Date: 10/23/2013

WSJ Book Review: ‘One Punch From the Promised Land’

For Leon and Michael Spinks, the boxing gym provided an island of peace in a troubled neighborhood.

Leon and Michael Spinks are one of the most successful sibling pairs in the history of sports. Both won Olympic gold. Both became world champions. “One Punch From the Promised Land” might have read like a boxing Cinderella story, but things didn’t exactly work out the way they should have.

Leon Spinks was born in 1953, Michael three years later. The family, abandoned by their father early on, lived in north St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe housing projects, which authors John Florio and Ouisie Shapiro describe as “an urban-American ‘Lord of the Flies.’ ” The gang-infested streets easily erupted into gun violence. The boxing gym, paradoxically, provided an island of peace.

As the brothers began their training, it was clear that Leon was a relentless, hard-hitting fighting machine. In an old, second-hand interview (there are many in this book), Michael recalled that Leon “was boxing as an amateur before I got into it, and he was knocking out everyone around. He was gaining a lot of respect in the neighborhood.”

Whether in the ring or on the street, Leon was a natural with his fists but had the soul of a devil-may-care pirate. Even from his coaches, he seemed unable to take orders. Yet when it became evident that all the bridges in St. Louis were for him bridges to nowhere, he entered the U.S. Marine Corps. A friend remembered: “Those drill instructors were terrible. . . . They would do anything, beat you down, call you names, talk about your mother. . . . When they talked about Leon’s mother, Leon knocked two drill instructors out. They put him in the hole.” Leon became the leader of the Marine Boxing Team, and in 1976 he and Michael secured slots on the Olympic squad, which garnered five gold medals.

In 1977, Leon made his professional debut. A year later, with a mere seven contests on his ledger, he challenged Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight title. Even Spinks’s mother told him: “You’re crazy, Leon. You’ll get wiped out.” The authors add, “Nobody disagreed. Not even Leon.” But on that magic night in Las Vegas, Spinks hit the jackpot. He lammed the aging Ali around the ring and won a split decision—and the heavyweight title.

The good news was short-lived. Leon had a five-alarm substance-abuse problem to begin with, and the money and fame that came with beating Ali did him in. Leon didn’t train and lost his rematch with Ali. His once prodigious boxing gifts were soon spent. In time, Leon, who lost 17 of his 46 fights, would become the first ex-heavyweight champion to suffer defeat at the hands of someone making his pro debut. The heavyweight title “made him rich for a while,” the authors write, “but it’s hard to say that a forty-three-year-old ex-fighter with nothing to show for his career other than dementia and a minimum-wage job could look at his rusty championship belt and say thank you.”

Michael, who often tried to curtail Leon’s penchant for self-destruction, didn’t enjoy the gloved game as his brother did, but he was disciplined and talented, and he toted his Bible everywhere. Jesse Davison, a former amateur teammate, recalls: “When we would go to fight out of town, . . . he always got us in his room and read the Bible to us. . . . We thought it was funny.”

After the Olympics, Michael mowed down a murderers’ row of light heavyweights and became a world champion. In 1988, then heavyweight king Larry Holmes was 48-0 and eager to tie Rocky Marciano’s record of 49-0. Hunting for a relatively easy opponent, which “light heavies” were supposed to be, he signed on for an evening with Michael Spinks.

But as the authors explain, Michael was a sphinx in the ring. His movement was unpredictable. He had antennae for incoming punches, was adept at firing quick combination, and boasted a powerful right, tabbed the “Spinks Jinx.” Like Leon, Michael shocked the world by beating the champion and becoming the first light-heavyweight titleholder to snatch the heavyweight crown.

Michael triumphed in a hotly contested rematch and then went on to pocket a huge payday by stopping the 6-foot-5 Gerry Cooney. It was, however, the Mike Tyson era. In June 1988, the 22-year-old man-child known as “Kid Dynamite” tucked Spinks away in 91 seconds. A few weeks down the line, Spinks announced his retirement, confident that his financial manager, Butch Lewis, had taken good care of him. But when Lewis died suddenly in 2011, Michael’s golden nugget was gone, and he had to file suit against the estate of a man he had trusted for so many years.

This balanced and well-researched chronicle pulsates with a strong story line, and yet it loses a few points in the late rounds for lack of recent interviews with the brothers. There is, however, one victory that needs to be emphasized: Through all the hairpin turns of their boxing careers, Michael and Leon have kept their love for each other intact—no small accomplishment.