Michael Spinks: The History Fights With Larry Holmes
Larry Holmes heading into his 49th professional career shouldn’t still have been fighting for respect and acceptance. But ever since he had turned professional in 1973 Holmes was fighting the one fight he couldn’t win.
Holmes had to deal with the quitter references after losing to Duane Bobick in the amateurs. Having to follow probably the greatest and most charismatic heavyweight in boxing history would have been impossible for any fighter. Muhammad Ali couldn’t be matched, Holmes had to follow him as the heavyweight champion of the world. When Ali announced his inevitable return, Holmes had to beat what was left of the great man.
Without having an opponent who was viewed as his equal, Holmes struggled to be accepted by the public. When Gerry Cooney came along, he finally had an opponent that captured the publics imagination. But it was a fight where we saw the race card played prominently in the highly toxic build-up, Holmes defeated Cooney but as with the Ali victory, many hated Holmes for beating someone that was put in front of him.
In 1985 Holmes was 48-0 and now held the IBF version of the heavyweight title and chasing history. Rocky Marciano had retired with an unblemished 49 fight career, Holmes wanted to match it and then surpass it.
Michael Spinks the long-reigning world light-heavyweight champion was the next challenger. Spinks 29, was unbeaten in 27 fights but he was a 4-1 underdog and giving little chance to deny Holmes and history in their fight in Las Vegas. The odds made the upset seem remote, but another Spinks, Leon, was a bigger outsider when he shocked the world when he beat Muhammad Ali in 1978.
Spinks was chasing his own slice of history. No reigning light-heavyweight champion had ever dethroned the heavyweight champion. The likes of Archie Moore, Bob Foster and others had failed to bridge the size gap, Spinks would be the 9th to try.
Talk of a fight with the world middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler came to nothing, and with Spinks cleaning out his own division, a new challenge was sought. But it wasn’t Spinks’s idea to challenge Holmes:
“It wasn’t my idea. It was my promoter, Butch Lewis’s. He said we’re fighting for the heavyweight championship. I was like, what? Later on, I thought about all the heavyweights I used to spar with at Joe Frazier’s gym and I said, all right. Val was Joe’s floor manager and he told me to start coming in around 12 noon and I could box the heavyweights and help them with speed. I sparred with Tex Cobb, Mike Cornisi, Joe Goldstein, Bonecrusher Smith. I started boxing those guys. One day I was boxing Tex, and I hit him and he threw a roundhouse kick at me. I jumped out of the ring. Tex said, “You hit me too hard.”
Virtually everyone outside of the inner circle of Spinks had written him off. With Holmes chasing history-making records, Spinks had history against him. But Spinks had moulded his physique into a viable heavyweight contender. Veteran trainer Eddie Futch had connections to both fighters, Futch stayed neutral and stayed at home.
Tactically Spinks got it right. Holmes was 35, and the signs were evident he was slipping as a fighter. Tougher than expected defences against the likes of Tim Witherspoon and in his previous fight Carl Williams showed real evidence that a changing of the guard was imminent. Holmes was fortunate to get the decision in both of those fights, and he struggled with the likes of David Bey and James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith as well in recent fights. With an ageing fighter in front of him, Spinks capitalised with his awkward in and out style. The timing of Holmes’s punches wasn’t what it once was, the style of Spinks posed significant problems for Holmes:
“I said to myself you have to act as if you’re not afraid of Larry and see how he responds to that. I’m going to act like I’m here and whatever goes down, goes down. Just act as if you’re not afraid of him. I was looking for his response. Instead of him leaning towards me, he stood back and I thought that was a sign of respect.”
Holmes struggled with the slippery constantly moving smaller man in front of him. The heavyweight champion couldn’t pin his opponent down. Holmes had his right hand seemingly permanently cocked, but he rarely delivered it, and when he did, it couldn’t find its intended target.
The jab of Holmes was one of the best in heavyweight history, but to the surprise of even Spinks, it wasn’t that effective in this fight:
“I kept getting hit with that jab and it was annoying for a while, and then I just started moving my head, ducking the jab. I did slip that jab very often in that fight. I was able to get away from that jab a lot more than I thought.”
The fight lacked excitement but it was close and engrossing, the smell of an upset began to linger in the air. Holmes chased all night long but couldn’t quite catch his elusive challenger. Holmes even admitted it was a close fight, but as the champion, he expected to get the decision. Unfortunately for Holmes, it was Spinks who had his raised via a unanimous points decision. Spinks thought he had edged it, but was worried he wouldn’t get the verdict:
“Yes, his right hand never landed enough in the last round. I was ducking and dodging the majority of Larry’s punches. He couldn’t hit me. Yeah, I felt I had won and I was worried about being robbed too.”
Holmes took the loss badly, his infamous comment on Rocky Marciano was regrettable. The ‘Marciano couldn’t carry my jockstrap’ remark left a bitter taste. It was made out of many years of frustration and a lack of respect but it did him no favours:
The rematch took place the following year with Holmes gunning for revenge. This was a different Larry Holmes that showed up for the return. But Spinks still felt he would retain his title:
“I thought he was a little more riled up. But I thought he would slow down being that excited. I think I was right. I wasn’t worried. I thought I had his number, but I didn’t think he could have mustered up enough strength and power to beat me.”
Holmes started fast, even throwing Spinks to the canvas in the early seconds of the contest, and looking something like his peak, the new champion looked in real trouble in the 2nd round of the rematch. Spinks admitted he was hurt in the early stages of the fight:
“I was hurt when he hit me in the temple. I was hurt but I didn’t go all the way down. I got to a certain point, then I came back up. I was in great shape. I didn’t hit the canvas.”
The first fight was close, the wafer-thin margins accepted by most, but the rematch was far more controversial. Holmes strongly believed he won the return, as did I. Most of the early rounds I scored for the former champion, and I felt Spinks never got close to overcoming the early deficiency on the cards.
But the ex-champion had said plenty after losing to Spinks the first time around, not only the Marciano comments but questioning the integrity of the judges. Holmes apologised but was the damage already irreparable.
Spinks had another view and he thought after the strong start from the former champion, that he rallied to deserve the 15 round decision to retain his IBF heavyweight champion of the world:
“I think from the seventh or eighth round I picked it up. I thought I won.”
Holmes retired after his second professional defeat and left the sport a very bitter and angry fighter. The inevitable comeback years later would see Holmes losing to Tyson in 4 rounds before very nearly become a heavyweight champion again in a losing challenge to Oliver McCall in 1995. The defeat to Spinks probably summed up his reign as champion. Holmes never felt accepted or respected, the loss to a light-heavyweight gave his critics ammunition. But at his peak Holmes was some fighter, who lacked many things, talent inside a boxing ring wasn’t one of them.
Spinks stayed at heavyweight for the remainder of his career. A win over the overmatched Steffen Tangstad and what was left of Gerry Cooney set up a showdown with Mike Tyson. Tyson blew Spinks away inside a round, and that was the end for Spinks. There were rumblings of a comeback, but Spinks resisted the urge. The heavyweight run was short, but effective. The history-making win over Holmes in their first fight defines his heavyweight legacy. Right place, right time, maybe, Holmes was ageing for sure, but Spinks deserves his due for the performance he gave in becoming the first fighter to inflict defeat on the long-reigning champion. Michael Spinks was an incredible fighter in his era and doesn’t quite get the recognition he deserves, something he shares with the fighter he took the world heavyweight title from.