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Jim Murray

The Other Spinks Lives in Slow Lane

September 27, 1987|Jim Murray

His name is Spinks and he was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

But he has only crashed one car into a light pole in his life. He has his two front teeth. And he never trained for a title fight on Bourbon Street.

He's not his big brother. That's just Michael Spinks' trouble. He's not Leon. He's the quiet one. He's the kid brother. The other Spinks. He's done everything in boxing that Leon did but nobody's looking.

Brothers of star athletes don't usually make it big. I mean, there were lots of DiMaggios but only one Joe. Lots of Zivics but only one Fritzie. Henry Aaron and brother Tommie hit more homers, 768, than any other brother-act in history. Henry got 755 of them. And so on.

But God evens up. He makes your face pretty, he may short you someplace else, like brains. He may lavish talent on one but give the determination to another.

This is the tale of two brothers, the Spinks brothers, who have done what no others in the history of sports have done.

One was a household word. That would be Leon. When he took his teeth out and beat Muhammad Ali in only his eighth professional prizefight, he became a lion of the sports set. He pulled one of the greatest upsets of all time.

Leon Spinks had it all. He was strong, quick, muscular, charismatic and he loved to fight.

He also loved to party. He thought he was strong enough to drink all night and fight all day. He almost could.

Michael Spinks was his kid brother and everything Leon did, Michael tried.

He wasn't that good at it. He hated fighting but he did it because Leon did it.

Michael was smaller, quieter. He couldn't hit as hard, move as fast-- or drink as much.

But he looked up to his big brother. And he was going to follow in his footsteps if it killed him.

The best thing you could say about Michael was, he was sober.

If he didn't like fighting, Leon loved it. The only thing Leon liked better than hitting someone was getting hit by someone.

When Leon was hammering guys in the gym, Michael was getting beat up.

Leon was the gregarious one, full of bonhomie, careless of his activities. Michael came home one day at the age of 15 and "I suddenly realized the things my mom had been telling me were right. I loathed myself for disappointing someone who had fought so hard for me all her life."

Leon drifted off to the Marine Corps. Michael lifted boxes for a living.

But, when Leon wanted to go to the Olympic Games, Michael sighed and joined in.

"I was a slow learner," he says. "But, I went to the gym and I ran into this man, Jim Merrill, who taught me defense. He taught me the jab was the greatest weapon in boxing and he told me that to lead with a left hook cost you two punches. He taught me how to fight a tall guy, how to fight a short guy, to have a plan when you went in the ring."

The Spinkses became the first brother act in the history of the Olympics to win gold medals, but Leon was the glamorous one. He got the light-heavyweight gold at Montreal and promoters drooled. Michael won the middleweight gold and the fight mob yawned.

Leon turned pro, knocked out five straight foes and, within a year and a month, was in the ring for a title shot with Ali. He was the toast of the world when he won. It was only natural that he would want to celebrate. And celebrate he did. Right up till the time he climbed into the ring for a rematch with Ali six months later. The word was, you didn't want to go lighting any matches anywhere Leon was breathing while he was "training" for that fight.

Within a year, Leon was reduced to getting flattened by South Africans in Monte Carlo and to appearing on the undercard in Ali's fights. One of his great nonring achievements was a rear-end collision. With a telephone pole.

Michael, meanwhile, was pursuing his own career. He opted for the light-heavyweight division. Once again, Leon was playing the Palace while Michael was touring the barns.

If you're on the lam from the law or you want to drop out of sight for a while, the light-heavyweight division is the place for you. It's the fistic equivalent of the Foreign Legion. Michael became champion of the division, no less, and people still wondered what had become of Leon's little brother.

"I didn't know that," Michael recalls. "I thought a champion was a champion. As soon as I found out there was no money in light-heavy, I decided to try heavyweight."

By now, there was no chance of running counter to brother Leon. Brother Leon was getting knocked out with some regularity and was getting a reputation as America's favorite traffic accident. His nickname was Crash. Leon had a weakness for immovable objects.

Still, nobody took the other Spinks seriously. He was beating people like Mustapha Wasajja and Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and it was hard to tell one from another.

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