The record that danced in the minds of boxing fans and in the dreams of fighters, Rocky Marciano’s perfect 49-0 mark, was just one fight away from being tied.
Moviegoers were packing theatres to see “Back to the Future” and “The Goonies.” Television was ruled by popular shows like “The Cosby Show” and “Miami Vice,” while Bruce Springsteen had just released the popular hit “Glory Days.”
As the world awaited the long anticipated return of Halley’s Comet, President Reagan was settling in after overwhelmingly being elected to a second term. And in the sports arena, while the Kansas City Royals were about to face the St. Louis Cardinals in an all Missouri World Series, Heavyweight champion Larry Holmes was preparing to make history.
The year was 1985.
From Easton, Pennsylvania, Holmes was once a sparring partner of Muhammad Ali. Fighting for respect and recognition, Holmes was often accused of being a second rate, carbon copy of Ali. Determined to prove his detractors wrong and establish his own credentials, Holmes won the title from Ken Norton in 1978.
Continuing his pilgrimage, Holmes fought the best that the division had to offer, taking on and taking out Earnie Shavers, Gerry Cooney, Leon Spinks and Carl Williams. After having retired, Ali returned to face the new champion and, being well past his prime, took a hellacious beating from Holmes.
There was little doubt that “The Easton Assassin” was the main man and the king of the division.
Now 35, Holmes had proved that he could box, punch and climb off the canvas when necessary to win. Armed with an educated, beautiful left jab, his modus operandi, many experts ranked it along with the likes of George Foreman and Sonny Liston.
Holmes (48-0, 34 KOs) was a single fight away from matching Marciano’s 49 straight wins. Along with his undefeated record, Holmes’ dominance in championship fights was an incredible 20 wins, zero losses with 15 knockouts.
His next opponent would be a well-known fighter, a respected champion in his own right, who was quite unfamiliar amongst the land of the giants.
From St. Louis, Missouri, Michael Spinks won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics as a Middleweight. Upon turning professional the following year, Spinks, now a Light Heavyweight, steamrolled through the division and won his first title in 1981 from Eddie Mustafa Muhammad.
Spinks would go on to clean out the division and unify the Light Heavyweight titles. The Spinks camp then made a stunning revelation, deciding to move up in weight and enter the Heavyweight division where he had signed to meet Holmes in September.
There would be no warm ups, no tests, no acclimation to fighting a bigger man. The 29-year-old Spinks (27-0, 19 KOs) would immediately step into the ring to challenge the Heavyweight champion.
To prepare for Holmes, Spinks unleashed Mackie Shilstone, a conditioning guru whose expertise focused on health, nutrition and wellness. Shilstone employed an innovative training routine that included an emphasis on diet, weightlifting and running. He also added a variety of inventive methods designed to get Spinks ready to face a bigger, stronger man.
The challenge was to bulk up Spinks and increase his strength without losing his speed and altering his boxing style.
Inside of three months, Spinks, who last defended his Light Heavyweight titles in June, gained 23 pounds on a 4,500 calorie a day diet. His body fat percentage decreased from 9 percentto 7 percent as his body was transformed into a 200 pound Heavyweight.
The recognized, undefeated and undisputed Light Heavyweight kingpin was ready to face the recognized, lineal and undefeated Heavyweight champion of the world.
Holmes was immediately installed as a 6-1 favorite. His size, strength and experience were expected to pay dividends against a smaller man who had never faced an opponent the size and caliber of Holmes.
On Saturday night, September 21, the two would collide at the Riviera Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. In a carnival like atmosphere, a crowd of nearly 11,200 fans packed the outdoor arena to witness a bout that was billed as “History, a September to Remember.”
Scheduled for 15 rounds, the bout was televised live on HBO with Barry Tompkins, Larry Merchant and Sugar Ray Leonard ready to call the evening’s action.
In the final hours that remained of summer, dusk settled in and night fell over Las Vegas. The backdrop was lit by the massive hotels and casinos surrounding the newly constructed outdoor arena in the parking lot of The Riviera. Lights were installed high around the enormous sections of seating as the glow resonated on the packed house inside the arena.
There was an eager anticipation as fans waited for the fighters to enter the ring.
Spinks would exit his dressing room first. Walking slowly and confidently towards the ring, he was led by trainer Nelson Brightson, a man who had been in his camp for eight years.
In a unique turn of events, his normal trainer, Eddie Futch, had excused himself from the Spinks camp as he had also trained Holmes. Hoping to avoid conflicting feelings, Futch would watch the bout from the sidelines.
The Heavyweight champion, led by trainer Richie Giachetti, wasted little time making his way to the ring. Jogging briskly down the aisle and up into the ring, he was ready at 221 pounds. Holding a 21 pound weight advantage over Spinks, he would also enjoy a five-inch reach advantage.
After ring announcer Chuck Hull introduced the fighters, referee Carlos Padilla provided instructions. The action got underway with both fighters wearing white trunks, Holmes trimmed in red and Spinks in black.
The early rounds saw Holmes trying to figure out the smaller, faster Spinks. The challenger was having some success in outpunching and outworking him. Stepping inside, Spinks would unleash three, four, and five punch combinations. His hand speed and volleys of punches, at times, seemed to befuddle the champion.
Holmes continued to respond, yet rarely put together his usual crisp combinations. His once superior jab was being thrown but seemed to lack its usual authority. Giachetti pleaded with him to double it and then throw the right hand.
While Holmes slowly plodded forward, Spinks was comfortable sliding backward. Throughout the night he would continue to step forward, punch, then swiftly move away.
Holmes began to time the Spinks charges and began to taste success countering as the challenger sprang in.
After five rounds, Tompkins observed, “Even contest so far. Spinks perhaps the best of it early, Holmes picking the tempo up here.”
The official judges’ at ringside had Holmes up three rounds to two, 48-47.
With the fight moving into the mid rounds, the action remained competitive. Holmes, trying to pressure Spinks, continued to work behind his left jab and had begun investing heavily to the body.
On more than one occasion, Spinks stepped back looking hurt from the Holmes assault to his mid-section. Spinks showed his guts by returning fire with combinations.
Holmes looked to measure Spinks with his right hand. While he looked, Spinks threw. After 10 rounds, many of them close, Spinks was outworking the champion by throwing and landing more punches.
With 10 rounds in the books, one ringside judge had it scored 96-94 for Spinks, while two others had it even, 95-95.
Moving into the last third of the fight, Holmes started each round strong while Spinks would slowly work his way back into the round. The tide would then shift seeing Spinks close many of the late rounds with energy and resiliency.
As Leonard would observe, “He’s not showing any respect for Larry. Larry’s punches have not been sharp at all.”
At this late stage of the fight, Holmes continued to stalk, while Spinks was comfortable doing what he was best at, fighting awkwardly and at times even turning southpaw to give Holmes a different look.
As the 13th round ended, Merchant reminisced, “Just as Leon Spinks beat an old Muhammad Ali, right now it appears Michael Spinks is beating an old Larry Holmes.”
The fighter’s touched gloves to begin the 15th and final round. A concerned Giachetti had instructed Holmes to let it all hang out and to go after Spinks, “You’ve got to go after him! There’s no tomorrow!”
In contrast, the Spinks corner calmly told him he had three minutes remaining to be champion.
The vital organs of the Holmes attack were no longer functioning. The younger, smaller, faster man was beating him to the punch and outworking him as they came down the stretch. Holmes frantically pursued Spinks who was on his proverbial bicycle, picking his spots and returning fire.
Holmes supporters in the crowd tried to lift their man chanting, “Larry! Larry! Larry!” Tompkins screamed over the roar of the crowd, “Holmes will not do it. He is just about out of time. And this one is over!”
A nervous hush fell over the crowd as Hull read the judges’ scorecards. All three scored the bout for Spinks, 145-142, 143-142 and 143-142. Michael Spinks was the new Heavyweight champion of the world.
In cementing his victory, Spinks had won the last round on all three judges’ scorecards.
In the days after the fight, it was revealed that Holmes had suffered from a pinched nerve and herniated disk. Many pointed to this injury as a factor in the eternally cocked right hand that was seldom thrown. Others simply pointed to age.
At the post-fight press conference, an emotional Holmes would get himself into hot water stating, “If you really want to get technical about the whole thing, Rocky couldn’t carry my jockstrap.”
While the public soured, fans and writers were outraged at the derogatory comments and a storm of criticism ensued prompting Holmes to apologize.
The damage was done as one sportswriter wrote, “The insult is halfway around the world before the apology gets its boots on.”
The two would then agree to an immediate rematch that would be held on April 19 the following year. Holmes would lose a hotly disputed 15-round split decision prompting his retirement.
21 months following the second loss to Spinks, boxing historian and manager Jim Jacobs would comment on the rematch, “90 percent of the world thought Larry Holmes beat Michael Spinks. Of 46 newspaper men polled after the fight, 42 men of the 46 voted for Larry Holmes. Larry Holmes was defeated by a split decision where everyone thought Larry Holmes won the fight.”
Holmes would of course re-emerge in January of 1988 to be knocked out by the same man who would also knockout Spinks later that very same year. That man was a fella named Mike Tyson.