Lee Groves

Someone’s ‘O’ has got to go: 10 notable fights between unbeaten boxers – part I

7. Sept. 21, 1985 – Michael Spinks (27-0) W 15 Larry Holmes I (48-0), Riviera Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada

When the longtime WBC, then IBF, heavyweight king signed to meet undisputed light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks, history’s call was virtually guaranteed. Barring a draw, one of three consequential scenarios would unfold:

(1)If Holmes prevailed, he would join Rocky Marciano as the only heavyweight champions to amass 49 straight victories without a defeat and, at age 36, he’d have the chance to get the golden 50th and create his own, unique place in his sport’s history.

(2)If Spinks beat the 5-to-1 odds, he would become the first light heavyweight champion ever to dethrone a heavyweight titleholder. Since 1906, there had been 13 attempts by nine current or former 175-pound champions, the most recent being Bob Foster’s two round destruction at the hands of Joe Frazier in November 1970.

(3)A Spinks win would also allow he and his brother Leon to become the first siblings to wear a heavyweight title belt.

Throughout his four-year tenure as a 175-pound champion, Spinks had repeatedly stated he never intended to follow his older brother Leon into the heavyweight class. But when Michael was offered $1.1 million to challenge Holmes – 10 times the purse he earned in registering his 10th defense against Jim MacDonald three months earlier – he was convinced to take a colossal leap of faith.

The rail-thin 6-2½ Spinks had the frame to put on extra weight but he wanted to do so intelligently. To that end he hired New Orleans-based nutritionist Mackie Shilstone, who, according to a Sports Illustrated article by Pat Putnam for the Sept. 30, 1985 issue, put Spinks on a 4,500-calorie diet consisting of 65 percent carbohydrates, 20 percent protein and 15 percent fat.

“I’m eating nuts, bolts, screws, razor blades and sledgehammers,” Spinks told Putnam. “I can eat as much as I want, but only what Mackie says I can eat.”

Along with his diet, Spinks ran a series of wind sprints to simulate the intense energy bursts associated with boxing as well as a weightlifting program that added muscle weight. At the time boxers using weights was a revolutionary concept, for the theory was that muscle-bound fighters sacrificed too much stamina to be effective. Holmes, an old-school acolyte who learned his craft at Muhammad Ali’s feet, scoffed at Spinks’ efforts to turn his light heavyweight frame into one suitable for big-man fighting.

“I don’t care what he eats or what he lifts,” he told Putnam. “When he gets into the ring he’s going to be smaller and he’s going to be fearful. Don’t forget, he’s the one who threw in the towel to stop me from hitting Leon.” In June 1981, Holmes battered Leon out of the heavyweight class with his third-round TKO.

At the weigh-in, Spinks shocked the press by weighing a rock-solid 199 ¾ while Holmes scaled 221 ½. According to Shilstone, Spinks added 25 pounds of weight but shed 1 ½ pounds in terms of fat content.

“His body fat dropped from 9.1 percent to 7.2 percent,” Shilstone told SI. “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.”

Holmes won the first two rounds by advancing behind a jab that sometimes pawed and sometimes snapped while Spinks worked through his usual slow start. Spinks finally began to reveal his blueprint in the third as he moved in both directions and threw darting blows from unusual angles. He moved in just enough to score his points and got out in time to avoid Holmes’ counters. While Holmes barely acknowledged the “Spinks Jinx” right crosses that flattened light heavyweights, Spinks’ blows still scored points and soon the math began to tilt in the smaller man’s favor.

When Holmes tried to bully Spinks at the start of round four, the challenger instantly retaliated with athletic unorthodoxy that often bedazzled the crowd and confused the champion. Spinks’ jabs kept Holmes off balance and Holmes’ normally pinpoint rights were thrown awkwardly and hesitantly. In his autobiography “Against the Odds,” Holmes blamed his triggering problems on a diagnosis he received shortly before the fight – a slipped disc in the fifth vertebra.

“’If I were your doctor, I’d have you on the operating table within the hour – that’s how serious I think it is,’” Holmes quoted that doctor as saying. “He said if I went ahead and fought Spinks it’d be like playing Russian roulette. I might be paralyzed for life any time I threw a punch with the right hand. According to him, the disc might rupture my spinal cord.” Holmes brought in other doctors that cleared him to fight, saying the chances for paralysis were nil. But Holmes still couldn’t help but think about that one doctor’s warning and that, along with Spinks’ elusiveness and unique punching angles, added up to a far more difficult night than expected.

Spinks’ exertions during the round often left him gasping in the corner and his seconds’ demands for even more action caused him to lash out in frustration. He yelled at his corner to shut up during the 11th round and between rounds 12 and 13 Spinks asked his corner to “ah, just give me some water and be quiet.”

But as exhausted as Spinks appeared between rounds he was similarly energized when it counted — exactly what Shilstone envisioned with his program.

Because Holmes long depended on science more than supreme punching power, Spinks’ battle plan and quick hands transformed the match from big versus little to faster vs. slower and, most critically, younger versus older. Spinks’ unusual moves and dynamic bursts forced eyes to watch him instead of Holmes and that — along with the underdog-doing-better-than expected angle — helped him win the closer rounds.

Knowing his seven-plus-year title reign was in mortal danger, Holmes attacked robustly to open the 14th but the danger quickly fizzled and Spinks eventually regained control with his next-dimension boxing. The 15th featured the best two-way action as Holmes fought hard to keep his crown and Spinks fought hard to take it away. A smashing right to the jaw briefly stunned Spinks in the final minute but the challenger’s mobility and Holmes’ hesitation to follow up allowed the smaller man to make it to the final bell, a bell most observers thought he’d never hear.

The decision was unanimous. Harold Lederman and Lawrence Wallace turned in 145-142 scorecards while Dave Moretti saw the bout 143-142 for the winner – and new champion.

The verdict was deemed THE RING’s 1985 Upset of the Year and Holmes didn’t take the removal of his “0″ quietly. Denied the chance to tie “The Brockton Blockbuster’s” record he declared, among other things, that Marciano “couldn’t carry my jockstrap” during the post-fight news conference. Holmes apologized repeatedly in and various forums for those comments over the years, but they didn’t take away from the scope of Spinks’ historic accomplishment. 

How fitting: The man nicknamed “The Jinx” ended up being the fighter to remove the light-heavyweight jinx.

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