A Boxing Memory: Tyson vs Spinks
His life a real-life human soap opera, a man literally falling apart in the full glare of public scrutiny. It wasn’t pretty, even downright ugly wouldn’t cover it.
Undefeated, practically the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, but nevertheless, Mike Tyson was on a one-way ticket to oblivion. The heavyweight challengers he had brutalised with relative comfort were nothing compared to the everyday challenges that life would present. Life was at times, too much for Tyson. The understatement of any year.
The life of Tyson was one of undoubted and extreme turmoil in 1988. His co-manager Jim Jacobs had died, he was in legal dispute with his other co-manager Bill Cayton. Prior to his fight with Michael Spinks, legal papers were served to Cayton at ringside by his then-wife Robin Givens.
Don King was more than circling to gain access to the inner circle and the millions it would mean. King and his python-like grip would suck the life out of many a talented heavyweight in that era. But Tyson would be his ultimate catch. King knew what Tyson would mean. Control of the highly lucrative heavyweight division. Probably boxing itself.
A toxic marriage to the actress Givens with accusations of domestic abuse, and more. Legendary stories of family car’s crashing and who was actually driving, alleged bribes being offered. Tyson was madly in love. He would seemingly do anything to protect that love. The ring was seemingly his only solace. Eventually, that would leave him too. The fantasy life would soon claim another victim.
“I think I was insane for a great period of my life.” Tyson once said.
Tyson had cleaned out his division. Heavyweights of the time had their skills, ambition and prime taken away by the temptations of fame and the association with a promoter who had both eyes on the dollar, were brushed aside with utter contempt. Even the faded and the shop-worn were wheeled out of retirement. After 4 painful rounds, Larry Holmes realised the Tyson myth was no false tail. Only one fighter appeared to be an equal. But that was always a different kind of myth.
Michael Spinks, the former undisputed world light-heavyweight champion, the former IBF heavyweight champion, the 1976 Olympic champion, undefeated and perceived to be the only true threat to the frightening dominance of Tyson. Spinks and his style of awkwardness had always found a way to win. But at heavyweight, he hadn’t convinced, despite bridging the gap of history and around 40lbs. Twice he controversially defeated Holmes, and a win over Gerry Cooney flattered to deceive. Cooney had inactivity and demons to defeat. His time had passed. A stoppage win over the Norwegian Stefan Tangstad is often forgotten. There is a reason for that.
When each fighter, for different reasons, had nowhere else to go, Tyson and Spinks would settle once and for all, who was the one true king of the heavyweight division. Although the 4-1 odds against Spinks and logic should have told us that we already knew. Only the chaos that surrounded Tyson, gave some semblance of hope for Spinks. He needed more.
In 1988 at the Convention Hall in Atlantic City, the usual array of celebrities took their ringside seats for the purpose of being seen where it mattered and to play out their own boxing fantasies in their own minds. Madonna, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Chuck Norris and other superstars of the day took their seats of privilege to witness a fight. They would be disappointed. Rocky stars Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers were there to witness the real thing. Boxing rarely follows a script, Stallone wrote some stuff of pure fantasy, but sometimes the reality couldn’t be written. This fight, however, was in many ways, predictable. Stallone would have done very little with this narrative.
Tyson held the WBC, WBA and the IBF heavyweight titles. Spinks was the recognised lineal heavyweight champion, he had been stripped of his IBF title for refusing to defend his title against the top-ranked Tony Tucker. Tyson needed to beat Spinks to claim undisputed status. In truth, he already had.
A future President of the United States paid a fortune to stage the fight on Trump property. The fight grossed a reported $70 million, with Tyson earning $22 million and Spinks $13.5 million. The hype, the anticipation promised plenty. Value for money, 91 seconds. Says not.
Even without the benefit of hindsight, this observer always had the view Spinks would do well to see out the opening three minutes. My thoughts kept going back to what Tyson did to Marvis Frazier several years earlier. Despite the weight gain, Spinks was a heavyweight in name only. Tyson was unbeaten in 34 fights, Spinks hadn’t lost in 31 fights. Numbers do lie.
As the clock ticked menacingly towards the first chime, Spinks must have wished he was somewhere else. Anywhere else even. Reports of Spinks not wanting to leave his dressing room did the rounds. The former world light-heavyweight champion looked scared and fought the same way.
Tyson was punching holes in the dressing room walls, angered by the tiresome ritual of the rival corner inspecting and finding fault with the opposition’s gloves. Spinks’s volatile manager Butch Lewis had made a fatal mistake.
Tyson said to his trainer Kevin Rooney: “I’m gonna hurt this guy.”
Probably any remote chance his man had of victory went in that moment. The eerie atmosphere echoed a feeling that everyone knew what was to come. Spinks lasted 91 seconds and he never fought again.
Spinks told me a few years ago, “I was worried about getting hit by him.” He had every reason to feel that way. Despite his historic achievements at heavyweight, we should remember more his run at light-heavyweight. That’s where most of his legacy lies.
Tyson was at his peak against Spinks, at 21, he was surely set to go higher. But everything in his life would eventually catch up with him. When Tyson did return to action after 8 months out and even more turmoil in his life, Frank Bruno showed us the decline was already starting to set in. Not long after, James ‘Buster’ Douglas confirmed what we all should already have known. And the long slow painful slide began until Kevin McBride finally ended the infamous career of Tyson in 2005.
Before the walls of Tyson’s life and career came tumbling down, and with some force, he had proved himself beyond doubt the best heavyweight on the planet. It only took 91 seconds, and it was the pinnacle of a career that sadly could have been so much more.
Photo Credit: Bettmann/Corbis