If you know the fight game, you know the barnacles in black shades and high tops who spend their days lost in the shadows of boxers like Michael Spinks, and who like it there.
"It's been like this since I was 13 and first started boxing," said Spinks (23-0), who defends his light heavyweight championship Friday night against Eddie Mustafa Muhammad (43-6-1) at the D.C. Armory. "Once I started winning, I stuck out like a sore thumb."
You think famous people were always that way, always famous. Always squinting under a storm of lights. Always surrounded by tattooed flunkies willing to sing Van Halen on command and by women in high spike heels who could feel just as comfortable showing off their bouffants in hair-spray commercials as flaunting their plumage under the crystal chandeliers of the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel ballroom, where Spinks has been working out since Wednesday.
Even with the entourage, with all those barnacles, Michael Spinks, the undisputed light heavyweight champion, is alone. He is 26, an Olympic gold medal winner, a millionaire. But seven months ago his common-law wife, Sandra Massey, was killed in a traffic accident in Philadelphia, where Spinks makes his home, and now he alone is left to raise Michelle, his 2-year-old daughter. Seven months after the accident and Michelle still begs, "Where's Mommy? Where's Mommy, Daddy?"
"What's hardest isn't picking up and going on," said Spinks, 6 feet 2 1/2, 175 pounds. "What's hardest is adjusting to the fact that she's gone from me and won't be here any more."
There are those close to him--his trainers and his brothers--who ask you not to mention the death of Sandy Massey to Spinks. It's a mean thing, they say, mean, and a long time ago. His trainer, Eddie Futch, said, "When her name is mentioned, when he reads accounts of what's happened, I notice immediately changes in his attitude. The wounds are just now beginning to heal. I hate to see them reopened."
Percy Richardson, his cut man, said, "He's got a mind. People forget he's a human being. He's got feelings. There's no way to josh up any of yesteryear and make it look sweet. Michael's been through a lot."
Spinks grew up in a St. Louis ghetto, Pruitt-Igoe, once a jungle of rooftops, now a big empty lot with nothing but the brutal voice of the past rushing through the naked chicken trees and random waste scattered across its ugly terrain. To Spinks, Pruitt-Igoe was the beating heart of hell, torn down in 1976 after 20 years of harboring the haunts of a boy frightened to walk out his front door and face either day or night. The memory of his childhood there gasps in his consciousness, like a tired, old dream dreamed by someone else, yet lodged in his mind.
"I always told myself when I was coming up," Spinks said, "that the ghetto was no different than anybody else's world. I would say, 'Hey, you just got a lot more people living around you than you'll have when you're rich.' When I came out as a pro, I always felt success was what you made it. I felt that to be able to handle it was the greatest, you know, and not follow suit with the rest of those who came out of the ghetto and couldn't handle it and disappeared."
As a boy, Spinks didn't like St. Louis, didn't like growing up dirt poor, didn't even like his name. He hated the way it sounded. To his ears and those of the kids in his neighborhood, "it only rhymed with 'stinks.' Because of my name, I wouldn't come out much," Spinks said. "Everybody would tease me. I didn't get out of the house much."
His one comfort was in believing he could escape. "When I was a kid, my major goal in life was to get out of St. Louis. I had no idea how I'd do it. I only wanted out. I wanted happy times. I wanted things better for me in another state, far away, somewhere else."
When, at 13, a boxing ring became home for Michael Spinks, he left home, if only in the imagination. He and his brother Leon, who beat Muhammad Ali in February 1978 to win the heavyweight title, honed and polished their craft between rough flaxen ropes in their neighborhood recreation center, the Capri, while their dreams crossed those staid boundaries and soared to another time and place: to Montreal, where both won gold medals in the 1976 Olympics.
"I never pictured in my many dreams as a kid being where I am now," he said. "I could never picture anything this big and this far."
Possibly, the meteoric rise and fall of brother Leon, who went from the ex-marine and street kid who beat one of history's greatest heavyweight fighters to a ring jester and bumbling loser, was something else Spinks couldn't picture. Now, after Leon's loss in March to Carlos De Leon, the former WBC cruiserweight champion, it appears he may never again find the magic he knew against Ali.
"I don't feel like people can't talk about Michael Spinks without talking about Leon Spinks," Michael said. "I can walk out of his shadow. But he's my blood brother. My blood. It doesn't make a difference to me if I'm called Leon's brother or Michael. People are always getting us mixed up. I don't care. I do have my own identity. I am an individual. Leon is Leon."
Certainly, no one can confuse their records, whether in or out of the ring. Trainer Futch says Michael is "entirely different altogether. He's unassuming, a good man, and real easygoing." He stays out of trouble, doesn't wear the extravagant clothes and jewelry Leon did
In his last fight, Spinks, then only the WBA champion, fought Dwight Braxton (Dwight Muhammad Qawi) in Atlantic City and took away his WBC crown, winning a unanimous decision in 15 rounds and becoming the first undisputed light heavyweight champion since Bob Foster retired in September 1974. Friday's match will be Spinks' second against the man from whom he won the WBA crown two years ago. A grudge match? "Not for me," said Spinks. "It's just another fight I'd love to win."
Spinks, however, has been uncharacteristically outspoken regarding how he plans to "shut Mustafa's big mouth for good."
"Mustafa's attacked Michael repeatedly since their last fight," Futch said. "Michael refuted them all, and rightly so. If his attitude's changed any, it's been brought on by statements Mustafa made about ducking him. Michael wasn't ducking anybody. He was just taking care of the challengers. In fact, he's fought everybody, the whole division. Who's avoiding whom?"
Spinks has won six fights since beating Muhammad; Muhammad has won four. "My strategy for beating Eddie Mustafa revolves around everything I have to offer," Spinks said. "To get rid of him early in the fight, I'll have to use the Spinks Jinx (an overhand right). The Jinx would be the one to end it all. One good shot could do it, whichever way it comes--under, over, sideways. Whichever way I hit somebody, that's enough to do it."