AS the son and nephew of former world heavyweight champions, do you believe that it was your destiny to become a boxer?
Not really. To be honest, I can’t give the boxing side of my family any credit from when I was a kid and got into boxing, because that wouldn’t be the truth. There’s a whole lot of romance that could be created for my story, but boxing for me was something that I found myself, and even without the history of my family I was still going to become a champion. Boxing for me was something that happened because the gym in my neighbourhood was next to a barbecue place people would go to. I’d be in there from the age of nine and that had nothing to do with my father [Leon Spinks] or Uncle Michael [Spinks].
The excellent book about Leon and Michael Spinks, One Punch From The Promised Land, tells the story of two contrasting characters from their beginnings in the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing projects all the way to their respective heavyweight glories. Can I first ask you about your relationship with your father, Leon?
I didn’t get to know him until I was about 13, but I knew of him because of the way people in the neighbourhood would speak about him. They’d be like, ‘Look, there goes Leon Spinks’ little boy.’ My father would either be up in Detroit or Chicago doing his thing and staying out the way. My older brother, Leon Jnr, was shot dead when I was younger and that’s when [Leon Snr] first appeared in my life. We get on okay now and I try my best to have a good relationship with him, but I can’t forget that he was missing from my life for a big portion and in that time I became the biggest mummy’s boy imaginable.
Uncle Michael is a good person. He wasn’t around as much when I was younger either, but he don’t have that same responsibility that my pops did, but Uncle Michael was always cool and he gave some great advice to me coming up and he was something of a storyteller. You could tell Uncle Michael always wanted me to be proud of my dad because every time I was with him he would be filling my head with stories about my pops and what it was like for them growing up in St Louis. He was always trying to be that constant link from father to son and I can’t thank him enough for making that effort.
Your father’s career was quite a storied one that featured an Olympic gold medal, a victory over Muhammad Ali and one of the most stunning downfalls in heavyweight history. What is your own assessment of his career, and did you take any lessons from it?
I wanted to be a champion like my Uncle Michael and not like my father. That’s no disrespect to him, but he didn’t give boxing his best shot and I didn’t want to be like that. My father was a man who went to the Olympics and won, and then won the heavyweight title in only fight number eight. You do know you’re dealing with a special type of fighter when you say things like that. He blew it all. He cut corners, he didn’t train, he drank, and he didn’t want to give this sport everything he had. Michael did. He went from light-heavyweight to heavyweight and made it look easy, and he was also wise with the big dollars he made. Michael will tell you himself that he learnt a lot from my father’s mistakes, and I’m the same.
Despite turning professional without the amateur honours won by your family, you adapted to the sport with reasonable ease, barring a blip against Antonio Diaz in December 1998. You forced your way into a fight with Michele Piccirillo for the IBF welterweight title in April 2002 and lost a close decision. What are your memories of this setback?
It wasn’t a setback at all because it gave me my freedom. Although I believe I did enough to win the fight comfortably, a win for me meant I was with Top Rank for a few more fights, and I didn’t want that. My relationship with them wasn’t the best and I believed my talent was good enough to be on the same level as the guys who were making the big money at the time. It would’ve been nice to get my hands on the world title and take it back to St Louis, but the loss happened for a reason and I was able to sign with Don King pretty much straightaway.
In March 2003, you returned to Italy for unfinished business with Piccirillo. What was different this time around as you became world champion for the first time?
It was pretty much just righting the wrongs from the first fight and showing the people of Italy who I was. I always knew I was going to be world champion, but now I was world champion on my terms. The fight was a little easier than the first one, but at the back of your mind you’re always thinking about what the judges may do to you. I’d heard an awful lot about judges over in Europe in places like Italy and Germany, so the game plan was to try knocking him out, and if it that wasn’t working then try all I can to knock him out so it looks like I’m the one winning the fight. He was a tough guy who fought with a lot of heart and pride, but I knew I’d done enough to get the decision.
That victory immediately put you in a unification bout with lineal champion Ricardo Mayorga on a Don King supershow in December 2003. A nasty build-up was put aside once the bell rang, and you produced a tactical masterclass to become ruler of the whole division. What did that win mean to you?
It was all for my mother. She passed away when I was 20 and everything from that point was all for her. At the weigh-in, Mayorga whispered into my ear, ‘I’m going to kill you so at least you get to see your mother soon’, and ain’t nobody talking about my mother like that. That woman was everything to me and still is. Even as a kid, if you said ‘your momma’ to me, I’m going to walk right over there and punch you in the face. I had to concentrate for the entire fight because every punch he threw whistled right past me and I couldn’t be getting caught with what he threw. It was a relief to hear the final bell and have my dad and Uncle Michael in the ring with me, but I basically broke down because I wanted my mother there with me, too. Mayorga had the decency to apologise afterwards and explain to me that it was just his way of f*****g with my head.”
Your two fights with Zab Judah, only 10 months apart (April 2004 and February 2005), brought different results. You were victorious in the first bout and dominant for most of the second, before dramatically unravelling after being caught in the ninth. What went wrong that night?
Where do I begin with that second Judah fight? Do you have any idea how quick Zab Judah is? I’m not just talking hand, I’m talking feet and reflexes. To go in there with Judah you need to be 100 per cent, and before the fight I found out I was suffering from Crohn’s Disease. I won’t lie, the pressure of 22,000 people in St Louis and walking out with [rap star] Nelly also got to me, and I was facing a different Zab Judah. It was the hungriest he’d ever been because he wasn’t fighting for much money and his spell as a top earner in boxing was close to the end. It’s a miracle, an absolute miracle that I got to the ninth round.
After 17 months out, you won a world title at 154lbs by outpointing Roman Karmazin. Instead of focusing on this division, you went north again to face what most thought was an impossible task against then-unbeaten middleweight king Jermain Taylor. Was this financially motivated?
Yes, of course. Everything in boxing is largely motivated by money, but I also believed I had the beating of him because he was someone I knew from my amateur days. Our states bordered each other, so Missouri and Arkansas would always spar with each other during regional trials. I had the beating of him back then and I believe I won the fight. He was big and strong, that can’t be taken away from him, but my feet and speed were just that little bit too much for him and I’d even go as far to say I was robbed on the scorecards. I made sure I still had my super-welterweight belt, though.
Taylor was your last ‘big’ fight. Losses to Verno Phillips, Cornelius Bundrage (twice) and Carlos Molina provided a sour end to your career. How do you assess those latter days?
For me, my career caught up with me so fast and the stuff I could do as a younger fighter was no longer possible. You got to remember that I was a fighter who relied on my legs. Uncle Michael told me to always look busy even when I wasn’t doing anything, and that much movement can catch up with an old man. I wanted to get out before I was 35 and I managed that. I’m totally proud of everything that I did with my career. You ask about what I’m up to now, I do a lot of things. I’m mentoring people, giving out advice, helping kids in gyms and showing them how to be the next Cory Spinks. I’ve got my wife and three kids down here with me in Florida and it’s all good for me at the moment. I’m making these little notes every now and again as I want to write a book on my career, so that’s probably the next target for me.