of a small plane in an Iowa cornfield on Aug. 31, 1969, the day before his 46th birthday. In anticipation of Holmes’ joining The Rock in the exclusive 49-0 club, the Riviera had invited Rocky’s children, son Rocco Jr., 17, and daughter Mary Anne, 32, as well as Marciano’s youngest brother, Peter, as special guests. The idea was that Rocky’s relatives would graciously congratulate Holmes if it came to that, but from the time of their arrival in Vegas the Marciano group couldn’t have made it more evident that they were hoping such a ceremony would be unnecessary.

Holmes, flanked by promoters Don King and Butch Lewis, stands before the official bout artwork by LeRoy Neiman. Photo by The Ring Magazine/ Getty Images

And if all that weren’t enough, an even more curious X-factor was provided by New Orleans-based physical conditioning guru Mackie Shilstone, who had been brought into Spinks’ camp as the person who, in defiance to boxing’s hidebound traditions of how to get a fighter ready for an upcoming bout. Shilstone flouted almost every long-held belief in implementing techniques he variously referred to as “Star Wars Boxing” and “Explosion Calisthenics.”

It was because of Shilstone’s friendship with New Orleans entrepreneur Don Hubbard, who was a friend of Spinks’ manager, Butch Lewis, that the revolutionary union of Shilstone and Spinks came about. Lewis believed in Hubbard, who believed in Shilstone, and Spinks believed in Lewis. Thus a radical experiment was launched on ridiculously short notice with no guarantee the results would be as beneficial as hoped for by everyone on Michael’s team, including Nelson Brison, who was filling in for the great Eddie Futch. “Mr. Eddie” had opted to sit this fight out as he previously had worked with both Holmes and Spinks, and did not wish to take the side of one of his pupils over the other.

Might Futch have resisted some of the more unconventional theories espoused by Shilstone? Maybe, maybe not. Futch was working with future heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe when Shilstone was brought in to help “Big Daddy” judiciously lose weight before his first clash with Evander Holyfield, but by then Shilstone’s techniques had been become more widely accepted in boxing circles, in no small part given his remarkable transformation of Spinks. The former Tulane University football player, that school’s equivalent of Notre Dame’s Rudy Ruettiger, tried out as a 135-pound walk-on, earned a varsity letter and went on to serve as the Green Wave’s first physical conditioning coach. In addition to Spinks and Bowe, he also had successful stints with boxing greats Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr., in addition to baseball stars Will Clark and Ozzie Smith and tennis superstar Serena Williams.

Shilstone put Spinks on a 4,500-calorie-a-day diet, broken down into 65% carbohydrates, 20% protein and 15% fat, the main staples of which were vegetables and grains. And instead of traditional distance roadwork, Shilstone had Spinks doing interval runs of 800 meters, with one minute of rest time, then 400s, 200s and 100s. He also went against boxing orthodoxy by putting Spinks on a weightlifting program.

“He put on 25 pounds, but he’s actually 1½ pounds lesser overall in fat content,” Shilstone said. “His body fat dropped from 9.1% to 7.2%. That extra weight is all muscle. And he’s faster!”

For his part, a supremely assured Holmes professed to be unimpressed by anything Spinks might have been doing to alter his physical dimensions. The “Easton Assassin” saw Shilstone’s oddball machinations with Spinks as little more than smoke and mirrors, creating a false impression that could not and would not save a somewhat-enlarged man from an outcome that was all but preordained.

“I don’t care what he eats or what he does,” Holmes said. “When he gets into the ring he’s gonna be smaller and he’s gonna be fearful.

“I’m trying to be objective and logical, and I ain’t got nothin’ to worry about. Michael can’t weight more more than 180 and be effective. If he comes in over 190, that means he’ll be carrying weights in his pockets. He’s been doing all this weightlifting, sprints and calisthenics and eating this special food to bulk up, but his body’s not used to it.”

Truth be told, Michael did not always consider himself a prospective heavyweight champion. He considered himself a natural light heavyweight, maybe even an all-time great in that division, and he had reservations about attempting to go all the way up to heavyweight. It was Lewis, perhaps aware of the much-larger purses that top heavyweights received in relation to their light heavy counterparts (Spinks received $100,000 for the MacDonald fight and $1.1 million for the first Holmes fight), who kept insisting that Michael could and would defeat Holmes if only he committed himself to giving it his best shot.

“Mackie had already helped me lose weight to get down to light heavyweight,” Spinks reasoned. “Butch told me I could fight Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship. I was, like, `What?’ He said, `Yeah, and you can beat him.’ I said, `You think so?’ And he said, `Absolutely.’”

In the ring after he had floored MacDonald three times in his farewell to the 175-pound weight class, Spinks had called out Holmes, shouting, “We want Larry Holmes! I will go to his house and picket. I will stage a riot if I have to.”

The fight, of course, was a revelation, although it there are two tales to tell. Spinks, backing up most of the way, would occasionally dart in to deliver flurries that did not seem to overly bother Holmes, although they found favor with the judges. A stalking Holmes did not land his state-of-the-art jab as often as was accustomed to doing, and the jolting overhand right that he believed would make it a short and easy night for him also found the mark only occasionally. All three judges went for Spinks – Harold Lederman and Dave Moretti, both by 143-142, and Lawrence Wallace by 145-142.

As was the case with some of the print pundits prior to the bout, Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray seemed to regard the outcome as a shocking deviation from what most everyone had expected. His tongue firmly in cheek, as was his custom, he wrote:

Well, the canary ate the cat. The Titanic sank the iceberg. Johnstown won the flood. A good little man beat a good big man. The light heavyweight champion of the world beat the heavyweight champion. David took Goliath again for the first time since the original.

Dave Kindred, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, took a more pragmatic approach, noting that Larry Holmes lost this fight to a man he might have punished five years ago. But now, at 35, the thought is no longer father to the deed. The old man’s mind sees what needs to be done. But the message never gets to the muscle.

To his credit, Holmes, while professing that he had in fact done enough to get the decision, was gracious in his remarks about Spinks, saying, “I think this will be my last fight. The symptoms (of age) have begun to show. It’s time for me to quit. I lost to a great light heavyweight champion. I have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Except, maybe, Holmes’ fit of pique toward Peter Marciano, whose gleeful demeanor seemingly suggested that his older brother had reached up from beyond the grave to assist Spinks. Holmes’ remark that “Rocky couldn’t have carried my jockstrap” was widely criticized, but to his credit Holmes would later acknowledge Rocky Marciano as “a great champion” and he did not really mean to do anything to offend his family and friends, or to demean his legacy.

There would, of course, be a rematch, on April 19, 1986, and the do-over proved to be more hotly debated than the original. Spinks claimed a split decision, but Holmes, fighting from the third round on with a broken right thumb, hurt the champion with hard rights in the second, fifth, ninth and 14th rounds. A fairly significant chunk of those in the media section felt that Holmes, no longer overconfident or perhaps underprepared, merited the victory and a possible rubber match.

What is indisputable is that Holmes and Spinks were both first-ballot inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, Spinks in 1994 and Holmes in 2008, the gap between the two owing to Larry’s intermittent retirements and comebacks.





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