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Michael Spinks © Gallo Images

How Spinks and Spinks made history

Leon and Michael Spinks will always be among those who made boxing history. They were the first brothers to win Olympic Games gold medals in the same year and also the first brothers to win the world heavyweight championship as professionals.

Their story can be read in One Punch From The Promised Land – Leon Spinks, Michael Spinks, and the Myth Of The Heavyweight Title by John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro.

Life started for the Spinks brothers in the Pruitt Igoe housing project in St Louis, Missouri, where rats, cockroaches and junkies were part of the scene. The boys were often the target of bullies but never fought back.

Leon was born on July 11 1953. When he was 19, he joined the Marine Corps. In 1974 he won a bronze medal at the world amateur championships in Havana and in March 1976 he added a US Golden Gloves title to go with several other titles.

It was reported that two of his front teeth came loose during a fight with an army boxer but the story has been discounted, revised and refuted. Leon claimed he lost one tooth in a sparring session and a second in a bout while he was in the marines.

Boxing manager Jackie Kallen later asked her dentist to replace the missing teeth.

Leon was still a youngster when he began drinking and partying, even though he was up early for roadwork. His finest achievement as an amateur was when he beat Cuba’s Sixto Soria in the final of the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal to win the light-heavyweight gold medal.

On January 15 1977 he made his professional debut, stopping Bobby Smith in the fifth round in Las Vegas.

In only his eighth fight he caused one of the biggest upsets in heavyweight boxing by beating an out-of-shape Muhammad Ali over 15 rounds. The bout, in New Orleans on February 15 1978, made him the undisputed world champion even though it was only for the WBA and WBC belts.

Within days, Leon had a whole entourage, including two press agents, four trainers, three lawyers, a manager, an accountant, a valet, a personal physician, two promoters, a sparring partner, and a 112kg bodyguard.

He bought a Lincoln Continental limousine, a Cadillac Seville, a house in Detroit, a house for his mother-in-law and mink coats.

His bodyguard, Mr T, apparently spent more time chasing the champion than guarding him.

There was big money to be made in a rematch with Ali. It took places six month after their first bout and Ali, in much better condition, had little trouble regaining his title.

It was clear Leon was in the next phase of his lifelong bender – and this one came with an outsized budget and a never-ending supply of marijuana and cocaine.

Leon never reached the heights of the first Ali fight even though he won a few before South African Gerrie Coetzee stopped him in the first round in Monte Carlo in June 1979.

In June 1981 he had crack at the WBC heavyweight belt but was stopped in the third round by Larry Holmes.

After this defeat he began boxing in the cruiserweight division and continued until December 1995 when he retired at the age of 42 to finish with a record 26 wins, 17 losses and 3 draws.

After his last fight Leon’s health deteriorated. Betty Spinks (his wife) recalled: “Lee was dragging his leg, falling, and getting lost. His father called and asked me if Lee had a stroke. I took him to the doctor and had tests done. He’d had no stroke. They said he had memory loss. They said it’s from boxing, but the alcohol is making it worse.

“Dementia is setting in. So my son and I bought boots to support his ankle. We couldn’t even leave him at home by himself. He’d fall through glass tables. He’d lose his keys.”


Michael, who was born on July 13 1956, always looked up to his elder brother but he was the complete opposite in character.

As an amateur, Michael won Golden Gloves titles and defeated Rufat Riskiev from the Soviet Union to win the middleweight gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

He seemed to be the more talented of the two but was not interested in turning professional. Leon was the one who attracted all the attention.

However, Michael made his professional debut as a light-heavyweight on April 17 1977, winning on a first-round knockout against Eddie Benson.

a Clean-living lad, Michael trained hard and in July 1981 beat Eddie Mustafa Muhammad to win the WBA title. He retained it in five defences before negotiations began for a unification match with Dwight Braxton, the WBC champion, who changed his name to Dwight Muhammad Qawi.

On January 7 1983, two months before the scheduled fight, Michael’s fiancée was killed in a road accident. But on March 18 he outpointed Qawi over 15 rounds to win the WBC title.

He later added the IBF title when he beat Eddie Davis. After two defences of the three belts he challenged Larry Holmes, who would be making the 22nd defence of his heavyweight title.

They met in Las Vegas on September 22 1985 and Michael won over 15 rounds. It meant he and Leon were the first pair of brothers to hold heavyweight titles.

The WBA had Tony Tubbs as heavyweight champion and Pinklon Thomas held the WBC belt.

In a return match with Holmes, on April 19 1986, Michael won on a split decision. After beating Steffen Tangstead and Gerry Cooney, he defended his belts against Mike Tyson.

Tyson was the 4-1 favourite for the bout on June 27 1988 in Atlantic City. Tyson knocked out the champion in 91 seconds. It was Michael’s first defeat as a professional and he retired 29 days later, with a record of 31 wins, 21 inside the distance and one defeat.

Michael Sprinks was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota in June 1994.

Less than two weeks after the death of Butch Lewis, his manager, Spinks discovered that his bills were not being paid. Lewis had lived extremely well. After suing the estate, Michael was able to pay his bills and live in his home.

The hard-cover book has 280 pages and is published by Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut.


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