Numerals, because of Floyd Mayweather, such as 48-0, and 49-0 and most observers believe by this time next year, 50-0, will be getting a lot of news play.
Well, slightly over 30 years ago, on September 21, 1985, there was another fighter chasing Rocky Marciano’s majestic record of 49-0 (43).
His name was Larry Holmes 48-0 (34) and he was the IBF heavyweight champion. Holmes was 35 years old and prior to his 49th bout against undisputed light heavyweight champ Michael Spinks 27-0 (19), Larry was 21-0 in heavyweight title bouts, recording 20 successful title defenses.
Ironically, Marciano won his 49th bout by scoring a ninth round knockout over reigning light heavyweight champ Archie Moore 30 years to the day (September 21, 1955) prior to Holmes fighting Spinks.
By the time Holmes defended his title against Spinks, Larry and Michael shared two career parallels; for starters, they were both undefeated champions and secondly, Holmes they virtually cleaned out their respective divisions. If that weren’t enough to peak interest in the fight, it was widely known that via Holmes knocking out Michael’s older brother Leon four years earlier, Larry and Michael had their own history, since Michael vowed he would get even with Holmes for beating up Leon.
Prior to the bout Holmes often stated that he was one of the greats but didn’t get his due respect because he succeed Muhammad Ali. Larry figured that by equaling Marciano’s record and retiring undefeated he would most certainly receive his due props. So it was easy to see where Larry’s motivation was coming from.
On the other hand, Spinks wanted to make history by becoming the first reigning light heavyweight champ to move up in weight and defeat the reigning heavyweight champ. However, the Vegas bookmakers didn’t like his chances and installed him as a 6-1 betting underdog.
During the run-up to the fight, Spinks brought in New Orleans nutritionist Mackie Shilstone, 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. Spinks added 25 pounds of muscle to the frame that carried 175 pounds in his last title defense three months earlier, and his body fat dropped from 9.1 percent to 7.2 percent. As for Holmes, he was experiencing shoulder pain when he threw his right hand and was diagnosed with a pinched nerve in his neck. When the pain persisted after heat and massage treatments he was informed that he had a slipped disc in his fifth vertebra… but he decided to go through with the fight.
The consensus before the fight was Holmes would be too big and skilled for Spinks to handle. Holmes was a great boxer and along with Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali, possessed one of the greatest left jabs in heavyweight history. But at age 35 Larry was on the physical decline and could no longer put his punches together in succession like he could two or three years earlier. As for Spinks, who was only an inch shorter than Holmes, he was just 29 and was at or near his physical prime. Also, Michael was a very cerebral fighter and knew his limitations. As a light heavyweight Michael was a boxer-puncher who knew when to move and box and also who and when to go after and fight it out with. There was no way Spinks was going to take the fight to the bigger and stronger Holmes…..and this would turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Throughout Holmes’ stellar career he was often compared to Muhammad Ali from a stylistic vantage-point. Both relied on their jab offensively and defensively and were at their best when the opponent pushed and carried the fight to them. However, when they had to fight as the attacker and assume the role as the predator in the fight, they weren’t at their stylistic best. Because of their lack of head movement and carrying their hands low they were easier to hit and time with head shots. Make that two-fold if they had to track down a fighter smaller in physical stature with quick hands. Well, Michael Spinks was barely 200 pounds and possessed light heavyweight hand-speed and as mentioned above had no intention on fighting as the aggressor.
Holmes-Spinks I went the full 15 round distance. When it was over Spinks won a unanimous decision by the scores of 145-142, 143-142 and 143-142. The decision was controversial in the eyes of many, something that gained traction when it was found out that the AP scored it 144-141 Holmes and the UPI saw it 146-141 Holmes. Yes, the fight was extremely close, but in my view it came down to the 15th and final round – a round that Spinks clearly owned.
The thing that’s been lost over the years via the closeness of the fight is how Spinks’ boxing and retreating style befuddled Holmes for many rounds of the bout. Spinks, like when Jimmy Young fought Muhammad Ali nine years earlier, forced Holmes to miss and reset the entire fight. And while Larry was looking for the big shot against the smaller fighter, he was getting peppered by quick lefts and rights. No, they didn’t hurt him but they disrupted his offense and stymied him from getting off. This frustrated Holmes as was the case when Young did the same thing to Ali. The net result was Larry, like Muhammad, sought to win the fight with one punch, something they seldom ever did.
Spinks deservedly gets a lot of credit for the way he boxed against Holmes in both of their fights. But the fact is, because Michael was smaller and weaker, he had no choice; he had to move away from Holmes and box him. That totally threw Larry off because he was used to his opponents coming after him, seeking to knock him out. With Michael moving back, Holmes missed a lot of jabs. And since the jabs weren’t finding the target, the right cross was rendered ineffective. Holmes has said he was reluctant to cut loose with his right because of the pinched nerve in his neck, which is completely plausible. However, I don’t buy all of that because Holmes’ right hand wasn’t much more of a weapon when he was healthy and when he fought Spinks the second time. I believe Larry was frugal with his right hand against Michael because he often missed with it and then was countered.
Larry Holmes lost to Michael Spinks the first time they met, albeit closely, because he was on the physical decline and Spinks due to his smaller stature was forced to fight in retreat. Looking back, if you re-watch the bouts of both Ali (Ali-Young & Bugner) and Holmes (Holmes-Williams and Spinks I & II) when they were forced to fight as the predator instead of the prey, you’ll observe that they both missed with many jabs and right hands and neither looked anything close to the all-time greats they truly were.
The old cliché “styles make fights” never rings hollow. It played a deciding part in both fights between Larry Holmes and Michael Spinks. And with that, due to his lack of aggression along with his hand and foot speed……Michael Spinks made and denied history on the same night.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com