Spinks followed rough road to the top

Originally Published: February 4, 2005
By Thomas Gerbasi | MaxBoxing.com

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.