For a long moment, the words of ring announcer Chuck Hull resonated in the stillness of the chilly Las Vegas night air: "...and the new heavyweight champion...." And then the full impact, so stunningly unexpected, swept with electric force across the United States and onto the pages of boxing history. Larry Holmes, heavyweight champion for the past seven years, had come into the ring with the pen, but it was Michael Spinks, 29, with the odds and tradition set imposingly against him, who had written the legend.
As a 5-to-1 favorite, the undefeated Holmes had been confidently expecting his 49th consecutive victory, which would have tied him with the late Rocky Marciano for the best record of all heavyweight champs. Instead, the undefeated Spinks, carrying 25 extra pounds and a heart that repeatedly rallied him beyond the limits of pain and exhaustion, became, with his 28th straight victory, a unanimous 15-round decision, the first light heavyweight champion to win a heavyweight title.
Heavyweights have scored stunning upsets in title challenges: Ingemar Johansson, a 4-to-1 underdog, knocked Floyd Patterson down seven times in the third round, for a TKO in 1959; Muhammad Ali, an 8-to-1 underdog, dethroned the vaunted Sonny Liston in 1964 when Liston didn't answer the bell for Round 7; and Michael Spinks's older brother, Leon, also an 8-to-1 underdog, gave Ali a 15-round whupping in their 1978 bout. But they didn't carry the heavy pressure of trying to capture a dream that had escaped the grasps of such light heavyweight champions as Billy Conn (who tried twice), Gus Lesnevich, Archie Moore (twice) and Bob Foster.
Since 1906 there had been 13 challenges for the heavyweight crown by nine light heavyweight champions or former champions. The last was by Foster, who was knocked cold by Joe Frazier's left hook just 49 seconds into the second round of their Nov. 18, 1970 bout.
After winning his light heavyweight title with a 15-round decision over Eddie Mustafa Muhammad on July 18, 1981, Spinks was seemingly content not to follow in Foster's steps. The younger of the 1976 Olympic gold medal brothers from St. Louis stated repeatedly that he had no intention of ever fighting as a heavyweight, a decision he strongly underlined after he watched Holmes savagely stop Leon in three rounds in 1981.
Money, $1.1 million in fact, changed his mind. That's 11 times what Spinks made in his 10th and latest light heavyweight title defense, an eighth-round TKO of James MacDonald in June.
Surely another inducement for Spinks was the fact that Holmes, who will be 36 on Nov. 3, had had several close calls in his recent fights and had not been an overpowering, intimidating fighter since that night in June 1982 when he TKO'd Gerry Cooney in the 13th round. In May 1983 Holmes won a highly controversial 12-round decision over Tim Wither-spoon. In November 1984 he had to go the full 12 rounds before winning a decision over the inexperienced Bonecrusher Smith. And last May he had a close call against still another raw-boned heavyweight, one Carl (The Truth) Williams.
"I'm going to be like a man on the moon trying to get back to earth," said Spinks after signing for the Holmes fight. "I want glory from this, and I'll get glory from this."
At 6'2½, Spinks decided he had the underpinnings for additional weight. As a pro he had never fought at more than 174½ pounds; in his defense against David Sears earlier this year, he weighed only 170½. His average fighting weight was 173. To bulk up for Holmes, Spinks brought in New Orleans nutritionist Mackie Shilstone, 34, a former Tulane football player, who put him on a 4,500-calorie diet sliced into 65% carbohydrates, 20% protein and 15% fat. It was mostly made up of vegetables and grains.
Or, as Spinks said: "I'm eating nuts, bolts, screws, razor blades and sledgehammers. I can eat as much as I want, but only what Mackie says I can eat."
The challenger also ran sprints instead of doing traditional nonstop roadwork—800s with a minute between, then 400s, 200s, 100s—as if he were training for the decathlon instead of 15 rounds with Holmes. He even went on a weightlifting program, which raised the scarred eyebrows of more than one boxing purist. Wouldn't a muscle-bound boxer be raw meat for a calculating tiger like Holmes? Spinks just grinned at the scoffers and kept on running his intervals and pumping iron.
"I don't care what he eats or what he lifts," said Holmes, who would make $3.5 million from the Spinks fight and had a promise of an equally colossal payday for his record-breaking 50th straight win. "When he gets into the ring he's gonna be smaller, and he's gonna be fearful. Don't forget, he's the one who threw in the towel to stop me from hitting Leon."
"I know what Larry is going to do," said Spinks one day last week. "If I was fighting a smaller guy I'd try to get rid of him early. But if Holmes comes straight at me, corners me, I'll have no choice but to fight. I'm not just going to stand there and take it. Hey, I've sparred with heavyweights, and I've been hit by them, and there is no pleasure in it."
As it turned out, Spinks became an instant heavyweight. He weighed in at 199¾, although at Holmes's suggestion the weight was announced as an even 200. Holmes weighed 221½. Many experts felt that Spinks's added pounds would cost him his only edge: speed. "No way," said Shilstone. "He put on 25 pounds but he's actually 1½ pounds leaner overall in fat content. His body fat dropped from 9.1 percent to 7.2 percent. That extra weight is all muscle. And he's faster. When we started this program eight weeks ago, we started running dashes against each other. A few days ago he beat me for the first time."
In spite of Spinks's new bulk and the almost cordial banter between the champion and his presumed victim in prefight appearances, in the ring on Saturday night Holmes quickly, almost disdainfully, established his superior strength. At the end of the first round, which he won easily against the slow-starting challenger, Holmes hooked Spinks around the neck and spun him roughly into his corner. Spinks was outraged at being treated like a naughty Cabbage Patch doll.
Holmes won the first two rounds, but his corner was hardly thrilled with his tactics. His justifiably famous left jab was firing at Spinks's face, but too frequently the target was gone by the time it arrived, and the threat of Holmes's devastating right had been only a threat. "You're anticipating his counter and not throwing the right," trainer Richie Giachetti told Holmes. "Your jab is working good. [Now] you got to double jab, then get off with your hook."
Early in the third round, after an exchange of body shots, Spinks caught the champion with a short right followed by a hook. After the round, Spinks sat in his corner in apparent pain. "Don't get careless," trainer Nelson Brison told Spinks as he loosened the trunks around his waist. Across the way, Giachetti, annoyed that Holmes had lost the round under a shower of quick but harmless punches, said, "You got to get him."
In the fourth, Spinks began to establish the pattern that would befuddle his opponent by its total unpredictability. As Holmes, his face set in stone, stalked him, the challenger would retreat in a series of swirling moves punctuated by flailing, striking attacks from seemingly impossible launch sites. The flurries carried little sting but scored points.
"You can't let the guy take it to you," Giachetti yelled at the end of that round. "All his funniness. You're letting this guy off his hook. Jab, throw the right, come back with the hook and then the right uppercut. You're the champ."
His pride stung, Holmes opened the fifth strong, his jab snapping as his right began finding Spinks, slowing him down. Undaunted by the resurgent champion, Spinks came back and won the sixth round, pausing to complain twice to referee Carlos Padilla that Holmes was hitting him with his elbows. That was a legitimate gripe, but the conversation also let Spinks grab quick breathers. At the end of the sixth, Giachetti pointed at Spinks and screamed in Holmes's ear: "Look at him. He's tired, goddam it. He's breathing heavy."
All week Spinks had been complaining of a thick chest cold, and throughout the fight he had trouble breathing. He spent most of the time between rounds just trying to clear his lungs.
Still, Spinks, throwing those tiny punches from incredible angles, won the seventh and eighth rounds. He was leaving himself wide open, but Holmes was unable to unload the right.
After the eighth, Spinks slumped in his corner, barely listening as his cornermen yelled instructions. Finally he said, "Enough. Leave me alone. Just wet down my hair."
Across the way Giachetti was begging Holmes to throw the right hand to the body. "That shot is hurting him. But you've got to throw more combinations to the body. Wake up. Let's go."
Just as everything seemed to be going Spinks's way, Holmes almost broke the challenger in half with a right to the ribs in the ninth. Suddenly Spinks seemed to remember that he was facing a heavyweight, and began to fight as though he had lost interest. The people in his corner kept urging him to fight harder, until midway through the 11th round when Spinks turned away from Holmes and yelled, "Shut up. I'm doing the best I can."
Later Spinks explained: "My corner kept shouting at me, so I shouted at them. Goddam, I was doing all I could. It got to a point where I felt they were trying to force me to do something, and I was already doing it."
Both fighters were now complaining to Padilla about the other's unsportsmanlike tactics. At one point Holmes accused Spinks of thumbing him, and the challenger stopped fighting and apologized. "I really didn't thumb him." Spinks said after the fight. "But I apologized anyway. I didn't want to get into a kicking fight with him. I wanted it to be a fight with class."
All of the late rounds took on a sameness: Holmes stalking forward, loading up, scoring with harder punches but never quite able to land them dead-solid perfect; Spinks on the run, most often in a curious Groucho Marx posture, his head craning forward, seeming to drag the rest of him in figure-eight patterns around the ring; Spinks pausing to fire a light barrage before running again.
At the end of the 14th, two of the judges, Dave Moretti and Harold Lederman, had the fight even. The third judge, Larry Wallace, apparently pleased that Spinks was still on his feet, had the challenger ahead by two points.
As Holmes stood for the 15th, a worried Giachetti said, "It's the last goddam round. There's no tomorrow. You got to to let it all hang out."
Over in Spinks's corner the mood was different. "You got three minutes and you're champion," they told him.
Spinks came out with an overhand right and then caught a stiff right upper-cut to the head. He was dazed. He began to run, Holmes in pursuit. More than a minute passed before Spinks recovered enough to fight back effectively. They fought the last minute even.
Then came the decision: Moretti and Lederman 143-142; Wallace, who didn't think Holmes had won a round after the ninth, 145-142. "...and the new heavyweight champion...."
"It's over," said a jubilant Spinks in his corner, where Leon had joined him, thus placing in the same ring at the same time the only two brothers to have held the heavyweight title. "Thank God. I asked Him to take over. All I did was let Him use my body. You know, I never saw myself winning this. Well, once. Once, I saw myself knocking him out. Hey, he couldn't hit me. I gave him a totally confused person. He must have thought I was having a fit. He was totally frustrated."
In his hotel suite an hour after the fight, Holmes, wearing a white shirt and blue slacks, sipped a glass of white wine. He said he had won and they had taken it from him, but there was no anger in his voice.
"I had too much going against me. Marciano's record. People calling me a racist. [Earlier in the week, when a computer had decided that Marciano would knock out Holmes in the 10th round of a fight between them, Holmes was widely reported to have said, "What do you expect from a white computer in a white man's game?"] That hurts. It hurts me and it hurts my family," Holmes said. "And I am a dictator. I tell them who I want to fight and for how much. For two weeks the street talk was that if it went to a decision, I couldn't win. But it's a relief; I'm glad it's over. God gives you signals when it is time to quit. This is my time."
"That's it, then?" asked a visitor.
"That's it. No more fights," said Larry Holmes, the ex-fighter.
"What about a rematch with Spinks?"
"Fifteen million," said Larry Holmes, the businessman.
For Spinks there are no immediate plans. He needs time just to realize the glory he really won. Then he must figure out what a 200-pound light heavyweight can do for an encore. "Maybe I'll fight Leon," he said, grinning.
Holmes (left) spent a rocky night as Spinks peppered him with left jabs.
Holmes tried intimidation, sometimes with his elbows (left), while Spinks sought to establish the potency of his left jab.
[See caption above.]
Too often when Holmes uncorked his right, he hit the challenger with a mere breeze.
Giachetti exhorted the champ to double his jabs and set up his devastating right.
Holmes's right occasionally got through, but a bulked-up Spinks absorbed the blows.
Spinks's flying flurries and punches came from all angles, befuddling the champion.
Older brother Leon (left) knew well the joy Michael felt at unexpectedly winning the title.