One Punch from the Promised Land

By Gordon Marino on October 19, 2013
One Punch from the Promised Land
Michael tries to cosset his older brother from his limitless penchant for self-destruction.

Even Spinks’ mother told him, “You’re crazy, Leon. You’ll get wiped out.” The authors add, “Nobody disagreed. Not even Leon…”

Leon and Michael Spinks were one of the most successful sibling pairs in the history of sports. Hailing from harsh and humble beginnings, they both won Olympic gold. Both became world champions. Both earned millions. Truly, One Punch from the Promised Land: Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, and the Myth of the Heavyweight Title should read like a boxing Cinderella story, but as is often the case in professional pugilism, things did not exactly work out the way they should have.

Leon Spinks was born in 1953, Michael three years later. Shortly after Michael came into the world their father, Leon Sr., all but disappeared. Kay, now a single mother, supported a family of eight on about 150 dollars per month. Until the buildings were demolished, they lived in north St. Louis’s infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing projects, which co-authors John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro describe as a combination “Mean Streets and New Jack City, circa 1971. It was an urban Lord of the Flies.”

In the gang-infested streets, games of basketball or dice could easily erupt into gun violence. As in many informally militarized zones, the boxing gym provided an isle of peace and sanity.

Eager to learn how to protect themselves, the Spinks brothers, first Leon and then Michael, began the study of the sweet science at the DeSoto Recreation Center. From the first bell, Leon was a relentless, hard hitting fighting machine. In an old, secondhand interview (there are many in this book) Michael recalled, “I adored Leon and wanted to be just like him…He was boxing as an amateur before I got into it, and he was knocking out everyone around. He was gaining a lot of respect in the neighborhood.”

Whether it was in the ring or on the street corner, Leon was a natural with his fists, but he had the soul of a devil-may-care pirate. He was undisciplined in every corner of his existence, including boxing. He had an unusual zest for combat but detested training. Even with coaches, Leon seemed incapable of taking orders. Yet, when it became evident that all the bridges in St. Louis were for him bridges to nowhere, he entered that most hierarchical and authoritarian institution in America, The United States Marine Corps.

Leon’s fellow Marines marveled at the simple fact that a free spirit like Leon could survive the corps. A friend remembered, “Those drill instructors were terrible…They would do anything, beat you down, call you names, talk about your mother. When they talked about Leon’s mother, Leon knocked two drill instructors out. They put him in the hole—he stayed there for three months or longer.”

But the elder Spinks was a star and leader of the Marine Boxing Team. In 1976, he and Michael secured slots on the most heralded Olympic squad in U.S. history, a team that garnered five gold medals.

In 1977, shortly after his release from the Marines, Leon made his professional debut. A year later and with a mere seven contests on his ledger, he challenged Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title of the world.

Even Spinks’ mother told him, “You’re small potatoes compared with Ali…You’re crazy, Leon. You’ll get wiped out.” The authors add, “Nobody disagreed. Not even Leon.”

But on that magic night in Las Vegas, Spinks hit the jackpot. The man once known as the “Bull of Camp Lejune,” lammed the aging Ali around the ring, won a split decision, and the heavyweight championship.

Excessively good as well as bad things can throw a person off kilter. Leon had a five-alarm substance abuse problem to begin with and the money and fame that came with beating Ali did him in.

Spinks did not train and dropped the rematch with Ali. In short order, he made so many withdrawals from the bank of his inborn physical assets that his once prodigious fistic gifts were soon spent. In time, Leon, who lost 17 of his 46 fights, would become the first ex-heavyweight champion to suffer defeat at the hands of someone making their pro-debut!

The authors conclude that for Leon the heavyweight title was a myth, “It made him rich for a while, but it’s hard to say that a forty-three-year-old ex-fighter with nothing to show for his career other than dementia and a minimum wage job could look at his rusty championship belt and say thank you.”

Michael, who dearly loves and often tries to cosset Leon from his limitless penchant for self-destruction, did not enjoy the gloved game, but he was disciplined, talented, and toted his Bible everywhere. Jesse Davison, a former amateur teammate recalls, “When we would go to fight out of town, to New York, to California, to Boston, he always got us in his room and read the Bible to us…we thought it was funny.”

After the Olympics, Michael mowed down a murderers’ row of tough and talented light heavyweights and became a world champion. In 1988, then heavyweight king Larry Holmes was 48-0 and eager to tie Marciano’s record of 49-0. The “Easton Assassin” was hunting for a relatively easy fight. Historically, the big boys have not had a rough time with light heavies and so Holmes signed on for an evening with Michael Spinks.

But as the authors explain, Michael Spinks, a future hall-of-famer, was a Sphinx in the ring. His movement was unpredictable. He had sensitive antennae for incoming punches, was adept at firing quick and accurate combinations, and boasted a powerful right, tabbed the “Spinks Jinx.” Like Leon, Michael shocked the world by beating Holmes and becoming the first light heavyweight champion to snatch the heavyweight crown.

Spinks triumphed in a hotly contested rematch and then went on to pocket a huge payday by stopping the 6’5” Gerry Cooney. It was, however, the Mike Tyson era. The 22-year-old man child known as “Kid Dynamite” was 34-0 with 30 knockouts and laid claim to the WBA, WBC, and IBF belts. The undefeated Spinks, who was considered the lineal heavyweight champion, was in fear and trembling about exchanging with Tyson. But Michael had stood up to his fears many times before and the unification matchup was made. In what might have been the highwater mark of Tyson’s career, Tyson tucked Spinks away in 91 seconds.

A few weeks down the line, Spinks announced his retirement, supremely confident that his financial manager, Butch Lewis, had taken good care of him, supremely confident that all the blows he had given and absorbed over the years would deliver him and his family from all financial worries. After all, Michael had earned in excess of $25 million in the ring. However, when Butch Lewis died suddenly in 2011, Spinks’ golden nugget was gone and Michael had to file suit against the estate of the man who had been with him his entire career and in whom he trusted as much as anyone on the planet. 

This well balanced and researched study pulsates with a strong storyline, and yet it loses a few points in the late rounds for lack of recent interviews with the brothers that would help the reader to understand what Leon and Michael make of the roller-coaster ride of their remarkable careers. But there was one victory that should be emphasized throughout all the hairpin turns of their crazy boxing ride: Michael and Leon have kept their love for one another intact—and that is no small accomplishment.

A professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, Gordon Marino writes on boxing for the Wall Street Journal. He is on the board and works with boxers at the Circle of Discipline in Minneapolis, as well as at the Basement Gym in Northfield, MN. You can follow him on Twitter at @GordonMarino.

Special thanks to the Wall Street Journal

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Muhammad Ali vs. Leon Spinks I

Muhammad Ali vs Leon Spinks II

Larry Holmes vs Michael Spinks I

Larry Holmes vs Michael Spinks II

Michael Spinks vs Gerry Cooney

Mike Tyson vs Micheal Spinks

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  1. Tony Gloeggler 04:21pm, 10/24/2013

    Picked up this book recently and looking forward to get into it. While I’m not the biggest boxing fan, the story of such different people who happen to be brothers is fascinating.  I also have read John Florio’s noir novel Sugar Pop Moon so I’m expecting the writing to be just as strong

  2. Ted 06:35am, 10/21/2013

    What a very enjoyable read this was. Many memories were resonated.

    I suspect the low point was reached when John “Johny Bombs” Carlo KOd Leon in one round in Johnny’s first pro fight back in 1994.

  3. FrankinDallas 01:00pm, 10/20/2013

    Funny joke by Eddie Murphy on Leon Spinks. I am paraphrasing here…
    “I get mad at people making fun of Leon cause he ain’t very smart. But he’s the HW champ…he ain’t no entomologist!”

  4. Eric 12:36pm, 10/20/2013

    Not only was little brother Michael a better fighter and heavyweight than Leon, but I believe he hit harder even at heavyweight than Leon. Leon was perceived as a banger, but he really was little more than an average puncher at best in the pro ranks. Leon, like Michael was never a “natural” heavyweight and all those knockouts in the amateurs were against light heavyweights and not 220 pounders. Do agree though that Leon reached the top way too soon, and could’ve been a lot better had he been groomed more slowly. But hey, had he not lived the lifestyle he chose, he would have been set for life. He had three heavyweight title fights, two cruiserweight title fights, and a decent payday against Coetzee. The guy had opportunities only some can dream about. He also can claim to being heavyweight champion of the world and how many people can claim that?

  5. Eric 11:39am, 10/20/2013

    @nicolas, Why would Ali take a beating for 15 rounds if he threw the fight. Reminds me of the Jack Johnson-Jess Willard rumor. Why would Johnson bake outside in a hot Cuban sun for twenty plus rounds before “throwing” a fight. Ali was only 36 but he was an OLD 36 and he really wasn’t that dominating since he regained the title from Foreman. Who did Ali beat in his second go round as champ?  Club fighter Wepner took him 15 rounds. Joe Frazier was even more washed up than Ali for Manila.  Ron Lyle? Decent fighter but Quarry boxed Lyle’s ears off. Coopman and Dunn? Who? Alfredo Evangelista went the distance with this version of Ali. Earnie Shavers, a one dimensional slugger with poor stamina, and limited skills went the distance with Ali. Featherfisted Jimmy Young and Norton beat him everywhere but the official scorecards. People talk about the weak opposition of the Klits, but maybe they should take a look at Ali’s second go round as champion.

  6. nicolas 09:42am, 10/20/2013

    Leon’s victory over Ali, allowed Leon of course to win the heavyweight title, which had he not fought Ali in their first fight might never have happened. But as his future fights would show, it probably destroyed any progress he could make in becoming a better fighter. I always felt that the Ali loss to Spinks was not on the up and up. I felt that Ali wanted to lose that fight, so that he could regain the title from Spinks and retire as a three time champion. I also felt that Ali was fearful of meeting Ken Norton for a fourth time, as it was perhaps the only time that one could feel that after the fight, and before the decisions were announced, Ali appeared depressed and nervous after meeting Ken Norton in the ring.

  7. Clarence George 02:42am, 10/20/2013

    I agree, Eric—Spinks’ “reign” must surely be the nadir of the heavyweight division.

  8. Eric 06:51pm, 10/19/2013

    Neon Leon made a small comeback by beating shopworn fringe contender Alfredo Evangelista and the hard punching much larger Bernardo Mercado. There were more than a few people who thought he might have a shot at Holmes’s title in his ‘81 challenge. Holmes sent Spinks down to the cruiserweights where he would struggle with fighters like Ivy Brown, and Jesse Burnett, before getting soundly beaten by Carlos DeLeon. Leon would have one more shot at the big time against Qawi for the cruiserweight title and Qawi taunted, clowned, and mocked Leon while punching out a one-sided tko victory in 6 rounds. How Leon even beat a 36 year old washed up Ali is a mystery to me, Leon just may have been the worst heavyweight champ of all time, or at least close to the very bottom.

  9. Matt McGrain 03:45pm, 10/19/2013

    This book wasn’t on my shopping list; now it is. Mission accomplished Gordon.

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