<
>

Spinks followed rough road to the top

2/3/2005

Blessed
1. To confer well-being or prosperity on.
2. To endow, as with talent.

Cory Spinks feels blessed.

It's the gratitude of a young man who has seen the tough times and came
through unscathed, and a feeling shared by many who have survived the knives
that life has thrown at them.

So if you go by the dictionary definition, the welterweight champion has
indeed been touched by a higher power. His talent is undeniable -- a mixture
of genetics and hard work. As far as prosperity goes, the nearly sold-out
arena at St. Louis' Savvis Center that will see Spinks defend his title
against Zab Judah on Saturday speaks volumes.

But it would be too easy to chalk Spinks' rise to the top of the boxing
world up to divine intervention. It would disregard the hard times, the
tragedies, the abandonment, the apathy from the boxing world, and all the
other facets of Spinks' life that are too frequently glossed over.

For this success was far from overnight.

When Spinks battles Judah on Saturday, close to 20,000 hometown fans will
greet him (18,000 seats have been sold at press time). Yet over three years
ago, it was a much different story when Spinks walked up the four steps into
the ring at the Adam's Mark Hotel in St. Louis.

That night in 2001, Spinks was 28-1 and a welterweight contender rising
everywhere but in the public eye. He had the name, he had the backstory, but
when the bell rang, he didn't have the furious aggression of his father Leon
or the punch of his uncle Michael. He was a stylist, a counterpuncher, and a
kid who took the adage "the manly art of self-defense" literally. In his
corner was a St. Louis cop named Kevin Cunningham, known in the community
for his police work, not his ability to hang with the McGirts, Stewards, and
Futches of the world.

Spinks battled a Tennessee native named Charles Ward that night. Ward, 37,
had the kind of record you don't want to brag about ­- 6-11 -- and a Spinks
victory was a foregone conclusion. But it didn't matter. As Spinks
remembers, "it was a pretty nice crowd. St. Louis supported me like they
always did when I was coming up."

Just a few weeks before Christmas, fans packed the hotel that night, and
the city's favorite son won an easy eight-round decision in the place
described on its Web site as the city's "favorite place to meet."

St. Louis knew who Cory Spinks was. They knew that despite the fact that
his father won the most prestigious title in the world from the most
recognizable person in the world in 1978, Spinks grew up in one of the
roughest parts of town, far from the idealistic existence you would expect
from someone in that situation. The people of the city knew that Spinks'
rock and guide in his life was not his famous father, but his mother Zadie
Mae Calvin, and that she did whatever she could to keep her son from the
streets that claimed the lives of Cory's brother, Leon Jr., and best friend
Terrence Rice, both of whom were shot to death.

St. Louis knew. That's why the people of the city bought tickets to this
fight on Saturday. That's why they showed up in droves for the press
conference to announce the rematch, and then followed Spinks when Showtime's
cameras brought him back to his old high school, Beaumont High.

"It was so joyful," said Spinks. "It brought back so many memories of how
hard I had to struggle to come up. It was just everything to me."

They knew, when the rest of us ignored him.

Spinks, 26, is not the type to publicly air any bitterness about the way he
was treated by the boxing industry before he burst onto the world scene with
a brilliant 12-round decision win over Ricardo Mayorga in 2003, but he had
to feel some disillusionment with the sport around the time of his win over
Ward. Four months after that bout, Spinks traveled to Italy to
face Michele Piccirillo in his first title shot, only to get robbed via a 12-round unanimous decision.

His attorney, Kurt Emhoff, was lobbying anyone he could at the time, trying
to get them to watch the tape of the Piccirillo fight, to see the larceny
that victimized his client. Most declined, as their only previous
experiences with Spinks and Piccirillo were enough to sour them on any
future opportunities to view them in action ­- especially with the outcome
already known. Sure, Spinks was a nice enough kid, but who wanted to watch
him fight?

Spinks and Cunningham, who have been together close to 10 years, trudged
on, winning a razor-thin technical decision over Rafael Pineda four months
after the Piccirillo fight, and then traveling back to Italy for the
championship rematch. This time, Spinks beat the Italian so handily the
judges couldn't possibly steal the fight, and he was finally a world
champion, making the Spinks family the holy trinity of St. Louis boxing.

But there were still converts to be made, fans and media to be won over in
the world outside of Missouri.

It may have happened sometime in the build-up to the Mayorga fight, when
Spinks made believers out of those who preferred his cool class to Mayorga's
tasteless trash talk; or most likely, it happened when he played matador to
"El Matador," outboxing Mayorga and leaving him looking downright
amateurish, as he decisioned the Nicaraguan, destroyed promoter Don King's
plan to transform the wild-swinging banger into a crossover star, and made
his own mark on the boxing game. In fact, to some younger fans, when you
mention the name Spinks to them, Cory is the first member of the family they
will think of.

"I wouldn't mind if they thought of all three of us," said Spinks. "You
can't take away from what those two guys have done in boxing. They were the
only two brothers to win in the Olympics and the only two brothers to become
heavyweight champion. I give them a lot of respect for that."

Spinks has gotten his respect -­ the hard way. It was with wins over Mayorga
and then Judah that we started to enjoy Spinks not for what he wasn't -- but
for what he was. And though middleweight champ Bernard Hopkins is fond of
using the term, Spinks has truly done it "his way."

"That's definitely satisfying," said Cunningham. "You got a guy like Zab
Judah ­- when he turned pro he was heralded as the next Pernell Whitaker, so
he was promoted and put on nationally televised fights, promoted on big
fights with other world champions, and in the meantime you got Cory fighting
in saloons, fighting in front of crowds of 700, 800 people, in little club
shows in St. Louis, not being appreciated by his former promoter, and just
getting the shaft. Now, we've done things our way ­- we came up the rough
side of the mountain and now we're on top of the mountain and I think a lot
of that stuff we went through in the past is paying off and is an asset to
what we're doing right now. It's the reason why Cory's a pro's pro."

And the reason why Spinks has suddenly become box office gold in his
hometown, a fact that has surprised both fighter and trainer.

"It's just a blessing that happened," said Spinks. "I'm just showing the
media and the fans that I can pull them in too."

"I knew it would get a good response, but I didn't know we would get this
type of response," adds Cunningham. "It's just a testament to the type of
following Cory has in his hometown. Not too many champions in this business
can put 15,000 to 17,000 butts in the seats, so that's a great
accomplishment in itself."

Not too many? Try none. And the fact that Spinks has done it without
fighting like Arturo Gatti or Mike Tyson is a feat in itself. But with such
recognition also comes the pressure to perform ­- it's something Cunningham
is preparing his charge for.

"We just go in and get prepared the way we normally get prepared," he said.
"We cross every 't' and dot every 'i' and do what we gotta do to get ready."

And whether Spinks is fighting Zab Judah or a shopworn Miguel Angel
Gonzalez, Cunningham treats every fight like it's Armageddon. It's what has
kept Spinks on top of his game, and it's a testament to the acumen of the
former cop who has quietly become one of the sport's top trainers ­- a secret
that's starting to get out.

"I'm not uncomfortable with the attention, but I don't look for it," said
Cunningham. "I'm just a hard-nosed grinder that believes in hard work. If I
get a few people to recognize what's really going on, that's good. And if
not, I just keep doing what I do, keep going about my business, and the work
will speak for itself."

He doesn't have to sell Spinks on what he can do.

"We have a strong relationship," said Spinks of Cunningham, who also acts
as his manager. "People say this and that, but me and Kevin have a
connection when it comes to the boxing ring, and it's just well put
together. I thank Kevin for all he did for me and I'm loyal to him. He's one
of the best, if not the best out there."

This teamwork has paid off, through over seven long years, 34 wins, and two
questionable losses. On Saturday, Spinks will try to repeat his victory over
the talented Judah, and then he will look for the biggest game ­- returning
welterweight and former Top Rank stablemate Oscar De La Hoya.

"I've been waiting on this shot and I'm not gonna let Zab mess it up," said
Spinks. "I want Oscar. I've been waiting for it for a long time, ever since
I signed with Top Rank when Oscar was with them. I've been waiting for him
and I want him."

That's as far as Spinks will go when it comes to calling out people and
talking trash. That's refreshing. And it's also typical from a fighter who
has stayed with the same trainer for his entire career, who is a doting
family man now, and who has come up harder than most guys who talk louder
about where they've been and what they've seen.

Cory Spinks is an old soul in a 26-year-old's body, and a testament to the
power of perseverance and faith. But he won't take credit for what he's
accomplished. He'll just deflect the praise skyward.

"I've been in some sticky situations, but I came through it and came out
untouched and unhurt." He said. "God is just looking out for me, and he's
looked out for me my whole life.