After winning a gold medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Michael Spinks went on to defeat Eddie Mustafa Muhammad for the WBA light heavyweight crown in 1981. He made 10 successful defenses of that title, while also winning the WBC and IBF belts.
Spinks achieved boxing immortality when he vacated the title to challenge undefeated Larry Holmes, 48-0, for the heavyweight crown in September 1985. Utilizing brilliant displays of boxing intelligence and ring savvy, he first defeated Holmes by controversial decision and then won the rematch, also by decision, in April 2006.
Spinks' only loss was a 91-second blowout at the hands of a rampaging Mike Tyson in June 1988. He retired immediately thereafter with a record of 31-1 (21 kos).
A little-known fact about Spinks’ career is that he fought and beat 5 winners of the New York City Golden Gloves tournament, which for decades was considered the pre-eminent amateur boxing competition in the country. (Read this NY Times piece by Phil Berger, from 1986, which conveys the import of the NYGG, which began in 1927.)
During a recent visit with Spinks, he recounted his tussles with the 5 champs, as well as a two-time Golden Gloves finalist who, according to Spinks, was the savviest of them all. Here is what he had to say:
Tom “The Bomb” Bethea
Bethea, who hailed from Manhattan, lost by decision to Elliott Miller in the finals of the 1965 GG middleweight novice division. He was also stopped in the second round by Myles Montague in the 1967 open championship bout.
As a pro he compiled a record of 21-22-3 (8 kos). He went the 10-round distance with Carlos Monzon in 1969 and was competitive in several losing encounters with Nino Benvenuti.
Bethea also lost decisions to the late “Irish” Bobby Cassidy, who described him as “very clever,” and Mike Quarry. He squared off against Spinks in his seventh pro fight in February 1978 in Las Vegas. At the time, Bethea’s record was 22-18-3. He lost a competitive eight-round decision.
“Bethea was very tricky fighter, much better than his record showed,” said Spinks. “He would put his thumbs in my armpits to try and control my movement and keep me from hitting him. He did that a lot and it was very effective because I was unable to stop him. The fight went the distance.”
Eddie Mustafa Muhammad
Muhammad, who hailed from Brooklyn, won 147-pound open GG titles from future middleweight champion Vito Antuofermo in 1971 and John Mills in 1972.
Muhammad stopped Marvin Johnson in the eleventh round to win the WBA light heavyweight crown in March 1980. He lost the title by unanimous decision to Spinks in Las Vegas in July 1981. Muhammad was 38-5-1 at the time.
“What a tough guy Eddie was,” said Spinks. “I had a hard time beating him, but I did take the title from him, which was very gratifying. He punched pretty hard and boxed very well. He was a very tough guy, one of my toughest, strongest opponents.”
Brothers Johnny Davis & Eddie Davis
His eighth defense was a 12-round unanimous decision victory over Eddie Davis, who was 27-3-1, in Atlantic City in February 1984. The Davis brothers hailed from Hempstead, Long Island, New York.
Johnny Davis beat James Miller for the 175-pound open GG title in 1975. The following year, he outpointed Gerry Cooney for the same crown. He fought professionally from 1976 to 1987, where he compiled a record of 15-11 (5 kos). He lost a decision to Leon Spinks at the Olympic-Box-Offs in Vermont in June 1976.
Eddie Davis won the light heavyweight 175-pound open GG championship against Frank White in 1973. The following year, he outpointed Al Fracker to win the same title again. In 1975, he defeated Gerry Cooney in a semi-final GG bout.
Eddie Davis was also stopped by Leon Spinks June 1974, in the second round of a 178-pound National AAU bout in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“Leon fought both brothers in the amateurs and told me to be careful with them,” recalled Spinks. “Johnny was a good boxer, but Eddie hit much harder. Eddie did hit hard, which I didn’t like, but other than that I didn’t think nothing of it. I just went in and did my business, and it turned out good because I beat both of them.”
Sears, from Howard Beach, Queens, won the 178-pound open GG title in 1981 by defeating Porfirio Llanes by decision. He was 16-0-1 and managed by actor Burt Young when he challenged Spinks for the title in his ninth defense in February 1985 in Atlantic City.
Sears boxed well for two rounds but was stopped in the third. He retired in April 1981 with a final record of 17-3-1 (11 kos) and became a New York City firefighter.
“I was getting ready to move up in weight and challenge Larry Holmes,” recalled Spinks. “I remember Sears being slick, but I didn’t give him time to gain momentum. I caught up to him and stopped him early.”
Cooney won the 1973 middleweight sub-novice GG title by stopping Larry Derrick in the third round (see video below). He won the 1976 heavyweight open GG title by beating Earl Tripp by decision.
Along the way, he was stopped by Eddie Davis in a 175-pound open quarterfinal bout in 1974 and he lost a decision to Eddie Davis in a 1975 semi-final bout. Johnny Davis also beat him by decision in the 1975 GG finals in the 175-pound division.
Spinks relinquished his alphabet titles to take on Cooney in June 1987 for a lucrative bout that was billed as “The War at the Shore” in Atlantic City. Cooney was stopped in the fifth round. He retired after a 1990 loss to George Foreman with a record of 28-3 (24 kos).
“Cooney was very big and strong, much bigger than me,” recounted Spinks.
“I had already beaten bigger men, Holmes and [Norwegian Steffen Tangstad]. I just had to fight smart against him, which I did,” said Spinks. “I felt he was ineffective against me because I was at the top of my game, and I stopped him in the fifth round.”