It was only fitting that the Heavyweight title fight between champion Larry Holmes and former champion Leon Spinks was being held from Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena.
The great Joe Louis had passed away just two months earlier and this night marked the arena’s dedication in his name.
On Friday night, June 12, the undefeated Holmes was making the 10th defense of his crown. The bout was broadcast live in primetime on ABC Wide World of Sports with the legendary Howard Cosell seated ringside to call the blow-by-blow action.
The year was 1981.
As the fighters warmed in their dressing rooms, Cosell explained that the arena was only about half full. Nearly 12,000 fans were in attendance as Detroit was a city whom had been hit hard by the nation’s economic woes. Recovery was coming and was soon to be aided by the NFL hosting Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac, home of the Detroit Lions.
The 28-year-old Spinks (10-2-2, 8 KOs) had experienced a short, but eventful career. After winning a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics, he defeated Muhammad Ali in just his eighth professional bout to win the Heavyweight title. In an immediate rematch, Ali enacted revenge by winning a unanimous decision.
Spinks had battled his way back after a second loss, a shocking knockout at the hands of Gerrie Coetzee. Now ranked No. 2 in the world, Cosell was quick to point out the intangibles that Spinks carried with him as he entered the ring.
“Leon at 200 ¼ pounds, seems beautifully conditioned. He has never been a fighter possessed of polished boxing skills, never. He didn’t have that at Montreal when he won the Gold. What he had was the deepest competitive drive you could ever want to see in a fighter.”
The 212-pound Holmes (37-0, 27 KOs) was a former Ali sparring partner who had achieved greatness after beating Ken Norton in a thrilling bout to win the Heavyweight crown in June of 1978. He was the recognized kingpin of the division and had a stellar dossier having beaten Ali, Trevor Berbick, Mike Weaver and Earnie Shavers.
Cosell opined on the champion’s credentials as he climbed into the ring. “He is 32. He has a five-inch edge in reach. The Holmes jab, a stinging, jarring jab. Larry’s jab is most effective when he can stand flat footed and just pour it in there.”
Holmes began gliding from side to side and moving his hands, shadowboxing near his corner. The crowd roared with anticipation as Cosell described the champion’s strengths to the ABC viewing audience. “Look at how fast those hands are. That’s his greatest ally, foot and hand speed. Great side to side or lateral movement.”
Scheduled for 15 Rounds, Holmes was recognized as a 4-1 betting favorite. As the arena buzzed with anticipation, referee Richard Steele provided final instructions.
The bell sounded to begin Round 1 and the bout was underway. Spinks charged directly at Holmes looking to immediately apply pressure to the champion.
Holmes, wearing his traditional white trunks with red trim, bounced on his toes as he circled from left to right. The champion immediately employed a snapping left jab while Spinks, outfitted in black trunks with red trim, bent at the knees and into a crouch while attacking Holmes to the head and body.
Cosell loved the early action, “Spinks trying to be all over him, pursuing him, it excites the crowd.”
After it appeared Holmes had outscored Spinks in Round 1, the back-and-forth action heated up in Round 2. Spinks again came out fast, pushing Holmes backward and into the ropes as Cosell spoke quickly to keep pace, “Leon bobbing and weaving and trying to get inside.”
Holmes took the action back to the center of the ring. While Holmes pumped his left jab, Spinks began bombing overhand rights to Holmes jaw. The tactical advantage quickly shifted to Spinks as the two began trading at close quarters.
The crowd roared as Cosell’s voice rose, “Now they’re teeing off together! Spinks in control! Had Holmes rattled.” The bell sounded to end the round after a fantastic exchange.
After the competitive give and take of Round 2, Holmes looked to right the ship and reestablish his dominance in Round 3. There was less lateral movement by the champion who had now elected to stand flat footed in front of Spinks.
The champion pounded away, drilling Spinks with vicious blows to the body and to the head. He doubled up, throwing sensational left hooks and drilled home a straight right hand that sent Spinks reeling.
With Spinks now backed into a corner, Cosell went bananas, “And Holmes is now scoring heavily against Spinks! That left to the belly hurts Spinks. Holmes is really teeing off on him. And Spinks is ready to go!”
On cue, Spinks crumbled to the canvas, rising at the count of nine. Fans stood, cheering wildly as Holmes rushed in to finish the wounded Spinks.
The challenger gamely fought back, yet the Holmes avalanche had already begun to smother him. With nowhere to go, Spinks covered up in a corner, hands high protecting his head, as his trainer waved a white towel from his corner.
Steele leaped in to stop the Holmes assault, leaving Cosell to bellow, “And the fight is stopped!”
Steele, who didn’t see the towel, had already made the decision to halt the affair. The bout was stopped at 2:34 of the third round. Holmes remained the undefeated Heavyweight champion.
After the fireworks in the ring had concluded, they soon flared up outside the ring. While Holmes sat with Cosell at the announcer’s table, the champion spotted future opponent and No. 1 contender Gerry Cooney. The undefeated Cooney had brutally knocked out Norton inside of 40 seconds just one month earlier.
Holmes shot up from his seat and went after Cooney who was making his way towards ringside. Order was restored but not before Holmes had inadvertently elbowed Cosell’s mouth in the process. Undaunted, Cosell chuckled, “Here we go again.” While Cosell wiped the blood from his lip, he let the world know he was okay. “All in a day’s work.”
Holmes and Cooney would meet in the ring nearly one year later to the day, June 11, 1982. Record crowds and record gates were set as Holmes stopped the young contender.
Spinks would fight into the mid 1990’s as both a Heavyweight and a Cruiserweight. He would not reach the levels of success as he did in his glory days when having met both Ali and Holmes.
Header photo by Manny Millan /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
Article photo one by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images
Article photo two by Getty Images