Stripped of His Title, Not of His Heart, Michael Spinks Fights Gerry Cooney, but Looks Out for Leon
updated 06/15/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 06/15/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT
That's even more obvious when Spinks emerges from the ring. A reporter asks him how he will handle the 6'6", 235-lb. Cooney, who, though clumsy, is possessed of a devastating left hook. Here the orthodox fighter might indulge in a bit of opponent baiting, probably working the race angle. He might call Cooney "the great white dope" or, since the man hasn't had a serious fight since losing to Larry Holmes in 1982, "the great white hype." Then he would predict an early knockout. Every fighter does that. Everyone but Michael. Now he just chews his lip thoughtfully. "I don't know what will happen," he says finally. "I swear." Despite the bragging rights that his 30-0 record entitles him to, Michael is simply not an arrogant man.
Another reporter starts to ask him about Leon, 33, Michael's older brother. Rumor has it he's having a drug problem. Michael, 30, cuts off the question. "I get upset when people say such things about Leon," says Michael, who now, as good as his word, is getting visibly upset. For a moment it looks as if he might burst into tears.
"Michael's very sensitive," explains Futch. "I cry at the drop of the hat," Michael admits. When his cornermen yell instructions at him in the heat of battle, Michael has been known to yell back, "Leave me alone! I'm doing the best I can!" And he makes no secret of the fact that he finds boxing scary. "I don't find no thrill in getting hit" is the way he puts it. At times it seems the most fragile part of his anatomy is his psyche. But don't be fooled.
"Michael gives the impression he has no confidence in himself," says Futch. "But the way he motivates himself is by thinking, 'I'm going to defend myself against that bully.' Michael's a winner." Futch rethinks that word. "He's a survivor."
He had to be. As one of six Spinks kids, Michael grew up in St. Louis' late, unlamented Pruitt-Igoe housing project, the closest thing to a free-fire zone the city offered. "I didn't realize how tough it was," he says, "till I moved out." Having Leon around only made life a little tougher. One day the brothers got into a debate over a baloney sandwich. Leon settled the question by fracturing Michael's cheek with a curtain rod. Even worse, says Michael, "I got a lot of beatings for Leon, because in the gym he was beating up all these treacherous guys. I mean arm breakers. 'You his little brother?' they'd say afterward. Whap, I'd get it."
But being the neighborhood's surrogate punching bag was a small price to pay, Michael felt, for having so illustrious a sibling. "Leon was the talk of St. Louis," he remembers. "I loved him. I wanted to be just like him. To be around him made me feel complete."
So, at age 12, the gangly, introspective Michael followed Leon into the gym. The $5-a-day meal money they received away from home, fighting as amateurs, was every bit as important as victory. Michael fighting as a middleweight and Leon as a light heavy-weight in Montreal in 1976, they became the first brothers ever to win gold medals in the same Olympics. Leon signed with promoter-manager Butch Lewis and immediately turned pro. But Michael hung back. "He was apprehensive," says Lewis. "All he knew about boxing was what he'd seen on the late show." Those were the movies in which the fighter winds up punch-drunk and penniless, victimized by a fickle public and venal promoters. Michael was haunted by that vision—and he still is. "It's a strange business," he says, "where the guy who takes all the licks comes out with the least. I never understood it."
So Michael took a job swabbing floors and cleaning latrines in a St. Louis chemical plant. That lasted until he got chewed out for sleeping on the job. Michael resigned in tears and, like Leon, became part of Lewis' stable.
For a while the brothers seemed as golden as their Olympic medals. As a 175-lb. light heavyweight, Michael won his first seven fights. And on Feb. 15, 1978 Leon stunned the boxing world by upsetting Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship. "Leon went off the deep end," recalls Lewis, who was then fired by Leon. Soon came the headlines: Leon disappears from training camp; Leon arrested for driving without a license; Leon picked up for going the wrong way on a one-way street. With his gap-toothed grin and a known weakness for women and wine, he quickly became an object of ridicule. "When people made jokes about Leon, it hurt Michael deeply," says Lewis. But Michael did more than just ache for his brother. He put his own career on hold for 10 months. "I tried to be there for Leon," he says. "I tried to get into his head." He warned Leon about the bad movie he saw unfolding: the leeches in camp, the hangers-on, the flunkies. It was classic late-show material. "If I could have beat his ass and made him listen to me, it would have been worth it," says Michael. "But he was my older brother. I couldn't treat him like my son."
For his rematch with Ali, Leon arrived in New Orleans with a retinue of 70. Then he lost. Fight promoter Lou Duva recalls the post-fight scene as Leon pulled up to the hotel in his limo. "It was the saddest thing I ever saw," said Duva. "His whole entourage had left him. He came back to the hotel all by himself."
Back in training, Michael just kept on winning. He beat Eddie Mustafa Muhammad for the World Boxing Association's light-heavyweight championship. He defended his title five times, then in 1983 beat Dwight Braxton for the undisputed light-heavyweight title. That he fought Braxton at all was remarkable, since five weeks before the bout Michael's common-law wife, Sandra Massey, was killed in a car accident. "It was tearing him up," says Lewis. "Every day Michael would be crying." He wept during workouts. He wept during interviews. On fight night a well-meaning relative brought Michelle—Michael and Sandra's 2-year-old daughter—into the dressing room. Michael was fine until the child began asking, "Where's Mommy? Where's Mommy?" The champion broke down and was still sobbing when he entered the ring.
Leon, meanwhile, was going pathetically, if cheerfully, bankrupt. "Money," he shrugged. "You have it, then you don't." He got divorced, and he began turning from contender to punching bag, even as Michael's life was becoming something transcendent, like Rocky's. In 1985, though Michael had to gain 25 pounds to do it, he fought and defeated Larry Holmes for the International Boxing Federation's heavyweight championship, which he was recently forced to surrender for refusing to fight a chosen contender.
Somewhere along the line, he and Leon switched roles. "Michael became the older brother," says Lewis. They see each other only sporadically, and Michael regrets that. "I miss Leon," he says. "When we were kids, I felt great in his presence. I still do."
So Leon will be at ringside when Michael faces Cooney. But the two brothers will never fight on the same card. Lewis is adamant about that. "Mike would get distracted," he says. "He'd worry whether Leon was training hard enough." Besides, Lewis believes Michael has already paid his dues for Leon's indiscretions. "It's cost endorsements," he says. "I've had guys actually say to me, 'People might confuse them. We couldn't afford that.' "
Not that Michael is hurting financially. He owns a five-acre estate in Wilmington, Del., and though he has earned at least $12 million in his 10-year career, he is known as a close man with a dollar. "I've learned to respect money," says Michael. Michelle, now 6 and living with her grandmother in Philadelphia, will inherit $1 million when she turns 21. Unlike the beleaguered innocent Leon, Michael is aware that life itself is a fight, with the outcome in precarious balance. He hasn't come this far to lose.