Mackie Shilstone said he got a lot of attention from other places for helping Michael Spinks get into shape to beat Larry Holmes, but the boxing world greeted his unique conditioning program with either sneers or yawns.
Shilstone worked with Spinks for three years before the Sept. 21 heavyweight championship bout. Since Spinks’ victory, Shilstone said, he has been interviewed on national television, has had calls from magazine and newspaper reporters, even calls from publishers and movie stars--but nothing from the boxing world.
“I think they’re still skeptical. I think it’s like anything else, it takes a while,” Shilstone said.
The skepticism was apparent during the fight as former welterweight champion Sugar Ray Leonard commented on a lengthy feature detailing the program. Leonard said he believed any effects would be more psychological than physical.
“I didn’t appreciate Sugar Ray Leonard being down on the program, saying it wouldn’t work,” Shilstone said. “At Round 8, Sugar Ray said Michael is now fighting on heart and guts. I will say that Michael has more heart and guts than anybody, but you do need a little conditioning, too.”
He said that what the broadcast team interpreted as Spinks panting for breath between rounds was actually a yoga breathing exercise. Spinks’ dominance of the 15th and final round proved the program worked, Shilstone said.
After years of working with Spinks to make the 175-pound light heavyweight limit, they had to work together to build a heavyweight--albeit a small one at 200 pounds--without losing any speed, quickness or endurance.
Shilstone’s program includes nutrition, stress control and motivation as well as exercises aimed at increased flexibility, strength and endurance. There’s also a special set of what Shilstone calls “explosion calisthenics.”
Weight training is part of it, and boxers are only grudgingly adopting weight work long after it’s become an integral part of other sports. A different running program is another part. Instead of logging long distances at a moderate pace, Spinks worked on shorter distances at greater speeds, gearing the work to boxing’s three-minute rounds and one-minute rest periods.
The interval running had another purpose, Shilstone said. After years of working to lose weight, Spinks had to get into peak condition and gain weight without just adding fat.
“To build him up, he had to change his running program. He couldn’t allow his running program to cause him to lose muscle tissue and weight,” Shilstone said.
Spinks also modified his diet. The result of the program was a gain of 25 pounds in fighting weight and a reduction of body fat from 9.1% to 7.2%, Shilstone said.
Spinks became a pioneer only because he wanted too, not because of any sales pitch, Shilstone said.
“Michael Spinks is a very intelligent man. Michael Spinks makes judgments on his own. He simply judged it on his own. Nobody ever puts anything in his mind. He thinks for himself, steps into the ring by himself and makes his own judgments,” Shilstone said.
Shilstone is accustomed to meeting skepticism--even derision. As a 135-pounder, he walked on at Tulane during the Bennie Ellender era and was generally regarded as an enthusiastic mascot by the football team. He stuck it out, won the respect of his teammates and got a varsity letter in 1974.
He became Tulane’s first conditioning coach and was instrumental in raising funds for the school’s first real weight training room. He also worked as a part-time coach for Tulane’s track club, before track was re-instituted as a varsity sport.
He currently works as a consultant to an eye clinic and owns a community-interest magazine.
He got his introduction to Spinks in a roundabout fashion. He is a friend of local entrepeneur Don Hubbard, who is a friend of Spinks’ manager, Butch Lewis.
“There was a tremendous amount of fear. This goes back three years,” Shilstone said. “Don had faith in me. Butch had faith in Don, and Michael had faith in Butch.”
“They were risking a lot with me, and my professional name was on the line. I think God really directed me and Michael Spinks together. Above all, we have been friends,” Shilstone said.
He said that even if the boxing world does beat a path to his door, he won’t work with any fighter who might go against Spinks or Butch Lewis.
“I cried when the decision was announced. I broke down and cried and said, ‘Michael, thank you,”’ Shilstone said.