91 Seconds: Mike Tyson, Michael Spinks and the Knockout that Shook the World
It was just after 11 P.M. exactly a quarter of a century ago, and Mike Tyson was steaming.
A combination boomed against the dressing room wall. Not against a heavy bag or pads held by a trepidatious trainer. The wall. A fighter's hands are his livelihood, but in the moment Tyson didn't care. Something needed to be hit. The wall happened to be the only option that didn't end in a felony.
Michael Spinks' flamboyant manager Butch Lewis, according to a Sports Illustrated reporter, made a serious mistake just minutes before Spinks was set to meet Tyson for the unified championship of the world. Lewis decided to anger "Kid Dynamite." And Spinks would be the one to pay the price.
It started simply and escalated quickly. Lewis' assistant noticed a lump in Tyson's left glove while observing his hands being wrapped. Lewis was called over, but barred admission to Tyson's dressing room. Soon enough, Larry Hazzard, the chairman of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, was brought up from ringside to preside over what was quickly becoming a tense situation.
In theory the bump could cause a laceration or cut if rubbed on Spinks' face. In truth, the glove was harmless. Eddie Futch, Spinks' ancient trainer, would soon confirm as much. But Lewis was testing Tyson, pulling "a little psych" as he would later admit. He called foul play.
"Hold it," he said. "Get rid of that, or we don't fight."
Mike Tyson was not amused. This wasn't the Tyson of today, smiling and telling jokes during his one- man show, a Tyson who, despite a tattooed face, seems quick to please and easy going. This was the 22-year-old Tyson, a walking calamity, seething with anger and, after the hardest year of his life, ready to hurt someone. Anyone.
Thanks to pride, and a pay day estimated at $13 million, Spinks had raised his hand, volunteering to step into the ring with a human wrecking ball. That was the game they both played, the life they had chosen since they were very young men. But Spinks, despite the occasional lapse into boxing bravado, was always careful to pay Tyson the proper respect in the months leading up to the fight. The contest was going to be professional, not personal.
Now Tyson was going to try to hurt him, as he had hurt Tyrell Biggs.
Biggs had made the mistake of mocking a young Tyson who failed to make the U.S. Olympic team back in 1984. Tyson, who had cried after losing in qualifiers against Henry Tillman, was merely an alternate as he and Biggs flew out to Los Angeles for the Games. When a passerby mistakenly wished him luck, thinking he would be competing, Biggs sneered "she must mean good luck on the flight."
Tyson never forgot.
His punishment for that remark, three years later, was a beating delivered over seven long rounds. Tyson said he could have finished him early. Instead, he wanted to make him pay, landing punches to the body so hard and so often that Tyson told announcer Larry Merchant he thought Biggs might have actually begun to cry.
"I wanted to do it slowly. I wanted him to remember this for a long time," Tyson told the media after the fight. "He didn't show any respect. I was going to make him pay with his health."
It was an ugly sentiment, but then, boxing is an ugly business. Literary powerhouse Joyce Carol Oates, winner of the National Book Award and the author of On Boxing, spent time with Tyson in his home early in the fighter's career. Oates was struck by his preternatural power and the nonchalant way he spoke about inflicting tremendous physical harm on his opponents:
There is the unsettling air about Tyson, with his impassive death's-head face, his unwavering stare, and his refusal to glamorize himself in the ring - no robe, no socks, only the signature black trunks and shoes - that the violence he unleashes against his opponents is somehow just; that some hurt, some wound, some insult in his past, personal or ancestral, will be redressed in the ring; some mysterious imbalance righted. The single-mindedness of his ring style works to suggest that his grievance has the force of a natural catastrophe. That old trope, ''the wrath of God,'' comes to mind.
This was the man Lewis was hoping to get riled up. And, in truth, it's a ploy that might have worked on a lesser man, even on Tyson later in his career when he knew defeat and was on intimate terms with fear. Lewis was hoping an angry Tyson would be undisciplined, slightly off his game.
Anger, however, fueled Tyson. He was a sophisticated student of the game, sure. But he was also extremely dangerous when he was mad. It was a lesson Lewis, and Spinks, were about to learn—and learn quickly.
"You know," Sports Illustrated reported Tyson said as Lewis put on his show, voice lilting and high, so incongruous coming from a man with his fearsome appearance. "I'm gonna hurt this guy."
The fight was now just moments away.
Setting the Stage
When Sonny Liston was heavyweight champion of the world, there was nothing ambiguous about it. In boxing there is a time-tested maxim that applied to anyone making a claim as the baddest man on the planet—to be the man, you have to beat the man.
Liston was the man, not because a sanctioning body said so, but because he beat Floyd Patterson in the ring back in 1962. Cassius Clay became the man when he dispatched Liston and so on down the line all the way to Larry Holmes.
By 1985, however, things weren't quite so simple for Michael Spinks.
He had done the impossible, becoming the first light heavyweight champion to ever step up in weight and vanquish the heavyweight kingpin. Billy Conn, Archie Moore and a host of other greats had tried and failed. By decisioning Holmes, Spinks made history.
But he was not alone.
Holmes had been the International Boxing Federation champion. Two other so-called champions lurked on the margins, each with their own title belts and lineages. Tim Witherspoon was the World Boxing Council champion. Pinklon Thomas held the World Boxing Association title.
With three men, each over 200 pounds, jockeying for position, it was getting pretty crowded at the pinnacle. Fans were confused, reporters skeptical and promoters slow to confront the issue, each protecting their own champion and interests. HBO, the sport's lone remaining major television provider, had a serious problem.
Seth Abraham, the network's head of sports programming, was intent on putting the pieces back together again. As the heavyweights went, so went boxing. That was the conventional wisdom, and Abraham was determined to recreate the magic that was heavyweight boxing in the 1970's. With that utopia in mind, he attempted the impossible—getting the sport's myriad sanctioning bodies and feuding promoters on the same page long enough to crown a single champion.
Gathering together the alphabet soup champions, as well as the most prominent challengers, Abraham committed $16 million of HBO's money to make it all happen. His brain child, the Heavyweight Unification Tournament, kicked off in spring 1986, a round-robin event developed to, over the course of 18 months, create a single heavyweight standard bearer.
Problems, of course, emerged almost immediately. HBO wanted Tyson, emerging as a star, in. And, coincidence or not, shortly thereafter Lewis wanted Spinks out. After a defense against the little known Steffen Tangstad, a crazy-eyed Lewis revealed his plot to torpedo Abraham's plans.
Resplendent in a black tuxedo that featured a bow tie and an elaborate gold chain but, curiously, no shirt, Lewis jabbed Merchant in the chest while indignantly explaining why he was considering pulling Spinks from HBO's tournament of champions and a mandatory bout with Tony Tucker in order to face former "great white hope" Gerry Cooney.
"If I ever fought Gerry Cooney, contractually my contract with HBO allows me to do so," Lewis said, perhaps forgetting that it was Spinks and not Lewis himself who would do the actual fighting. Then, pointing vigorously at the camera instead of Merchant, he proclaimed his intention to make an announcement should one become necessary, making it clear he didn't need the pesky journalist's help figuring out which fights to make.
"Contractually, we always been allowed," Lewis continued, eyes bugging. "Don't act like I can't do it Larry. I'm allowed to do it."
The battle moved from the confines of television to a courtroom in Lower Manhattan. There, the confusing politics of boxing played in Spinks' favor. He had been stripped of his IBF belt for deciding to meet Cooney rather than Tucker. Supposedly a punishment, it actually worked in Spinks' favor. Now bereft of title gold, the court ruled Spinks was no longer obligated to take part in HBO's title unification series. Spinks vs. Cooney was on.
After a fifth-round knockout win over the washed-up white hope, Spinks declared himself the people's champion. Meanwhile, over on HBO, Tyson continued on in the tournament, collecting the actual title belts from the WBC, WBA and IBF, making him the undisputed champion.
On August 1, 1987, he had his official coronation. Wearing white, along with a long mantle and crown, Tyson carried a scepter while accepting the honor of being the baddest man on the planet. But Tyson was not satisfied. Fans were asking him about Spinks, the undefeated former champion most remembered for dispatching Holmes, considered by many pundits the true heir to the Ali throne.
"Spinks has the real title, my old title," former champion Floyd Patterson explained to Time Magazine. "The one handed down from person to person."
Holmes had been champion for seven years, winning the WBC title from Ken Norton in 1978 with a piston-like jab that many considered among the best in boxing history. But the win that really mattered, the one that crowned him in the minds, if not the hearts, of the people didn't happen until 1980, when he beat an aged Ali on a sad night at Caesar's Palace.
And, though Tyson would go on to knock Holmes out, it was Spinks who got to him first, winning two closely contested bouts in 1985 and 1986.
Hearing about Spinks "became very annoying," Tyson told HBO viewers. Yet, despite the champ's growing frustration, the bout, which made so much sense on the surface, was slow to materialize. Tyson's managers, Bill Cayton and Jimmy Jacobs, struggled to come to an agreement with Lewis. Millions separated the two parties when boxing insider Shelly Finkel was brought in to mediate.
Don King has described the process of working with the noted manager as being "Finkeled." But in this case, it seemed he struck a deal all parties could live with. The agreement, in part, was sped along by Jacobs' ongoing battle with leukemia.
"(The fight) might not have taken place had not Jimmy Jacobs taken a turn for the worse," HBO announcer Jim Lampley revealed on the network's Countdown special. "...Jimmy wanted to see this fight take place within his lifetime. Consequently the deal was hustled along. He won't get a chance to see it. We will."
The Real Fight
While Tyson prepared to battle Spinks, another fight was going on just barely beneath the surface. Bill Cayton, Jim Jacobs' business partner, had worked mostly behind the scenes. While Jacobs took on the role of big brother and mentor, Cayton never sought to enter the champ's everyday orbit.
Upon Jim's death in March of 1988, the vultures circled above the 21-year-old champion. Tyson's new bride Robin Givens and her mother Ruth battled for influence, as did a true heavyweight in the boxing world—Don King. According to author Jack Newfield in The Life and Crimes of Don King, King started working on Tyson, even during Jacobs' funeral, where he somehow became a pallbearer for a man who didn't particularly care for him.
Jacobs and Cayton had actually been careful to keep Tyson away from King. They had the hottest property in boxing and knew it. Refusing to settle with one promoter, they put Tyson's fights up for the highest bidder to claim. It had made Tyson a rich man. But, as Sports Illustrated reported, King smelled an opportunity and set out to claim Tyson as his own:
King's heart was so full of the perfume of his troth that he stood up at a Tyson-Spinks press conference in April and referred to Cayton as "the man I love," causing Cayton, who was standing on the same dais, to recoil in horror. King later amended his judgment of Cayton slightly in the New York Post, referring to him as a "vicious, lying SOB." But a lovable vicious, lying SOB.
King then flew to Los Angeles to spend several days courting Tyson, Robin and Ruth, and Cayton realized for the first time just how precarious was his hold on Tyson's affections. "When Jim died, I wasn't that close to Mike personally," Cayton says. "And now there are people who want to get their clutches on him, beginning with Don King. He's been spending all his time the last three months wooing Mike, and he's made problems for us, a lot of static."
Givens and her mother, however, were not to be underestimated. She had brought Ruth, sister Stephanie and two publicists on her first date with Tyson back in 1987. And, though Mike was smitten with her, warning signs were in the air.
The couple rushed into their February 7, 1988 nuptials when Givens told team Tyson she was pregnant. A morals clause in some of his endorsement contracts put some significant Tyson income in jeopardy, and Jacobs and Cayton encouraged the union. Soon thereafter, Givens would miscarry. Later, Tyson would come to believe Givens, who divorced him after eight months, had never been pregnant at all.
Ruth, who Tyson called mom, sought to insert herself into his affairs, looking to push Cayton out. She pulled Tyson from a multi-million dollar Pepsi commercial until Cayton's fee could be negotiated down from the standard 33 percent to a more palatable 25 percent.
While the couple made out passionately, even in the gym while Tyson trained, she picked out and purchased a mansion for the couple in New Jersey. And, even scarier for some in Mike's circle, Givens had scored Tyson without a pre-nuptial agreement.
"She's very clever," a source told People Magazine in an issue cover dated the day of the fight. "If she stays married for a year, she'll probably make $15 million. Where else can you get that return?"
Tyson's trainer Kevin Rooney summed it up in an interview with The New York Times.
"All the leeches are out now."
Tyson's personal life in the months leading into the biggest fight of his life was spiraling out of control. He was once protected by two old grizzly bears, manager Jacobs and his trainer, the late Cus D'Amato. Without them in his life, Tyson had no buffer between himself and the outside world, a world he was ill equipped to navigate successfully on his own.
Chaos seemed to follow his every step. Six weeks before the fight, when most fighters would be focused on nothing but the challenge ahead, Tyson crashed his $180,000 silver Bentley convertible into a parked car in lower Manhattan. Rumors swirled that he was distracted by Givens smacking him during a fierce argument after she found a condom in his jacket pocket.
A relatively minor incident, the accident became national news when Tyson offered the slightly dinged luxury car to the two policemen who came to help, saying, ''I've had nothing but bad luck and accidents with this car.''
A month later, just eight days before the fight, Robin's sister Stephanie Givens accused Tyson of creating an atmosphere of fear on set wherever Givens worked as an actress, kicking down doors in their home and striking his wife, telling Newsday "he hit Robin in the head with a closed fist.''
Many were convinced his lifestyle would sink Tyson's chances. Surely the tumult would take some of the fight out the champion. The New York Times even picked Spinks to pull off the upset. But Spinks himself was not convinced the outside turmoil would affect Tyson in his safe place—the boxing ring.
''It's not like all those things are taking place in the ring,'' he said. ''It could even add a little extra to his meanness.''
Donald Trumps Las Vegas
More than 18,000 people crammed into Madison Square Garden to witness history. Mike Tyson, the undisputed champion, was defending his title against Michael Spinks, undefeated and uncrowned officially, but in theory the lineal champion of the world. With tickets priced to move, as low as $20 a piece, it didn't take promoters long to find a bevy of boxing fans.
The Garden was just one of a thousand closed circuit sites that generated millions in additional revenue. The event was a financial bonanza according to Shelly Finkel, the promoter who helped broker the deal between the Tyson and Spinks camps. Pay-per-view was just coming into its own. Fights like this one, Finkel believed, would change the way boxing did business:
PPV accounted for $21 million of the fight's gross of about $67 million. Closed-circuit TV brought in some $27 million. Other income included $12.3 million from the live gate, $2 million from foreign TV sales, at least $1.25 million from Pepsi's exclusive sponsorship, $100,000 from miscellaneous sales such as T-shirts, and $3.1 million from the delayed-telecast rights.
When the money began to pour in, Finkel caught a glimpse of the future. The closed-circuit take was less than anticipated, but the startling PPV haul, which exceeded projections by about 20%, more than made up for it. Of the 46.2 million cable homes in the U.S., about five million are "addressable" for PPV, and Finkel struck deals with most of the cable systems that serve them. Despite an average cost of $35 to receive the fight, a surprising 12%, or 600,000 homes, anted up. A phenomenal 34% of Cablevision's Long Island subscribers paid to watch the bout.
The event actually took place at the Atlantic City Convention Center across the river, right across the street from the new Trump Plaza in New Jersey. Trump, making a pretty penny with his casino businesses, proudly outbid his competition, both in New York and Las Vegas, by offering an $11 million site fee to host what was considered potentially the most lucrative heavyweight title bout of all time.
It was an astronomical sum for the time, but one he more than made up charging up to $1500 per ringside seat. A bevy of high rollers in town for the fight brought millions into the casino's coffers in just two days. Tyson didn't fare too badly himself. His $26.5 million deal made him America's third-highest-paid television performer annually, behind Bill Cosby and Oprah Winfrey.
There was no secret about Tyson's game plan. He intended to swarm Spinks and throw clubbing punches until the other man fell down. Spinks' trainer, Eddie Futch, dismissed that strategy.
''Michael has been successfully avoiding the big punch for 12 years,'' Futch said. But those were mere words and words are wind. Futch had statistics and history on his side.
The former light heavyweight, after all, had never been off his feet in his professional career. A ring general, his plan was to avoid Tyson's strengths for as long as possible, frustrating and tiring the champion in the process. Not run exactly. But discretion, to Spinks, was the better part of valor.
"I will have to move a lot," Spinks conceded. "Because I don't like getting hit by anyone."
Spinks, who read the dictionary aloud into a tape recorder to hone his communication skills, was never a natural fighter. He won a gold medal at the 1976 Olympics by, as teammate Ray Leonard put it "doing things that worked, though they happened to be wrong." Even after coming home bathed in glory, he resisted the urge to fight professionally, put off by the sight of old fighters with nothing to show for their time in the ring but growing dementia and some wonderful stories.
"It's a strange business," Spinks told Time Magazine. "Where the guy who takes all the licks ends up with the least."
The secret to Tyson's success, however, had little to do with strength and brawn. Yes, he punched hard. The dozens of bodies bouncing off the canvas were testament to that. But as sparring partner Rufus Hadley told Sports Illustrated, Tyson was a product of speed. Spinks might try to run. Tyson, however, would be there when the challenger least expected it.
"One moment he is out there somewhere and you feel safe," Hadley said. "And the next thing he is in your face, so sudden it's scary, and hitting you upside your head. And when he hits you, man, he changes the taste in your mouth."
Tyson agreed with that assessment in an post career conversation with Interview:
"I was blessed with speed and a good punch. Everybody thinks I’m the hardest puncher ever. But I just think I was really fast, and my punches got to the target faster. That’s what made my knockouts always seem spectacular," Tyson said. "I do think I was a very hard puncher, but I was also a very accurate puncher if I hit you on certain spots and stuff . . . Guys like George Foreman could hit you in the back or on the side of the head or behind the ears and knock you out. But most of the heavyweight guys were so much bigger than me."
Tyson was in black, Spinks white. As the bell rang 25 years ago, the champion ran in place, legs kicking up wildly, before charging at Spinks like a mad man. Spinks had hoped to stick and move, working his jab until he got a chance in later rounds to make Tyson respect his power too. Instead, it was all he could do to survive. Tyson had weeks of pent-up frustration to release. Spinks was to be the target for his rage.
Angles, science, the jab. None of it could withstand Hurricane Tyson. Spinks held on for dear life instead, forced to clinch after Tyson cut off all escape routes. He ate an illegal forearm for his troubles.
"Mike, knock it off," referee Frank Capuccino warned. "Knock it off."
If Tyson heard him, there was no sign.
Again Tyson trapped Spinks in the ropes. Again he unloaded with an arsenal of power shots. There wasn't a jab in sight, even from Spinks, for whom it was supposed to be a bread and butter punch. Tyson landed a big left uppercut, then dropped Spinks to one knee with a stinging right to the body. It was the first time the challenger had been down in his professional career.
To his credit, Spinks didn't stay down long. By the count of three, he was standing tall, ready to resume the festivities. After the bout, he would claim the shot hadn't hurt him at all. More than anything, the knockdown had bought him precious time and delayed Tyson's attack, if only for a moment.
Spinks, pride kicking in and desperate to do something, anything, to keep Tyson from charging so recklessly, tried to match power with power.
"I just tried to do what I knew I had to do, and that was fight," he told the press after the fight. "Not that I stood toe to toe with him, but I tried to take the shot and I came up short.''
Spinks threw a hard right hand. Tyson countered with a left hook over the top. And then it happened. In Sports Illustrated, writer Pat Putnam broke down the physics of one of the hardest right hands Tyson had ever thrown:
The punch traveled on a waist-high arc and caught Spinks at its most powerful point flush against his jaw. No man could have withstood it.
Spinks's eyes rolled up; his legs quivered. Then he fell straight back, arms outstretched. When Capuccino began to count, Spinks tried to force himself to his feet, but as he began to rise he crashed over on his right side. His head was resting against the bottom rope when Capuccino reached 10.
Ninety-one seconds after it had started, the biggest heavyweight fight of all time was all over.
For Tyson, it was a win that seemed to bring no joy. The truncated bout, lasting barely half a round, did little to help him release his anger. Never comfortable with the media, the constant barrage of negativity had begun to take it's toll on the young champion. He was already thinking about a way out.
"You guys have been trying to embarrass me and embarrass my family," he said at the post-fight presser. "As far as I know this might be my last fight."
Spinks, still just 31, really did retire a month after the bout.
"It's tough," he said at his final press conference, alternately crying and holding back tears. "I've never retired from anything, other than from selling papers when I was a kid. I guess I've come a long way.
"I've accomplished what I wanted to accomplish in boxing. There's not much more I can do now."
Of course, Tyson was scheduled to be back in the ring in a matter of months against Frank Bruno. There were titles to defend, millions to make and, eventually, a marriage to mourn.
In September 1988, Tyson slugged it out with former boxing rival Mitch "Blood" Green at a New York City clothing store at 4:30 in the morning. Green's face appeared mangled and broken the next morning, but it was Tyson who emerged the worse for wear, breaking his hand on Green's head.
Two weeks later, he plowed his wife's BMW into a tree. A concussed Tyson reportedly told his wife at the hospital that it was a suicide attempt.
"I told you I'd do it," Tyson said according to People Magazine. "And as soon as I get out of here, I'll do it again."
The erratic behavior led many in the press to speculate about root causes. Even The New York Times got in on the act:
Does Tyson suffer from some kind of chemical imbalance that would have led him toward anger even if he were not a boxer? He apparently tested negative for illegal drugs and alcohol after his bout with the tree on Sunday, but could he be suffering from ''steroid rage,'' an increasingly documented result of taking muscle-building drugs? Or is he a particularly emotionally bruised victim of deprivation and injustice?
Things came to a head between Givens and Tyson during an appearance on ABC's 20/20. While Tyson looked on in a daze, Givens told interviewer Barbara Walters that living with the champ was ''torture, pure hell, worse than anything I could possibly imagine.''
Shortly after, Givens says, Tyson flew into a rage at their New Jersey home. She escaped to Los Angeles, where she immediately filed for divorce, claiming Tyson had repeatedly hit her and threatened to kill her and her family.
Tyson fought back with the power of his purse strings. Don King advised him to remove Givens and her mother from all of his accounts. Cut off, Givens was unable to cash a check she wrote to herself for nearly $600,000.
Tyson told the Chicago Sun-Times that living with Robin and her mother was like living with the Ku Klux Klan.
"They don't like black people," the champion said. "They use them. But they don't like or respect black people."
Givens, eventually, would have the last word, settling for $10 million.
Tyson, in the ring, would never be the same. Something seemed to go out of him when he left his extended Cus D'Amato family in favor of Don King. Bill Cayton was out as his manager, but more importantly, Kevin Rooney was fired as Tyson's trainer.
Tyson had cut ties with everything he had ever known, both in and out of the ring. He paid a heavy price, losing his title less than two years later to Buster Douglas in Tokyo. Tyson would never again be the undisputed champion of the world.
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer. Twenty-five years ago today, Tyson-Spinks became the first fight he ever ordered on pay-per-view. Many more have followed. Thanks to great contemporary reporting, especially from The New York Times and Sports Illustrated, he was able to go back and time and tell the tale of a fight that captured his imagination like no other.
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