The story of the fabled United States class of 1976 at the Montreal Olympics usually begins with Ray Leonard.
It can’t be told without Michael Spinks.
Between just those two teammates, glory was found and history made from welterweight to heavyweight. Spinks got to the world title dance a little later than Ray; he got there later in his own family as well. While working his way up the ranks, Spinks witnessed older brother Leon, still a professional novice, shock an aging Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight crown in 1978.
He also saw him give it back before that year was out.
Of the five Americans to win gold in 1976 (John Tate didn’t win gold but did briefly hold the WBA belt at heavyweight), Michael Spinks was the last to receive a title shot, the fourth and final to win a professional crown, and he would be the last to taste defeat for the first time.
Michael worked his way up the ranks a more old fashioned way than Leon, learning his trade against an assortment of prospects, young contenders, veterans, and former champions to earn a shot at his first title. Two of Spinks previous three fights before his challenge in July 1981 of Eddie Mustafa Muhammad featured emphatic knockouts of some of the biggest names of his time at light heavyweight, Yaqui Lopez and Marvin Johnson.
Eddie Mustafa Muhammad knew all about Johnson. Muhammad unseated the 1972 US Olympic bronze medalist in March 1980 with an eleventh round knockout to win the WBA crown and defended twice before the year was out with stoppages of Jerry Martin and an undefeated Rudy Koopmans. Prior to his defense against Spinks, Muhammad had fought just once in 1981.
Packing on some 26 pounds over his fighting weight for Koopmans, Muhammad lost a decision in the heavyweight division to a then-undefeated Renaldo Snipes. The loss to Snipes snapped a nine fight winning streak dating to a 1978 trip to Rahway Prison to face memorable contender James Scott. The Snipes fight occurred on May 17, leaving Muhammad just two months to make his way back to the 175 lb. limit of the light heavyweight division.
Heading Into the Fight
Eddie Mustafa Muhammad
Title: WBA light heavyweight (1980-81, 2 Defenses)
Previous Titles: None
Weight: 175 lbs.
Hailed from: Brooklyn, New York
Record: 38-5-1, 32 KO
Ring Magazine Ranking: #1 (Cover Date: August 1981)
Record in Title Fights: 3-0, 3 KO
Previous Five Opponents: 102-18-3 (.841)
Title/Previous Titles: None
Height: 6’2 ½
Weight: 173 ¾ lbs.
Hails from: St. Louis, Missouri
Record: 16-0, 11 KO
Ring Magazine Ranking: #2
Record in Major Title Fights: 1st Title Opportunity
Last Five Opponents: 115-33-4 (.770)
Venue: Imperial Hotel Palace - Las Vegas, Nevada
Purses: Muhammad, $350,000; Spinks, $125,000 (Sports Illustrated)
Referee: Richard Green
Recapping the Action
The bell sounds and the immortal brogue of Howard Cossell relays the men are competing in a “19 foot, 9 inch ring...a good sized ring.” It’s not a factor in the first three minutes as both men test each other with one or two shots at a time before finding themselves in regular clinches. They take turns banging the body with their free hands. Spinks receives a warning for three shots landing to the back of Muhammad in one such exchange.
The taller, longer Spinks attempts to work more from the outside, landing a good right early in a terse exchange. The steady Muhammad gets his own big right hand home in the second half of a round again marked by lots of tying up in close.
Another methodical three minutes ticks by as Spinks struggles to land the right hand. Neither man is hurt and again it is the steadier Muhammad who appears to be piling up the stronger points, if only a shot at a time. Spinks closes with a snapping left to the head but misses the right behind it.
Spinks continues to struggle in landing the right, sometimes missing wildly, but makes up for it with some authoritative jabs and good hooks to the body. Muhammad is less active throughout what is Spinks best round so far.
Spinks gets off to a good start, working the body of Muhammad on the ropes but earns another warning from the referee after the second of two noticeable uppercuts that miss leather but end with an angled elbow towards the face of Muhammad. At the midway point, Muhammad lands a thudding right and Spinks gets his turn against the ropes. Muhammad closes with a pair of stiff shots in the last ten seconds.
Another ugly, awkward round sees a premium on clean punching with ample clinching. In spots, both men lean into each other with little punching or clinching, simply pushing against each other in a seeming test of strength.
In terms of activity, Spinks appears busier but the most telling moments belong to Muhammad. A stiff right gets the attention of Spinks and Muhammad follows up briefly to the body but doesn’t sustain the attack.
At close quarters in the middle of the ring, Spinks opens up in a big way. Digging to the head and body, Spinks does his best work since round five, swelling the right eye of Muhammad. The champion bites down and lands some nasty hooks to the body in the last thirty seconds.
Spinks smells blood, sticking the lead left with authority at the suddenly closed eye of Muhmmad. Spinks loads up with left hooks around the raised gloves of Muhammad. Success with Spinks’ right comes more often to the ribs. Between rounds, the concerned visage of WBC titlist Matthew Saad Muhammad can be seen behind the corner of his WBA counterpart shouting advice.
The momentum remains with Spinks. The challenger gets the better of an early, exciting exchange that ends with Muhammad taking shots along the ropes. Grappling and clinching resume but when space emerges it is Spinks leading the action until a buckling right from Muhammad in the closing second. The champion lands some more hurting blows but Spinks takes them well.
Muhammad lands a big left early and it sets the tone for a better round. Muhammad gets his jab working better than it has in several rounds and Spinks struggles to find the range for the big shots he’d been landing the three rounds before.
After a night where the famed “Spinks Jinx” right couldn’t seem to the find the sweet spot, the challenger nails Muhammad in a pivotal moment. Two left hooks disguise a blistering right hand and Muhammad is down. Propped almost leisurely on his right elbow, Muhammad beats the count and covers up when action resumes. Spinks attacks as Muhammad leans into the ropes. A Muhammad right hand doesn’t deter the assualt. Another right from Muhammad turns Spinks to the ropes and it’s enough to survive to the bell.
No one is hurt but Spinks retains the advantage, doing the better work from the outside, moving his hands more, and landing better to the body when they’re close. Muhammad doesn’t have much to offer in return, taking only sparing chances to land.
Spinks rocks Muhammad again with a left hook as part of a series of stiff blows. Spinks maintains a discipline he’s had all fight, firing the jab even at close quarters to open up the rest of his offense. Muhammad tries a dragging left and eats a right hand over the top just before the bell.
It’s not always pretty; little about the fight has been. It’s a winning approach though as Spinks continues to outwork and outland a champion looking for a saving bomb or at least a chance to hear the final bell. Spinks batters his body often in the last three minutes as the cost for the effort.
The scores come in after the final bell, each card announcing the selection. Duane Ford 146-138 for Spinks...Lou Tabat 144-140 for Spinks and the new champion is celebrating already as the announcement of Chuck Minker’s 145-139 is merely academic.
After the Bell
Selected as the Fight of the Month in Ring Magazine’s October 1981 issue, Shirley Norman wrote:
For the first five rounds, it looked as if Eddie Mustafa Muhammad might retain his WBA light heavyweight title against top challenger Michael Spinks. But, in the fifth round, Spinks, the Olympic Gold Medalist and brother of former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, showed the stuff of which champions are made. Michael totally dominated the last 10 rounds of the title bout, dealing Muhammad a constant barrage of uppercuts, overhand lefts, and shots to the body that had the champion reeling and writhing, and destined to lose his title.
Norman credited the battlers as giving, “...the fans an action-packed battle, full of surprises and unorthodox action.”
Writing for Sports Illustrated, Jack McCallum was less enthused, musing:
As decisively as Spinks beat Mustafa Muhammad, knocking him down in the 12th round and winning by eight points on one judge's card and six on another's, the nationally televised fight highlighted some of the built-in weaknesses of the light heavyweight division. Spinks has power, but not the power of a heavyweight, and speed, but not the speed of a middleweight. The fight wasn't exciting, with Mustafa Muhammad playing hide-the-face to protect his right eye, and Spinks often missing awkwardly with his favorite punch, an overhand right, which he calls "The Spinks Jinx.”
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. In a bout slowed at times by long stretches of grappling, there were still some genuinely thrilling rounds and a clinic on landing in tight spaces by Spinks as the fight progressed. Its significance as the beginning of one of the most notable reigns at light heavyweight can’t be undersold.
Spinks would defend the WBA crown five times before facing WBC titlist Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1983, emerging after fifteen rounds as the undisputed king. He wasn’t done yet with Eddie Mustafa Muhammad though. In July 1983, they were slated for a return. It was a moment with lasting resonance. When Muhammad missed weight for the title contest, and Spinks refused to go forward with even a ten-round non-title bout, the fight was called off. Broadcaster HBO and the Washington, DC Armory were out of an evening’s entertainment.
Spinks and Muhammad had weighed in, as was the custom for most of the gloved history of the sport, on the day of the fight. While not the sole catalyst, the cancellation of Spinks-Muhammad II was a critical step in paving the way for a move to day-before weigh-ins.
Muhammad would not recieve another title opportunity until 1985, losing a split decision on the road to undefeated Slobodan Kacar and snapping a ten-fight win streak. Muhammad would win twice more before suffering his lone stoppage loss in the final fight of his career at the hands of Arthel Lawhorn in October 1988. Muhammad retired with a mark of 50-8-1 (39 KO) and continues on in the sport today as a trainer
Following his win over Qawi, Spinks would notch four defenses of the undisputed light heavyweight crown. His title fight record in the division would stand at 11-0 (8 KO). Three months after his final successful defense against Jim MacDonald, Spinks would add almost 25 pounds and chase a glory no reigning light heavyweight champion had achieved before.
On September 21, 1985, Michael Spinks would win a unanimous decision over the great Larry Holmes to capture the IBF and lineal claims to the top of the boxing mountain. Spinks would defend his lineal claim three times, including a highly controversial rematch verdict over Holmes, but gave up the IBF belt to fight Gerry Cooney instead of continuing in a tournament to crown an undisputed heavyweight champion. Spinks famously met the winner of the tournament, lasting just 91 seconds against a certain Michael Gerard Tyson.
It was the only defeat in a great career. Spinks was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994.
While the sport is largely postponed, boxing has a rich library of classic fights, films, and books to pass the time. In terms of fights, readers are welcome to get involved. Feel free to email, comment in the forum, or tweet @roldboxing with classic title fight suggestions. If they are widely available on YouTube, and this scribe has never seen them or simply wants to see them again, the suggestion will be credited while the fight is reviewed in a future chapter of Boxing Without Boxing.
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Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]