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Fight #33: Mike Tyson vs. Michael Spinks

Fight #33: Mike Tyson vs. Michael Spinks, June 27, 1988, Convention Hall, Atlantic City, NJ

About two months before George Foreman beat Michael Moorer for the heavyweight championship, the movie Timecop, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, hit theaters, debuting at number one in the box office. The plot of the movie has something to do with Van Damme using a time machine to go back in time and catch criminals while they are in the act of committing some particular crime. It's a really stupid movie. But anyway, one of the first scenes in the movie witnesses Van Damme going back to Wall Street in October 1929, busting some stock trader for insider trading during the market's famous meltdown. When Van Damme bursts into the offices of this crook, he is confronted by a couple security toughs. One of them squares up and strikes an old-fashioned boxing pose, then says to Van Damme, "I once fought ten rounds against John L. Sullivan himself." Van Damme smirks at the guy, knocks him out with one punch to the face, and then quips, "Yeah, well I saw Mike Tyson beat Michael Spinks on TV!"

I didn't have to look up this scene to remember the dialogue. For some reason, it has stayed with me for the last 26 years, but now the thing that really stands out for me about it is that this movie came out six years after Tyson-Spinks, and yet the memories of this 91-second fight were still so present in popular culture that it worked as a one-liner in a B-quality action film in the middle of the 1990s.

All of which is to say, Tyson-Spinks was an iconic sporting moment for my generation. In my lifetime, it is the actual Fight of the Century. And for a decade that also typically saw Super Bowls where an NFC team annihilated a hapless AFC opponent (less than five months before Tyson-Spinks, my Washington [Racist Name Redacted] had obliterated the Denver Broncos with a 35-point second quarter en route to a 42-10 win), Tyson-Spinks fit the tenor of the times. The great sports heroes of this era didn't simply win; they humiliated whoever was in their path. And no sports figure loomed as large in the 1980s landscape as Tyson. Not Michael Jordan, or Magic Johnson, or Joe Montana, or Wayne Gretzky. Don't agree? Name me a boxer since Tyson that has commanded attention the way he did back then. You can't. He is the last boxer (to date) to fully transcend his own sport, and it is impossible to imagine any boxing match today equalling the hype and cultural impact of Tyson-Spinks.

Except, this wasn't really a boxing match, even though Tyson was "only" a 4-1 favorite over Spinks. After Tyson had torn a gargantuan swathe through the heavyweight division in his first 34 fights, Spinks loomed as the only legitimate challenger to his claim to be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Spinks was also undefeated, and in 1985 had become the first man in history (Moorer was the second) to go from being light heavyweight champion (max 175 pounds) to heavyweight champion (minimum 200 pounds). He had done so by beating the previously undefeated Larry Holmes, twice. Spinks was no paper champion. He had been the undisputed light heavyweight champion of the world, and owned impressive victories over Hall of Famer Dwight Muhammad Qawi, as well as Eddie Mustafa Muhammad. In fact, looking back on his career today, you can make a very strong argument that his overall resume is more impressive than Tyson's ended up being. But if you had made that argument to somebody after June 27, 1988, they would have regarded you as clinically insane.

Spinks never had a chance in this fight, and he knew it. Before the ring walks, Spinks had resisted fighting at all, shaking in his dressing room over the frightful violence he was about to endure. This was made worse by the fact that Spinks's manager had already pissed off Tyson by demanding that his hands be rewrapped before the fight. With Tyson punching the walls of his dressing room in anger, and Spinks quivering in his boxing boots, the outcome was foreordained.

So this was not a boxing match, but rather a human sacrifice ritual, with Spinks the innocent virgin offered up to the angry Moloch ready to devour him for the delight of the pagans assembled at the Trump Plaza and the millions watching around the world on pay per view television. Finally convinced to go to the ring, Spinks's "fixed, frozen expression" later reminded the writer Joyce Carol Oates of a man awaiting his execution. At the other corner, Tyson with his trademark black trunks, no socks, no robe, paced back and forth like a caged lion.

The bell rings. They meet in the center of the ring. Spinks's only chance in this fight is to outbox Tyson with his jab, take him into the deep waters, test him. But early it is Tyson coming forward, Spinks backing away, afraid to even flick out a jab. Tyson bullrushes Spinks into the ropes, throwing wild right hands, one of which lands to Spinks's body. Spinks escapes the ropes and heads back towards the center of the ring, where he needs to be if he is to have any chance. But Tyson follows him, stalking him. Iron Mike throws a left jab and a left hook that appears to glance off Spinks's glove. That miss seems to momentarily give Spinks a tiny bit of courage. He steps forward and throws an overhand right, but Tyson ducks it and counters with a right hook that hits Spinks on the arm. Spinks has not yet taken a meaningful punch, but the announcers already sense that he is just trying to hold on. Tyson steps into a left hook that lands on Spinks. Spinks tries to tie Tyson up, but in the clinch Tyson throws an elbow towards Spinks's head. The referee steps in momentarily to warn Tyson, but this is a bad development for Spinks, because now Tyson is on the outside again, looking to pounce. He circles around Spinks, not throwing anything. Tyson steps in with a left jab and a right hook, but Spinks manages to back away again. The two fighters stare at each other in the center of the ring, and Spinks gets brave again. He feints a left jab and then throws a big right hand behind it, but Tyson ducks the punch again. (Tyson was an excellent defensive fighter, which is something that usually gets lost with all the spectacular knockouts.) After Spinks misses, the two square off again in the center of the ring. Rather than throwing another punch, Spinks tries to tie up Tyson. This is a terrible idea in terms of winning the fight, as Tyson is much stronger on the inside and this is just not Spinks's game. But it is an act of attempted self-preservation. The referee separates the fighters. They are in the center of the ring again, and Spinks tries another feint with the jab followed by a straight right. Again, Tyson ducks the punch, then counters with his own overhand right that lands on Spinks's head. This is the first significant landed punch of the fight. Spinks backs away into the corner, covering up his face with his gloves to protect himself. HIs guard is high, which opens up his body. Tyson lands a hard right hook to the body that seems to hurt Spinks. He moves away from the corner, and Tyson follows, stalking him. Tyson backs him up against the ropes, then throws a hard left uppercut that hits Spinks. He follows with another right hook to the body, and Spinks takes a knee on the canvas. This is the first knockdown, not only of this fight but of Spinks's entire career. Spinks is back on his feet by the count of three, adjusts his trunks, and nods his head yes to the referee. He looks a little bit relieved at this moment, as these are precious seconds where Tyson is not allowed to attack him. But it's over at the count of eight, when the referee asks him if he is okay. Spinks nods yes, and then Tyson is after him again. Spinks throws a right hand lead, which misses its target. Tyson counters with a huge right hook that lands right on Spinks's chin, sending him tumbling to the canvas, arms and legs splayed out as the crowd roars its approval. As he lays flat on his back, his eyes are glassy, and even the effort of lifting his head seems more than he can handle. By the count of nine, he has managed to turn over onto his side, and seems to be trying to use his gloves to push himself up. But the effort is fruitless, and at the count of ten his final attempt to push himself up off the ground causes him to slump and fall through the ropes. As the referee waves his hands to indicate the end of the fight, Tyson calmly walks around the ring, his arms spread at his waist, palms up, as if to say, "what did you expect to happen?" I don't know why, but for some reason Tyson's gesture here is reminiscent of the look he would give three years later when he was paraded before the cameras in handcuffs following his arrest on felony rape charges.

By that time, Michael Spinks was well into a comfortable retirement, as the Tyson fight was the last of his career. In a sense, everything for Tyson went downhill after this night on June 27, 1988. When he beat Spinks, he was three days away from his 22nd birthday (and I was three days away from my 11th birthday...Tyson and I share a June 30th birthday). As this is the best win of his career, there is no doubt that Tyson was never quite the all-time great heavyweight that we all imagined him to be on this night. But if I am honest, something deep inside of me believes that there is no heavyweight in history, not Louis, not Ali, not Frazier, not Foreman, who could have beaten Mike Tyson on this night. With this knockout, he achieved a place in the boxing and popular culture pantheon that none of his subsequent failures can ever fully erase. Watch the video of this fight, and see the Baddest Man on the Planet.

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