Close But No
Cigar: The Trouble With Larry And Lennox
By Mike Casey
A good-natured young pal of mine from the Evergreen State of
Washington winged me a missive by email on Week One of the NFL season. Cheered
by the Seahawks’ 9-6 victory over the Detroit Lions, he then made the mistake of
looking at my all-time heavyweight rankings as he was retiring to bed to dream
of Super Bowl glory. What rattled him most was the apparently premature
onslaught of senile dementia (I am fifty after all) that prompted me to place
Gene Tunney above Larry Holmes.
My friend’s rocket soared across the ocean with typical
tongue-in-cheek sting, landing with some force in my peaceful little Kentish
The warhead contained the following message: “These all-time
rankings of yours are the work of a diabolical madman, Casey. One part genius,
one part insanity, one part Nat Fleischer, one part Unabomber Ted Kacyzinski….”
I was getting along just fine with the ‘genius’ part until Mr
Fleischer entered the fray. (Mr Kacyzinski I will quietly ignore). Ah, yes, the
old Nat Fleischer jibe: a crafty weapon often deployed against men of my vintage
who are perceived as being two steps away from the local rest home for punchy
In a sense, I got off lightly, because there was no lashing for
my ranking of fellow Brit, Lennox Lewis. I can only imagine that the red mist
got in my friend’s eyes and blinded him to that one. For the record, I rate
Tunney tenth, Holmes eleventh and Lewis thirteenth.
I replied to my friend with the message that Tunney would have
outpointed Holmes by the same score as the Seahawks downed the Lions.
I do not feel the slightest urge to revise my rankings of Mr
Holmes or Mr Lewis, and I would certainly never do so for the cheap pleasure of
being thought of as ‘one of the guys’. My one feeling of unease about my
heavyweight order of merit is the increasing belief that I am selling Gene
Nor am I alone among historians in my estimation of Holmes and
Lewis. Bert Sugar rates Holmes tenth, while Bill Walsh has Larry eleventh. Tracy
Callis has Tunney sixth, Holmes tenth and Lewis sixteenth. Donald Koss rates
Tunney fifth, Holmes ninth and Lewis thirteenth. Jim McKeever gives Tunney
fourth place in his top ten and has Holmes eighth. The International Boxing
Research Organization (IBRO) is kinder to Larry, ranking him sixth. Tunney is
eleventh and Lewis twelfth.
Historian and film collector Mike Hunnicut says, “Tunney is in my
top five heavyweights and I would put Holmes around eleventh or twelfth. But I
can’t even put Lewis in the top twenty.”
I do not question the right of Holmes or Lewis to belong among
the heavyweight greats. I merely question the level of their greatness when
comparing their wonderful potential to their actual return.
‘Unappreciated’ is so often the tentative, defensive word
employed by those who seek to elevate very good fighters to the ranks of the
gods. Let us take a brief look at ‘unappreciated’ fighters on three different
In the sixties, I remember the great fuss that was made over
Philadelphia middleweight, George Benton. George at his best was a great fighter
to watch, a clever ring mechanic who always looked to be on the cusp of
greatness. For that reason, a certain aura was attached to him as he was talked
up as the coming man. George beat some good fighters, Joey Giardello among them,
but never really caught fire. Benton was clearly outpointed by the modest John
McCormack in Glasgow and lost other important fights to Henry Hank, Holly Mims,
Luis Rodriquez and Bennie Briscoe. Was George really unappreciated? No, he was
just a good class middleweight.
Moving up to a higher plane, Charley Burley is another fighter
who has been lifted a little above his station in recent times. All of twenty
years ago, I was singing Charley’s praises as the great forgotten warrior, long
before his retro bandwagon got rolling. Unquestionably, he deserved a title
shot. But would he really have beaten Sugar Ray Robinson? Would he even have
beaten Tony Zale? To hear some people talk, you would think that Burley would
have been a racing certainty to win those fights. He is spoken of as if he were
unbeatable. He wasn’t. He wasn’t as good as Ezzard Charles, who defeated him
twice. And Charley always had his hands full with the far less celebrated Holman
Williams in their numerous meetings.
At the very top of the tree, I have the same problem in embracing
Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis as members of the highest echelon. They were very
good champions. On their best nights, they were great champions. But the
question being posed here is this: Were they members of the true elite? I don’t
believe they were. Both had too many technical and mental defects. Too
frequently, they gave the impression of being hesitant and reluctant warriors.
There was always a fire down below with Larry and Lennox. The trouble was, that
was where the fire invariably remained.
How do we rate the greats? In the complex world of boxing, that
question alone sparks debate and controversy. The preferred method is
who-would-beat-who in mythical match-ups. Like the Texas Hold ‘Em version of
poker, it makes for a fast and exciting game. But in my view it is too flimsy
and simplistic a method of judging fighters in an all-time perspective. Overall
skill, hitting power, quality of opposition and historical impact are equally
important factors and must surely be included in the mix.
My own system is a fusion of all these ingredients, even though
the final positions might not be those that some of us secretly yearn to see.
Fellow historian Tracy Callis, who ranks the all-time greats on his Great
Fighters of the Past website, agrees when he says, “I try to see a fighter in
several ways: man-to-man match-ups, each man against all men, each man under all
rules (Modern and London).
“So, Holmes might beat Tunney. But Tunney might do better on a
won-loss basis against all the top fighters included in the competition. Hence,
Gene would rank higher.”
Writer Curt Narimatsu thinks along similar lines. “Gene Tunney
was cerebral but Marine tough. He knew that the only way to beat Harry Greb was
to plough right into Harry. Realistically, in my view, Larry Holmes’ jab would
have batted off Tunney for a Holmes decision win. Tunney was a biological
cruiserweight, not a heavyweight by today’s measure. But Gene was a better
strategist and tactician than Holmes or Lennox Lewis. Pound-for-pound, Tunney
was the superior fighter.”
Boxing sage Mike Silver, a former contributor to The Ring and
Sports Illustrated, doubts that pound-for-pound would have had much to do with
it. “Tunney was smarter than Holmes and would have outpointed him. I mean, who
is smarter than Tunney? The guy thought out every single move. Anybody that can
figure out how to beat Harry Greb is tops in my book. Nobody is outsmarting
Tunney. He was a methodical, brilliant tactician who would have studied Holmes
in one fight and figured him out.
“I’m taking nothing away from Holmes, who had one of the best
left jabs in heavyweight history. But he benefited from an extremely weak
division. Holmes was not as consistent as Tunney, nor was he as well rounded a
boxer. Other than Norton and Cooney, all of Holmes’ fights were against second
and third rate opposition. I can see Holmes in the top twenty, but not in the
first ten. Too much consistent talent there.”
Before examining the strengths of Holmes and Lewis in greater
detail, let us take a closer look at Gene Tunney, the Fighting Marine. Quite
simply, he was very nearly the perfect boxer and possibly the greatest thinking
man who ever stepped into the ring. In his 88 recorded fights, he was never
knocked out and Harry Greb was the only man to beat him. Tunney took to his sick
bed after that ferocious pounding and trained his mind to mastering the
Pittsburgh Windmill. Such was the way in which Gene’s brain worked. Greb would
later say, “I have boxed Dempsey and Tunney. You never know how good Tunney is
until you box him.”
Gene was a masterful boxer and a commanding puncher. His footwork
was exemplary and his durability was excellent. Watch the real time films and
you will see a man who was as fast on his feet, if not faster, than Muhammad
Ali. He was certainly Muhammad’s superior in all-round technical knowledge.
Tunney was not a knockout puncher in the manner of a Dempsey,
Louis, Marciano or Tyson. But Gene’s knockout percentage was still highly
respectable. Much like Ali, he would bedazzle and demoralise opponents to defeat
with his great speed and timing.
Alas, here was a fighter who was quite genuinely unappreciated!
Tunney was unkindly and unfairly perceived in his time and continues to be
misunderstood. He was intellectual, cultured and a precise and orderly man who
frequently gave the impression of being aloof and even prissy. To his dying day,
he never shed that image, and it lingers now like a cruel ghost, taking unjust
precedence over his wonderful ability as a boxer and as a fighting man.
Paul Gallico wrote of him: “Anyone checking his rise from humble
beginning to wealth and fame would find a man of duty, self-confidence,
initiative, burning ambition, indomitable courage and complete and utter
“Added to this, by intelligence, study and practice, he made
himself into one of the best exponents of the so-called manly art of
self-defence who ever laced on the red leather gloves. He was the absolute ’ne
plus ultra’ of what a boxer ought to be.
“Theoretically, the perfect boxer would emerge from every test
unscathed, even untouched by any blow, while leaving the opponent bleeding and
unconscious on the canvas. Again, in every theory, with speed of foot, hand and
eye, it is possible to avoid every hook, cross or uppercut by blocking them with
gloves or arm, or slipping, ducking, pulling out of range, making the hitter
miss. No one was ever that good at the game, but among the heavyweights, Gene
Tunney probably came closest to it.
“When we should have been cheering him to the echo for the
perfection of his profession, we hated him instead for practicing his deceitful
arts upon that hero image of ourselves, caveman Dempsey.”
Tracy Callis has a similarly high opinion of Tunney: “He was one
of the most intelligently fighters in boxing history. He fought primarily as a
light-heavyweight but tangled regularly with bigger men. He was patient, light
on his feet, carried a beautiful left jab and a stinging right hand punch. He
usually moved away from an attacker but was known to tie up his foe in a clinch
if the adversary got too close. Gene rarely engaged in toe-to-toe exchanges.
“He studied his opponents in depth and knew their every move
before he entered the ring. He worked up a plan for each fight and followed it
to the letter.
“Fighting in an era of lighter heavyweights, who tended to be
quicker and slicker than those seen today, Tunney bested some of the greatest
all-round boxers ever in Battling Levinsky, Harry Greb, Tommy Loughran, Jack
Delaney, Jeff Smith, Tommy Gibbons and Jack Dempsey.”
In a sense, Larry Holmes was no less misconstrued than Gene
Tunney. Even Larry’s nickname of The Easton Assassin was a misnomer. Esteemed
historian Gilbert E Odd once described Holmes as possessing “… a killer punch in
each hand.” Well, I’m sorry, folks, but Larry never possessed that. He was a
solid and hurtful puncher with a wonderful jab, a good repertoire of punches and
bags of guile and heart. But his footwork was never more than adequate and his
powers of concentration were frequently found wanting.
Larry was one of the most courageous men I ever saw in a
dogfight, but how many of those dogfights should he have really been in? Like
Lennox Lewis, Holmes was so often guilty of falling asleep at the wheel and
blundering his way into clearly visible quicksand.
When Earnie Shavers nearly smashed him through the floor at
Caesars Palace, Larry was coasting and should have sealed the comfortable points
win that he achieved in their first fight. He got himself into a terrible mess
against the awkward but ordinary Renaldo Snipes, very nearly being knocked out.
Holmes was clearly unfit against Mike Weaver at Madison Square Garden, and
almost came a cropper before saving the day with a Hail Mary special. Weaver,
God bless him, was dead game and a mighty dangerous banger, but never really
distinguished himself from the pack of modest eighties contenders.
Holmes always had trouble with fighters who were not afraid to
let rip at him. He is so often compared to Muhammad Ali, and I know not why.
Larry didn’t have Muhammad’s speed of hand or foot. He didn’t have anything
approaching the Louisville Lip’s grace, versatility or inventiveness. Ali, like
Tunney, could change horses in mid-stream and re-structure his game plan.
Larry’s talent in that department was strictly finite.
Look around the various boxing forums and one topic that never
ceases to get people talking is whether Rocky Marciano could have beaten a prime
Joe Louis. I think Rocky would have fallen short. In my mind’s eye, I can only
ever Joe breaking him up to force a late stoppage in what would still have been
a very punishing fight for Louis. Conversely, I do not believe that Mike Tyson’s
destruction of the ageing Holmes was too much of a deception. In his prime,
Larry never met the like of Tyson, nor the like of a Joe Frazier who would have
chased and nagged and punched away at Holmes all night long.
Historian Eric Jorgensen holds Holmes in very high regard,
ranking him fourth in the all-time pecking order. “I view Holmes as a bigger,
stronger version of Tunney. I think Larry’s heart and brains were close to being
on a par with Tunney’s, and Holmes was dang near as fast too. Great stamina,
iron chin, punishing puncher.
“He didn’t quite have Gene’s skill on the inside, but Holmes did
have the inside right uppercut and a better left hook. What I really loved about
Holmes was his unrelenting will to win. He just wouldn’t let himself lose.”
Yet Eric acknowledges that Larry would not have fared well
against the great predators, believing that a match with Jack Dempsey would have
produced a surprisingly one-sided victory for the Manassa Mauler.
“Holmes was not exceptionally quick afoot and did not possess a
big punch,” says Eric. “Thus he had trouble with aggressive fighters who put
pressure on him like Ken Norton, Mike Weaver and Earnie Shavers. Fortunately for
Holmes, those guys all had glass jaws and – except for Norton – no stamina. So
ultimately they wilted beneath Holmes’ steady barrage.
“No one ever accused Dempsey of lacking either chin or stamina,
however, and he would not have wilted. Moreover, Dempsey could lay on more
pressure than all three of those guys put together. Further, he was harder to
hit than any of them (Tunney, a quicker and more accurate puncher than Holmes,
once said he was only able to catch Dempsey cleanly a couple of times in their
fights), so Jack would have paid a lower price for his aggression than those
“Finally, don’t forget Holmes’ career-long tendency to get hit by
right hands over his left jab (Kevin Isaac, Renaldo Snipes, Duane Bobick in the
Olympic trials, Shavers and Tyson), a punch that was a speciality of Dempsey’s.
Any way you look at it, Holmes would have been in trouble, though his great chin
and heart would have kept him on his feet for a while.”
When Lennox Lewis blitzed Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock in two rounds
at Earls Court in 1992, I remember Manny Steward telling us that Lennox could be
the next Joe Louis. For once, the excited exaltations of a trainer had a
distinct ring of reality to them. Lewis really did look that good. He was tall,
powerful, beautifully proportioned, fluid and quick-handed. His slamming jab and
slashing right cross were formidable weapons. Why, oh why, were such fire and
brimstone performances such irritating rarities in his portfolio?
The roof fell in, that is why. The shattering defeat to Oliver
McCall turned Lewis into a much more tentative and timid predator. His chin had
been dynamited and, however one rates his overall durability, the cold fact
remains that every man he came up against thereafter believed that he had at
least an outside chance of emulating McCall. Even now, I am not entirely sure
whether Lennox’s problem was a weak chin (he took plenty of shots on the
whiskers without blinking) or whether his mind simply drifted away at crucial
moments. It is not a good thing to be thinking about your next meal or a career
in movies when Hasim Rahman is winging them in from the bleachers.
The Rahman catastrophe was a quite unforgivable act of arrogance
and sloppiness on Lewis’ part. He underestimated the seriousness of that
assignment from the day the fight was made, despite his insistence to the
contrary. He trained poorly, convinced that his limited but dangerous challenger
couldn’t hurt him.
Would Rahman still be challenging for so-called world titles
today if the heavyweight division wasn’t in such dire straits? Thirty years ago,
he might just have lasted ten rounds with Ron Lyle.
In assessing the all-time standing of Lennox Lewis, we simply
cannot dismiss the two calamitous defeats against Rahman and McCall as mere
aberrations. Nor can we compare them to the prolonged and courageous beating
sustained by the inexperienced Joe Louis against Max Schmeling, or the quick
exit made by the young Jack Dempsey in his highly suspicious duet with Fireman
If Lennox didn’t have a problem, it seemed he had to invent one.
He was dozing when Shannon Briggs put him on Queer Street. He made a dreadful
meal of seeing off the admirable but already slipping Ray Mercer. By the time of
his lumbering swansong against Vitali Klitschko, Lewis had even sacrificed his
athletic body beautiful, having joined the ridiculous race to see who could be
the biggest blob on the block.
Mike Silver, like yours truly, cannot clear these images of
Lennox from his mind. “If you’ve ever wondered what Teofilo Stevenson would have
looked like as a pro, you don’t have to look any further than Lennox Lewis –
similar basic styles and both about the same size. They both kept a battering
ram jab working to set up a tremendous right cross. Of course, Lennox was an
experienced pro and was more versatile than Teo. Lennox was a good boxer with a
very powerful right hand.
“But he presents a problem for me, since I believe his fragile
chin gets in the way of his ranking as a top twenty heavyweight. It is a
tremendous weakness for a fighter, especially a heavyweight. Those two knockouts
he suffered at the hands of mediocre fighters keep coming into my mind. Not just
that he was stopped (that could happen to anybody) but that he couldn’t recover
after being hit by one good shot. And it happened in both fights.
“Can you imagine Rahman or McCall flattening any of the greats
with one shot? I can’t. Lennox would always be vulnerable against a
strong-chinned contender who could punch. Also, against an old Holyfield and a
washed up Tyson, Lewis was too heavy, tentative and slow.”
Eric Jorgensen also has problems in warming to Lennox. “One wag
wrote that Lewis was the only fighter he ever saw whose footwork got better when
he was on Queer Street. I love that and it’s partially true. His strength was
immense, though obviously enhanced by steroids, and for sheer impact I think he
had the hardest right of all time. His straight left was a thing of beauty when
he remembered to use it, and he was also a great counter puncher.
“But Lewis was a mechanical fighter. If left alone, he’d have
always been a pure jab and right hand attacker who was easy to counter and who
ran out of gas if he fought too hard and for too many rounds in a row. His left
hook was clumsy and he always looked like he threw it by the numbers. You could
almost hear him counting to himself.
“And at all times, he had to be careful to protect that glass
jaw. Lennox would always have trouble with guys who could move from side to side
and show him angles. His relatively slow feet would make it hard for him to
react when they slipped inside.”
The simple fact of the matter is that consistently great things
are expected of great champions. Jeffries, Dempsey, Louis and Marciano all
suffered uncomfortable moments during their championship reigns. Jeffries had a
titanic struggle with Tom Sharkey. Joe and Rocky were knocked down. Jack took a
visit to the press section against Firpo, albeit from an almighty shove rather
than a significant blow. But none of these men had to go back and re-win their
titles at their peak. None of them got knocked cold, bludgeoned or hideously
embarrassed. That was the exclusive territory of Floyd Patterson until the
deeply troubled Tyson finally imploded in Tokyo.
Summarising the merits and demerits of Larry Holmes and Lennox
Lewis, Tracy Callis says, “Holmes carried one of the best jabs in boxing
history, if not the very best. In addition, he possessed an explosive overhand
right hand punch and uppercut. His left was not bad either. Larry generally
circled his man, steadily shooting that wonderful jab into his face. At the
right moment, he brought in that quick, hard right hand blow.
“Holmes was willing to engage in toe-to-toe exchanges from time
to time. Sometimes, in the heat of battle, he allowed a man to slip inside
against him. During the trading of blows, he was sometimes vulnerable to hard
right hand punches. Larry took a good punch but would tie up his foe if the
going became distasteful. He handled huge heavyweights and lighter men equally
“Lennox Lewis was tall and athletic and owned a good, strong left
jab along with a powerful right hand punch and uppercut. He moved well and had
good balance, but sometimes was a little too eager in his attack, lunging at his
man and becoming off balance.
“This opened up his defence and created chinks in his armour.
Lennox had a good chin and took a solid punch, but he could be stunned. At
times, his jab became pitty-pat and enhanced the chance that a man could get
close to him.
“Lennox fought many big, powerful men and handled them well.
However, on occasion it appeared that the fight did not have his full attention.
Pressure fighters who were quick enough to get inside him posed problems and, in
some contests, it seemed that Lewis could not hold his man off.”
With the talent and tools they had at their disposal, Larry
Holmes and Lennox Lewis could have been top five material, never mind top ten. I
remain convinced they didn’t make it. Too often they failed to fire the soul in
the way that great champions are expected to do. Too often they suffered the
ironic fate of stumbling into unnecessary trouble when they tried to play it
safe. Prudence over passion is understandable, but not when it still gets you a
kick in the teeth.
Close, boys, but no cigar.
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