Towards the end of his eye-opening/watering 2013 autobiography, Michael Gerard Tyson compares the merits of his own heart to that which beats in the chests of modern-day prize fighters and can’t help lamenting the paucity of passion burning within the new breed. “They spring from a milieu too meagre to comprehend my kind of reality” he concludes.
Such a subjective and intangible quality as passion requires a little qualification, however, and a paragraph later Tyson duly sheds some light on his personal acerbic take on the concept by equating it with a willingness to hurt a fellow man. Measuring against such a dark definition, it is difficult, and perhaps still dangerous, to argue with the one-time baddest human being alive.
But in truth, Tyson is speaking somewhat euphemistically when he refers to passion. What he actually possessed was a level of manifest intimidation rarely if ever seen in professional sports. In the late 1980s, young Mike administered a violent brand of passio to opponent after opponent and menaced the Heavyweight division as a seasoned bully does a weak and cowed schoolyard. Some of Tyson’s fights were won with a sneer at a press conference.
That was not expected to be the case against Lineal Heavyweight champion, Michael Spinks. In hailing from the infamous St. Louis Pruitt-Igoe housing project, the childhood milieu from which he had sprung would not have been all that dissimilar to Tyson’s own on the streets of Brownsville, New York. Street thugs and bullies would be nothing strange or startling to Spinks.
He was also a skilled, experienced and accomplished fighter, 31 and 0 with 21 KOs, and the likes of Muhammad Ali, Rocky Graziano, legendary fight writer Bert Sugar, and even Tyson’s former trainer, Teddy Atlas, all had him picked. The problem was, Spinks himself didn’t appear to share their confidence.
Tyson’s internal rage had built steadily in the weeks before the fight. He has written 579 pages attempting to articulate the source of it all but, very briefly, the catalysts for eruption at this particular juncture included: the death of Jim Jacobs, one of the few men Tyson trusted in boxing, nefarious false claims of abuse from wife and mother-in-law published in Newsweek, ex-confidant Jose Torres peddling an unauthorised warts-and-all biography, and the “reptilian motherfucker” Don King circling overhead like a vulture with blood lust as Tyson legalistically brawled with current manager Bill Cayton.
By the time the final press conference arrived, Tyson gave us an insight into his frame of mind with a viciously succinct response to a question on how he would approach the fight. “I want to take his manhood. I want to rip out his heart and show it to him.” All Spinks could manage in reply was the decidedly less threatening, “a little terror in your life is good.”
Tyson’s life was in full-on kamikaze freefall at this point. Perhaps it had been that way ever since he was ten years old and a teenager named Gary Flowers totally misjudged the situation and thought it wise to rip the head off one of Mike’s beloved pigeons and hurl the bloody remains at the young thug.
Twelve years later, on a June Monday night in the changing rooms of the Convention Hall in Atlantic City, Spinks’ manager, Butch Lewis, learnt nothing from history and effectively repeated Flowers’ error. Lewis used a perceived bump in the taping of a glove rather than a lifeless bird carcass to antagonise Tyson but the result was the same: Mike was mad.
Gary Flowers paid dearly for his own mistake with a savage beating: but Michael Spinks would have to pick up the tab for Butch Lewis’ indiscretion. After Tyson built up a sweat by using a brick wall as a heavy bag, his soft lisp whispered to trainer Kevin Rooney as they made for the ring, “you know, I’m gonna hurt this guy.”
Tyson’s ring walk that night has become the stuff of legend. Stripped to the bare fighting essentials of boots, shorts and gloves, and cocooned in a seething mass of cops, security, trainers and miscellaneous hangers-on, he was marched emotionless through the 22,000 thousand in attendance and between the ropes in almost apocalyptic scenes.
The musical accompaniment was so obscure that there is still some debate as to exactly what it was. Consensus of opinion appears to lean towards a remix of How to Destroy Angels by Coil, a British industrial metal group whose artistic genre has been described as minimalistic, dark ambient, drone music.
Others maintain that the deafening sounds were a version of Fall of the Rebel Angels by Uruguayan composer, Sergio Cervetti. For his part, while comparing the electricity in the arena to that in Kinshasa when Ali fought Foreman, television commentator Bob Sheridan labelled it quite accurately as “just noise”. Tyson himself has described it as “funeral music”. Suffice it to say, an easy-listening classic for a Sunday drive through the countryside it was not.
Bizarrely, that is precisely what Team Spinks had chosen to usher their entrance moments earlier. As if to accentuate the effect of the dark, nihilistic intimidation of Tyson’s emergence, Spinks had elected to regale the audience with the dulcet tones of soft rock legend Kenny Loggins. While Coil’s music appeared on the Hellraiser soundtrack, and Cervetti’s on Natural Born Killers, Loggins’ work was tailor-made for Footloose and the romantic comedy One Fine Day.
Not only that, but in looking to Loggins’ 1979 hit, This is It, for a last minute bolstering of inner strength and belief, the opening lyrics Spinks heard as he begun his journey to the ring were, “there’ve been times in my life I’ve been wondering why…” Watching the footage you can almost hear his subconscious completing that sentence with, “…did I agree to this.”
Spinks continued to look totally devoid of self-confidence as the introductions began and he shuffled about his corner with the demeanour of a man hoping he’d soon wake up and realise this was all just a terrible dream. While Tyson bounced around loose and hyperactive like a kid on Christmas morning, Spinks appeared swaddled in a robe that he eventually shed with a reluctant acceptance that this was happening.
The ritualistic stare down is still a fixture in the fight game because boxers remain the most ardent believers that the eyes are the window to the soul. Thus, it is accepted that a deep, searching look into a foe’s pupils before battle will unearth even the most well buried doubts and fears.
There was no need for Tyson to go digging on this night, however. He would have viewed Spinks’ steadfast refusal to meet his gaze in the centre of the ring as the boxing equivalent of raising the white flag from the trenches before a shot had been fired in anger.
From the look on Spinks’ face as Frank Cappuccino issued the final instructions, few would have argued had the referee given him a standing eight count before the first bell rang. Watching it again, the similarities with Floyd Patterson avoiding Sonny Liston’s glare 25 years before are striking. That second fight between the pair in 1963 lasted a full 130 seconds: a veritable marathon compared to what Tyson had in store for Spinks.
As the ring cleared of superfluous souls to leave just the two combatants and their third man, Kevin Rooney leaned over the top rope to hug his charge and whisper some final words of wisdom. The story goes that, such was Rooney’s confidence, he had bet his entire share of the purse, not just on a Tyson victory, nor even simply on a Tyson KO, but on a Tyson KO in the opening 180 seconds.
As it transpired, Rooney’s apocryphal bet was a relatively conservative punt that paid out with 89 seconds to spare. Needless to say nobody in Spinks’ corner had spoken of backing their man with similar wagers.
Tyson’s carefree skip towards Spinks at the opening bell is an indication of how little he thought of the ex-light heavyweight champion as an offensive force. Indeed, Spinks took his first backward step in the third second of the fight. By the sixth second he was careering backwards off the ropes and after 20 seconds of uninterrupted retreat, he clinched and held on for dear life.
Tyson expressed his displeasure for such a move so early in the contest by ramming his left forearm and elbow up and into the right side of Spinks’ jaw. As Cappuccino warned Tyson to “knock it off”, Spinks glanced over to his corner. The camera angle denies us the opportunity to see the expression on his face but based on all that had happened in the previous ten minutes, we can probably make an educated guess.
When the action resumed, Spinks was in full survival mode and proceeded to merely circle to his right and generally away from the angry young man attempting to decapitate him. With exactly one minute gone, Tyson landed a sharp shocking left-handed uppercut that buzzed Spinks and followed it up with a bludgeoning right to the kidney that caused him to take a knee. It was the first time anything other than the soles of Spinks’ boots had touched the canvas in a professional boxing ring.
He dropped just in time to avoid a swinging, scything hook and then, as he knelt as if genuflecting beneath the sword of Damocles, was fortunate that Tyson for once exercised some self-restraint to uncock and then holster a right that was primed to detonate on the top of Spinks’ unguarded head.
Spinks was up at three and nodded coherently through his mandatory eight count. Tyson later said that the shot that dropped Spinks the first time was not all that solid a hit. In truth, it is entirely possible that Spinks went down more on account of the promise of the blows that would follow if he stayed up than the actual hook that connected.
“Are you OK, Mike?” Cappuccino asked Spinks and looked up and into those eyes that had worked so hard to avoid Tyson’s a couple of minutes before. “Yeah, I’m OK,” replied Spinks. Such a relative concept but what else could he say? Years later in a 2009 interview he was more honest in declaring that Tyson “paralysed” him with that punch. “He hit me in a good spot, it numbed my body.”
Three seconds after declaring himself OK, Michael Spinks didn’t know where he was. Perhaps resolved to get this nightmare over and done with one way or the other, he waded forward and threw a loose overhand right that Tyson deflected harmlessly away. Spinks’ momentum carried his head forward and down and in that split second of disequilibrium, Tyson used his own perfect balance to rotate his hips and throw from his waist a twisting right hook-cum-uppercut that landed flush.
Amidst the chaotic screams of a crowd approaching delirium, there are two audible and very distinct sounds in quick succession. The first is the compressed thud of Tyson’s gloved fist connecting squarely with Spinks’ mandible. The second is the hollow slap of the back of Spink’s head rebounding off the taught canvas floor. The referee then took up one of the most unnecessary counts in heavyweight history.
Spinks was gone. Twenty years later he spoke of having been “knocked silly” by Tyson. The whites of his eyes combined with an oversized gum shield gave his face the comic appearance of a cartoon character being electrocuted. But this was no laughing matter. His head had come to rest in such a position that the white bottom rope was directly in his line of vision. As he stared vacantly heavenwards in a fuzzy version of consciousness, I wonder if he mistook the white of the bottom rope for a light that he’d rather not follow just yet.
To his immense credit he tried to rise but only got as far as his hands and one knee before collapsing sideways through the ropes as the ten count expired. In the archive footage the camera then cuts to the passive-looking victor walking towards his corner with arms outstretched and palms facing up. This non-aggressive gesture is traditionally associated with congeniality, humility and vulnerability. After 91 seconds of ferocity, animosity and brutality, it made for an interesting juxtaposition.
Rooney, perhaps mentally counting his winnings, was the first to embrace Tyson. Don King, most certainly already calculating how many millions he would bleed out of this young phenomenon in the coming years, wasn’t far behind. At just 21 years of age, Tyson was an undefeated destructive machine in the ring and the undisputed baddest man on the planet. We had no idea that he had already peaked.