When you think about it, the odds against two brothers each winning the heavyweight championship of the world have to be staggeringly high, almost Powerball lottery-winning high. The odds against it happening twice have to that much higher.
While the combined heavyweight reigns of Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko lasted longer and almost certainly will gain both induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, the towering Ukrainians are merely the second set of siblings to pull off the improbable double-dip. The brothers Spinks – Leon and Michael – out-Klitschko’ed the Klitschkos by making history sooner and, in some ways, even more notably. Consider this: Although Wladimir won the super heavyweight gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Vitali was denied a shot at Olympic glory when he was removed from the Ukrainian team that year after testing positive for a banned substance. The Spinks brothers, meanwhile, each took gold in 1976 in Montreal (Leon at light heavyweight, Michael at middleweight) as members of what many consider to be the finest U.S. Olympic boxing squad ever. And, before he moved up to heavyweight, Michael also was the undisputed light heavyweight champ as a pro, and one of the best ever at 175 pounds.
But there are other, very stark differences between the Klitschkos and the Spinkses. For one thing, the now-retired Vitali (at 43 he is five years older than Wladimir) and Wlad not only look and fight alike, they are almost mirror images of one another in their personal and professional demeanors. For all intents and purposes, they might as well be twins.
As for Leon and Michael … well, that isn’t really the case, is it? Leon, perhaps the more naturally gifted fighter, was a mercurial, unfocused free spirit, unwilling or unable to handle the pressure that came with the sudden onset of fame and fortune. He has been to the IBHOF, but only as an invited guest; it is highly unlikely “Neon Leon” ever will go to Canastota, N.Y., in any other capacity. Michael, his more serious, more dedicated younger brother, already has been officially certified as an all-time great, having been inducted into the IBHOF in 1994.
As further proof of the strength of the Spinks brothers’ pugilistic gene pool, Leon’s son, Cory Spinks, went on to win versions of the welterweight and junior middleweight championship.
The strange, intriguing and disparate journeys of the Spinkses are especially called to mind in September, the anniversary month of events for each that, as much as anything, define their legacies. On Sept. 15, 1978, exactly seven months after he shocked the world by wresting the WBC and WBA heavyweight titles from Muhammad Ali on a split decision at the Las Vegas Hilton – in only his eighth pro bout! – Leon came completely unglued in dropping a unanimous decision to Ali (only the WBA belt was on the line in the rematch), who became the first man to claim boxing’s biggest prize for the third time. A then-record indoor crowd of 63,500 jammed into the Louisiana Superdome to witness one of the oddest heavyweight title matchups ever.
“I know I could have made Leon upwards of $50 million if he had disciplined himself doing the right thing for four or five years,” Butch Lewis, who promoted both Spinks brothers and died in 2011, told me of the problems he encountered in trying to keep his unruliest charge under some kind of reasonable control. Instead, Leon blew through his $5 million in ring earnings ($3.75 million of which came from the second Ali fight) at warp speed and he tumbled into a tailspin that left him virtually destitute and his career in tatters. Evicted from his home for failure to keep up with the mortgage payments, Leon had to put most of his possessions into storage, and when he also got into arrears on that account, the most visible reminders of his former prominence were dispersed in an auction in which one lucky buyer acquired his heavyweight championship belts.
“What a waste of talent,” Top Rank boss Bob Arum, who promoted both Ali-Spinks bouts. (Lewis was a Top Rank vice president until, depending on whose version of the story you choose to believe, he was fired or left the company voluntarily after the rematch), said of Leon’s, um, casual approach to not only boxing, but just about everything.
Fast-forward seven years and six days, to Sept. 21, 1985, and Leon’s kid brother, Michael, made history on several fronts with his split decision over the heavily favored IBF heavyweight champ, Larry Holmes, at the Las Vegas Riviera. Michael’s upset of Holmes, who was making his 20th world title defense, not only prevented the “Easton Assassin” from stretching his record to 49-0, which would have tied the mark set 30 years earlier by the great Rocky Marciano, but it enabled the then-29-year-old Spinks to become the first light heavyweight champion to win the heavyweight title since Tommy Burns had done it in 1908. During the 77-year interim, there had been 13 challenges to the heavyweight title by nine light heavyweight champions or former champs, including failed bids by such legends as Billy Conn, Archie Moore and Bob Foster.
As if all that weren’t enough, Michael – who had gotten only $100,000 for his final light heavyweight title defense, an eighth-round stoppage of James MacDonald – made $1.1 million for the first matchup with Holmes, kick-starting the most lucrative stage of a career which culminated in total earnings of $24 million-plus, $13.5 million of which came from his final fight, that first-round knockout loss to Mike Tyson in Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall on June 27, 1988.
Unlike Leon, who scarcely trained for any fight, including his title-winning shocker over Ali, Michael was a tireless worker in the gym who wasn’t hesitant to try out unconventional methods if he thought they might prove beneficial. For the first go at Holmes, he turned himself over to New Orleans-based physical conditioning guru Mackie Shilstone, who held master’s degrees in psychology and nutrition. Shilstone – who later worked with Riddick Bowe, Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr. — formed an uneasy alliance with Michael’s old-school trainer, the legendary Eddie Futch, who grudgingly acquiesced to his fighter’s insistence on adhering to Shilstone’s deviations from long-held boxing precepts. Michael’s carefully monitored 4,500-calorie-a-day diet, which helped him pack on 25 pounds of muscle while reducing his body-fat percentage from 9.1 percent to 7.2 percent, obliged him to consume pancakes and protein shakes instead of steak, to lift weights instead of skipping rope, to run sprints instead of going on lengthy jogs.
For all their obvious differences, however, one thing remained constant: Leon was always there for Michael, just as Michael had been there in the chaos of the Superdome, lending whatever support he could to the perpetually distracted Leon. How could it have been otherwise? They had grown up in the notorious Pruitt-Igoe housing project, the bleakest of St. Louis ghettos, where gangs, drugs and violence were a way of life. Their overwhelmed father had abandoned the family when Michael was a toddler, leaving mom Kay to try to take care of her six sons and one daughter as a single parent.
But Kay couldn’t place a protective shield around her kids at all times. At some point Leon had had enough of the beatings he was getting from neighborhood toughs. He went to a nearby gym to learn to box, putting him on a path that eventually would lead him to Olympic gold and the heavyweight championship. Along the way he talked Michael into also trying his hand in the ring, and, well, of such things is destiny made.
Not that Leon was especially benevolent in taking young Michael under his wing. He seemed to delight in putting beatdowns on his little brother during their frequent sparring sessions, not out of cruelty but by way of teaching him that nothing worthwhile comes easily. Unfortunately for Leon, it was a lesson he was far more capable of passing along than in living out himself.
In 1994, Michael told me of the most important victory he ever registered, and, no, it was not his gold-medal triumph over the Soviet Union’s Rufat Riskiev, either of his signature points nods over Holmes or his light heavyweight championship slugfest over the rawhide-tough Dwight Braxton.
“It was back in St. Louis, in the early ’70s,” Michael recalled. “Me and Leon were passing by this gym, somewhere we’d never been in before. Leon said, `Hey, let’s check the place out.’ There was a ring in there, and Leon found a couple of pairs of gloves. We pulled them on and went at it for three rounds.”
This time, however, little brother gave as good as he got – even better, in fact.
“I couldn’t believe I was actually winning,” Michael continued. “You have to understand, Leon had always beaten the dog out of me. He always beat the dog out of everybody. Leon was the man in those days. There wasn’t anybody who could beat Leon. There wasn’t even anybody who could last three rounds with him. He used to beat me up so bad, I’d cry. He beat me like we weren’t even brothers. But he was trying to help me, in his own way. He’d say, `Mike, I know I take it hard on you, but if I took it any easier, you wouldn’t learn anything.”
Michael still had a warm, fuzzy satisfaction from the brotherly battle that is not part of either’s official records, and which caused him to believe that, just maybe, he, too, could become the man.
“I threw off the gloves and said, `Hey, man, I beat your ass. I got you.’ And that was it. We never sparred again. Looking back, that might have been my proudest moment in boxing. I figured if I could do that well against Leon, I could hold my own against anybody. From that point on, I was a completely different fighter. I had confidence in myself.”
But to most so-called experts, Leon, still on active duty with the Marine Corps, remained the brighter professional prospect during that magical Olympiad in Montreal. Although Sugar Ray Leonard was the clear breakout star of those Games, Leon was the brother who wangled a lucrative pro contract with Top Rank while Michael went back to his old job as a janitor at a St. Louis chemical plant where, as one co-worker later observed, his duties included “scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets.”
Top Rank eventually brought Michael into the fold, and the brothers continued to move forward in their careers, Leon at an accelerated rate. He was just 6-0-1 as a pro when he was granted his dream shot at Ali, who entered the ring out of shape and overconfident. But it was not as if Leon had prepared for the most important bout of his career any more intensely.
Butch Lewis recalled Leon’s training camp in Kiamesha, N.Y., a resort in the Catskills where the challenger was more apt to play hooky than to get in the kind of work a fighter, any fighter, needed to take full advantage of an opportunity of that magnitude. So notoriously unmanageable was Leon that Lewis had an associate sleep on a cot in front of the door to Leon’s room, to keep him from wandering off. The ploy failed; late one night Leon escaped anyway, through the window, over the roof and onto a porch, during a snowstorm. Lewis’ frantic search party found him the next morning shooting pool at a nearby tavern.
And if Leon was the loosest of cannons previously, he went completely off the radar screen for the Ali rematch, which was billed as “The Battle of New Orleans.” The battle turned out to be more of a skirmish – Ali winning handily on scores (by rounds) of 10-4-1 (twice) and 11-4 – fight week was a hodgepodge of Mardi Gras, Southern Decadence and amplified French Quarter frolics. Even in a city known for having what might described as relaxed moral standards, the influx of out-of-town hookers constituted such an invasion that bar patrons hoping to order an adult beverage or to just listen to some jazz couldn’t even find stools to sit on in the more popular watering holes. No wonder part of the prefight festivities included a convention of COYOTE members, an acronym that stood for “Call Off Your Old, Tired Ethics,” an American sex workers activist organization. More than a few of the hundreds of media members in town for the fight filed sidebars about the COYOTE confab, which seemed natural when you consider that boxing is largely about sticking the jab and going to the body.
Where was Leon during all this hubbub? It was a bit of a mystery, but rumors flew – many of which turned out to have ample basis in fact – that he was pub-crawling not in the comparative safety of the French Quarter, but in dives in crime-infested neighborhoods that even the local police were hesitant to go into.
“He was drunk every night he was there,” a disgusted Arum said of Leon’s hard-partying ways. “Leon wen to places our people didn’t dare go to. I’m surprise he didn’t wind up with a knife stuck in him.”
One of the fight game’s quintessential storytellers, the late Bert Randolph Sugar, noted that Leon, upon being picked up at the New Orleans airport by a member of the local sheriff’s staff, promptly fired up a joint on the way to his hotel. It was in keeping with a lifestyle that always was played out fast, loose and with few worries as to possible consequences.
“One time, Leon woke up in a hotel room, stark-naked, his wallet, watch and false teeth missing,” Sugar said with a flourish of his ever-present cigar. “The girl he’d spent the night with was gone, too. Leon called the cops and told them he’d been mugged. He though that sounded better than telling them he’d gotten drunk and been rolled.
“Here he was, the heavyweight champion of the world, and he’d have the police believe that somebody took off all his clothes and made off with his false teeth.”
The madness continued on fight night, when Leon arrived at the Superdome with an unwieldly entourage of 70 or so acolytes in tow. And when the fight started, a half-dozen or so of the more favored members of his crew turned his corner into a mob scene, all screaming to get his momentary attention. Among those jostling for position were brother Michael, trainers Sam Solomon and George Benton, and gunnery sergeant Art Reddon, who had been Leon’s boxing coach in the Marines.
After the sixth round, Benton – who had prepared Leon as well as he could for the first Ali fight, and who later enjoyed great success working with, among others, Evander Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor and Mark Breland – simply walked away.
“It was a zoo,” Benton said later. “It was like watching your baby drown. There was nothing you could do about it. I had no more control of the guy. I was useless. All I could do was get the hell out of it.”
Nor would the situation improve in the years that followed. A month before the rematch with Ali, a concerned Michael said that his older brother’s “mind is a total wreck now. He doesn’t have anybody around him but people who want his blood.”
Trading on what remained of his reputation, Leon – his entourage now scattered to the wind — got one more shot at the WBC heavyweight title, and was stopped in three one-sided rounds by Holmes on June 12, 1981, in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena. He dropped down to cruiserweight and was paired against WBA champ Dwight Muhammad Qawi on March 22, 1986, but was TKO’ed in the sixth round. His record after Ali II was 16-15-1, putting his final career mark at 26-17-3, with 14 KOs.
“Leon was an incredible physical specimen in that he won the heavyweight championship and never trained a lick,” said Tom Vacca, a Detroit matchmaker who put him in several fights late in his career, including his last-gasp bid for glory against Qawi. “You’d see him the day before a fight smoking a cigarette with a beer in his hand and a girl on his arm.
“But he had an incredible heart. He had the heart of a lion. He beat Ali on heart alone. At some point, though, his youth and his heart began to fail him and he didn’t know what to do when that happened. Let’s face it, Leon was no rocket scientist.”
The most obvious similarity between Leon and Michael, other than the fact they were world champions, is their gap-toothed smiles, a distinction shared by, among others, former New York Giants defensive-end-turned-“Good Morning America” co-host Michael Strahan and the late British comic actor Terry-Thomas. Michael, however, wrung every ounce from his considerable boxing gifts, going 31-1 with 21 knockouts, and for that he deserves to be thought of more kindly than for the 91 brutal seconds he was in there against Tyson before being steamrolled into retirement. Little brother made it into the IBHOF the old-fashioned way: He earned it.
September is the brothers’ month of months, a time of celebration for one and regret for the other, of summits scaled and abysses tumbled into. It is the sort of mosaic into which any family’s intermingled lives is woven, illustrating how far some of us have come and how far others still need to go.
Bless their hearts, the tale of the Klitschkos’ rise to prominence somehow just doesn’t seem as compelling.