Spinks not taking anything for granted

Originally Published: September 2, 2004
By Thomas Gerbasi | MaxBoxing.com

If anyone has a valid excuse for stepping back and basking in the glow of being undisputed welterweight champion, it's got to be Cory Spinks.

Entering his Showtime-televised championship bout against Miguel Angel Gonzalez on Saturday, Spinks has won his world title on hostile territory in Italy, and defeated Ricardo Mayorga and Zab Judah in successive bouts. It's been the culmination of a dream, one that would see most fighters exhale and say, "Whew, I've arrived. Let me enjoy this."

Yet Spinks has done the opposite of what most have expected from him; in fact, he's made a career of it. For him, this Saturday's fight is not the perceived easy victory against the Gonzalez of 2004; in his mind, he's fighting the Gonzalez of the early '90s.

Why this attitude? Why bother going to camp in the middle of nowhere for nine weeks to prepare for a fight in which he is a prohibitive favorite?

It comes from a place that a lot of fighters have seen, but that few want to remember -- a crime-ridden St. Louis neighborhood where Cory Spinks saw death, desperation, and desolation almost every day of his life.

It comes from being ignored by a boxing industry that loved his name but hated his style -- that of a slick-boxing southpaw who was more content making you miss twice to hit you once, than to take three punches to land one.

Ask Cory Spinks about what he remembers about the lean years and he doesn't say "next question." He says, "Everything. I remember every, every minute of it. I won't forget it. You can't forget what you came from and what you did to get to this point. That's what keeps me strong."

That's why he's trained for Gonzalez like the Mexican was a hybrid of prime Chavez, Sanchez, and Barrera. That's why he's not home with his daughter and new bride, and why he has prepared for this fight in the heart of Amish country in Ohio.

"You can't complain," said Spinks (33-2, 10 KOs). "You've got to do whatever to get the job done."

Because now that he's here, he ain't goin' nowhere. You're not getting rid of Spinks that easily.

"You have to take all precautions and be on top of your game against a guy like this," said Spinks. "Some fighters will look at it as an easy fight, but it's really not because this man used to be a great champion. Every man that puts on a pair of gloves and can go 12 rounds is dangerous. You know, he just might wake up feeling great that day. You have to be ready for whatever."

Spinks' longtime trainer, manager, and confidant Kevin Cunningham, a former St. Louis cop who has been with the fighter for 10 years, is definitely not one to let distractions or complacency enter the mind of "The Next Generation" either.

"It's extremely dangerous if a fighter buys into the fact that it's an easy win or a walk in the park," said Cunningham. "But I'm not allowing my fighter to even indulge in that. We're taking this fight just as serious as we took Mayorga or Judah or any other big fight that we might partake in."

And that's the right attitude to have, especially since 2004 has been a year of upsets thus far. But even the most hardened underdog lover in the world wouldn't want to part with his cash by betting on Gonzalez. It's just that type of fight where youth, skill, and style are all heavily in Spinks' corner. Team Spinks doesn't care what the oddsmakers think.

"I don't know too many undisputed champions who go to camp for nine weeks if they were taking somebody lightly," said Cunningham. "He's been in camp nine weeks getting ready for this fight. I didn't have any problems getting him to prepare for this fight and I don't see any signs of him overlooking Gonzalez or anything. He's grinding the same way he's grinded for all the other big title fights he's had."

Maybe it's the fear that one wrong move could topple all the right moves Spinks has made in the last 17 months, ever since he decisioned Michele Piccirillo in Italy in March of 2003, and followed it up by defeating Mayorga and Judah. Maybe it's because Spinks is no Arturo Gatti. He can't lose fights and still be welcomed on premium cable television. It's just the unfortunate nature of an industry where a fighter who can skillfully outbox another fighter won't get the breaks a fighter who brawls or knocks people out will get, famous last name or not.

"If you understand boxing, you know that boxing is an art," said Spinks. "If you just go in there to get punched on and then try to hit, it's not really a skill because anyone can do that. The skill is to hit and not get hit."

Adds Cunningham, "When you go in the ring and take on the best out there, and he's beaten the best fighters out there, I don't understand why he shouldn't get the recognition. You're supposed to get your recognition for what you do in the ring and not outside the ring. I hope he doesn't have to go to nightclubs and get into fights and beat up women and get on the police blotter to get any kind of recognition. I hope that what he's doing in the ring going in and taking on the best out there and fighting the fights that fight fans want to see, and winning I hope that's what you have to do in this business to get the proper recognition. And I would hope that if he continues to win he'll continue to get the recognition he deserves."

He should get it. He's not a blood and guts, leave your brain cells at the door warrior. He boxes, not with the crowd-pleasing style of his father Leon, or the one-punch knockout power of his brother Michael, but with skills of his own choosing. And even if you don't like his style, his willingness to take on the best in his division in Mayorga and Judah is admirable. Plus, he walks through life with a quiet class; something this sport could use more of. And some pleasant news that isn't as publicized -- as the bad news usually is -- is that he's also been loyal to Cunningham throughout his career, a rarity in itself these days.

"He's a good, honest, humble kid," said Cunningham, "and he's a joy to work with. Me and Cory, it's almost like we were made to be together. It takes a certain kind of person to get the most out of Cory, and evidently I'm the guy to do it."

But in a game where trainers and managers are tossed aside like old handwraps, isn't their longevity together a bit surprising?

"If we've come from the floor to the door together, why not enter the party together?" asks Cunningham. "It's just a no-brainer. Why would we change? I guess we're just a unique situation."

And Spinks is a unique 26-year-old, one who lives by a code where you respect where you came from and never forget those who paved the road ahead of you. That's a morality you either have or you don't. Spinks has it, and his motivations come not from what his father and uncle achieved in the ring, but from what people like his mother (Zadie Mae Calvin), brother (Leon Calvin), and best friend (Terrence Rice) meant to him. All three are gone now; his mother passing in 1999, and Calvin (1993) and Rice (1995) both getting swallowed by the violence of the streets. It's for them, and for his daughter, that Cory Spinks stays on track.

"It comes from all of the struggles that I've been through and the people that I've lost," said Spinks. "I just want to do my best to make them proud even though they're not here. And I don't want to let myself down; plus, I have a little daughter, and I want her to not have to go through the same things I've been through."

It's a given that Breanna Spinks won't have to go through the day-to-day struggles that her father had to go through both personally and professionally, he won't allow it. But he'll never forget. Neither will Cunningham.

"The lean years were lean, and they were rough," said Cunningham. "Cory sat back and watched Zab and (Floyd) Mayweather and Fernando Vargas, and even the Olympians who came up behind him -- because they were getting HBO dates Jermain Taylor and Ricardo Williams. He was pretty much in obscurity, grinding and hoping that he would get a shot at the main stage in boxing. It was rough. He had to sit back and watch those guys get their careers built on HBO and Showtime and he had to fight in little club shows in St. Louis, and on ESPN here and there. Then when he finally got a title shot, he had to go overseas. A lot of these fighters look and think they can beat Cory because he doesn't look like he's knocking people out, but once they get in there they find out that he's a whole other level of boxer than what most people think he is. And all of that going through hell for seven, eight years before he got exposure on the main stage, had a lot to do with it."

So don't sleep on Cory Spinks. He may have, as Cunningham describes it, "a certain glow about him" since he's the undisputed welterweight champion of the world; he may also have as close to a 'gimme' as you're going to get in this game in Miguel Angel Gonzalez. But on Saturday night, you will see the best of Cory Spinks, because he knows that to stay on top, every night has to be Game Seven of the World Series.

"You just have to stay humble and stay with what you've been doing," said Spinks. "You also have to maintain your composure to stay on top. That's what I'm really, really trying hard to do, and I am going to be on top."