In Appreciation of Larry Holmes
By Lee Groves from Max Boxing
Monday, June 11th, marked the 25th anniversary of one of the most talked about heavyweight championship fights in history – Larry Holmes’ 13th-round knockout of Gerry Cooney. Holmes has long been one of boxing’s most underappreciated champions, and this anniversary provides the springboard from which Holmes will receive a small measure of what he has sought for so long – respect.
One of the most difficult feats to accomplish – not only in sports, but also in life – is to become so good at something that others will consider you a legend. The odds of a youngster just becoming a professional athlete are very long, so just imagine how exponentially longer they must be for that youngster to grow up to be judged among the best of the best.
Then there is Larry Holmes, who did something that was far more difficult than even that formidable task. Not only did he become one of the greatest of heavyweight champions, he did it while following the most transcendent figure boxing will ever know. Muhammad Ali called himself "The Greatest," then proceeded to prove it as his three reigns spanned 15 years and 19 defenses. Ali’s mostly good-natured barbs heralded the modern era of "trash talk" and his stand against the Vietnam War made him both a hero and a villain. More than a quarter century after his retirement, Ali remains among the most beloved and recognizable people on earth.
Talk about a hard act to follow. And yet, Holmes did it.
Holmes had an up-close-and-personal view of how Ali operated while serving as his sparring partner and he further learned his trade while fighting on several of Ali’s undercards. When Ali knocked out Chuck Wepner in 15 rounds, there was Holmes stopping Charlie "Devil" Green in two. Holmes clocked Ernie Smith in three underneath Ali-Ron Lyle. A few hours before Ali again made history by stopping Joe Frazier in "The Thrilla in Manila," Holmes knocked out Rodney Bobick in six. Working on just eight days' notice, Holmes overcame an injured right thumb to decision the tough and ornery Roy Williams over 10 rounds just before Ali controversially outpointed Jimmy Young. Though the crowds were smaller and less attentive than those of Ali, Holmes still received an education on handling himself in the midst of a big-fight atmosphere.
In their sparring sessions, Holmes learned how and when to throw the jab while defending himself against one of the fastest ever unleashed by the big men. Over time, Holmes’ jabs became harder and snappier than those thrown by his employer, and the time would soon come when he would show the world just how far he had come.
That day came on March 25, 1978 when Holmes took on the dangerous Earnie Shavers in a nationally televised 12 rounder in which the winner would get a title shot. The 26-0 (19 KO) Holmes was a revelation as he used tremendous foot speed and his ramrod jab to befuddle the potent puncher. Holmes nearly floored Shavers in the final seconds en route to a 120-108, 120-108, 119-109 decision that set the stage for the biggest fight of his young career. Four days after the fight, the WBC declared Ken Norton the new champion because Norton had defeated Jimmy Young in an eliminator and Leon Spinks signed to defend against Ali instead of Norton. Holmes would be Norton's first title defense.
In the ring, many elements of Holmes’ style mirrored Ali’s but when interviewed poolside by Howard Cosell before the Norton match, his bravado carried none of Ali’s light-hearted humor. His declarations of superiority had a harder edge to them, and they were no doubt fertilized by the combination of a difficult and impoverished childhood and his contention that the boxing establishment actively worked to keep him from succeeding. He bristled at those who called him an Ali clone – and not in a complimentary way – while pondering why his God-given skills weren't appreciated.
Six days before the fight with Norton, Holmes suffered torn tissues in his left bicep when he and a sparring partner hit elbows. Thanks to a series of treatments, the arm was functional by the time he stepped between the ropes and he used his rapier jab to build an early lead. But Norton came on strong in the middle rounds and entering the final stanza all three judges had the fight even. Both men exhibited championship drive as they hammered one another for three straight minutes. It was as dramatic and theatrical a finish as ever has been seen and the scorecards were equally so as Holmes emerged with a one-point split decision victory. Everyone knew that Holmes had the talent of a champion, but the Norton fight proved that he also owned a champion’s mettle.
Over the next two years, Holmes was a fighting champion as he defended his WBC belt seven times – all by knockout. Fans saw different sides of Holmes during this part of his reign; he was utterly dominant over Alfredo Evangelista, Osvaldo Ocasio, Lorenzo Zanon, Leroy Jones and Scott Ledoux, but in back-to-back fights against Mike Weaver and Shavers he was again forced to overcome adversity.
Holmes contracted the flu a week before the Weaver fight, and the antibiotics left Holmes feeling "dreamy." A charged-up Weaver hurt Holmes on several occasions and the Madison Square Garden crowd began to pull for the prohibitive underdog. Holmes suffered a punctured eardrum during the fight and an upset appeared to be a real possibility. But Holmes found the answer he needed in the form of a monstrous right uppercut that floored Weaver in the closing seconds of the 11th. An exhausted Holmes charged out of his corner in the 12th and battered the stricken Weaver without pause until referee Harold Valan stopped the fight at the 44-second mark.
"The Easton Assassin" cruised through the first six rounds of the Shavers rematch three months later, and he opened a cut around Shavers' right eye that would require 27 stitches. But in the seventh Holmes would field the hardest single punch of his career. As Holmes was cranking an uppercut, Shavers blasted him with a picture-perfect overhand right that sent him hard to the floor. With eyes glazed and mind scrambled, Holmes nevertheless arose at five and bounced on his toes, all the while putting distance between himself, Pearl and especially Shavers. The move gave him a few more precious moments of recovery time and he was able to last out the round.
Holmes and Shavers were friends outside the ring and as he hit Earnie again and again in the ensuing rounds, "The Easton Assassin" showed his compassionate side by repeatedly asking Shavers to give up so he wouldn't have to punish him anymore. Shavers, ever observant of the fighters' code, refused to do so, preferring to go out on his shield. By the 11th, Shavers was virtually helpless when Pearl wrapped his arms around Shavers and put an end to his suffering.
As the knockouts mounted, Holmes was transformed from the holder of a "paper" title to the unquestioned best heavyweight in the world. Yet he still operated under the smothering shadow of Ali, who had regained the WBA belt from Spinks, then retired exactly a year later. To most casual fans, Ali would remain the champion until he was beaten in the ring and when Ali decided to come out of retirement to challenge Holmes, his former employee would get his chance to stamp himself as the "man who beat the man."
Ali appeared to turn back the clock when he dyed his graying hair and weighed in at a svelte 217 ½, but once the action began it was painfully evident that the beautiful shell encased decayed talent. The 30-year-old Holmes hit the 38-year-old Ali at will and as the rounds wore on he again demonstrated his humanity by fighting only in spurts, then holding back and hoping that referee Richard Green would stop what was becoming a massacre. Finally, in the corner following the 10th round, Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee stopped the fight over the vehement objections of "spiritual coach" Drew "Bundini" Brown.
Holmes was at his very best, both as a fighter and as a man, as he came out the winner in a no-win situation. He struck the perfect tone as he held back his punches in the ring while not holding back his admiration, love and respect for Ali when he spoke to reporters.
The Ali stoppage enabled Holmes to equal Tommy Burns' record for most consecutive knockouts in heavyweight title defenses. That streak ended in his next outing against Trevor Berbick when Holmes won a wide decision. Another heavyweight with whom Holmes was compared, Joe Louis, would make his final public appearance that night, for he would pass away just a few hours later.
As classy as he was against Ali, that's how angry he was when he fought Leon Spinks two months after beating Berbick. Holmes said in his autobiography "Against the Odds" that his fury was provoked at a dinner honoring Louis when Spinks ignored Holmes' request not to take a souvenir boxing glove at his wife's table. But even as Holmes hammered him with right after right in the third round, Holmes' empathy again came to the surface as he yelled for Richard Steele to stop the fight, which he did after Spinks' cornermen ascended the ring steps and threw in the towel.
By now Holmes was the towering king of the heavyweight mountain, but he still struggled to get the respect his status warranted. The doubters multiplied when Renaldo Snipes decked Holmes in the seventh, but, in an eerie repeat of the Shavers rematch, Holmes collected himself and eventually stopped Snipes in the 11th. Instead of being given credit for again overcoming an adverse situation, he was criticized for allowing Snipes to put him in such trouble in the first place. Thus, the adulation enjoyed by other great champions like Louis, Dempsey, Ali and Marciano still hadn’t found its way to Holmes.
Those feelings boiled over during the buildup for the Cooney fight during a nationally televised skirmish following the Spinks bout. It was precipitated when Howard Cosell brought Cooney over to ringside during Holmes' post-fight interview despite Holmes' warning not to do so, and Cosell suffered a bloody lip when Holmes lunged at Cooney and accidentally struck Cosell with his elbow.
The race-based promotion for Holmes-Cooney was hideously repugnant, and the animosity within Holmes was further stirred when Cooney received purse parity despite his untested status. Holmes and his family endured unspeakably horrible racial taunts from Cooney fans for weeks on end and after Holmes verbally struck back, he was the one who was labeled a racist.
By the time he reached the ring at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Holmes had transformed his pent-up fury into a dangerous slow burn, a burn that was exacerbated by the indignity of being introduced before his more popular challenger. And yet he retained his civility during the final instructions by touching gloves and telling Cooney "it’s going to be a good fight."
Holmes used his snapping jabs to set up a booming right cross that sent Cooney stumbling across the ring before falling to his knees near Holmes’ corner. But Cooney would rally and fight perhaps the most complete fight of his career as he produced several excellent moments against the far more experienced champion. Holmes absorbed a titanic low blow in the ninth, a foul that cost Cooney two points, and "Gentleman Gerry" lost another point in the 11th for the same infraction. Holmes soon righted himself and resuming his surgical dismantling of his hulking opponent. Holmes was soon hitting Cooney at will but the Irish-American bravely soaked up the punishment while doing his best to retaliate. The end came in the 13th when Cooney collapsed from a succession of punches and his trainer Victor Valle raced into the ring to wrap his arms around his throughly battered fighter.
Holmes fought a masterful, disciplined and intelligent fight against a man in Cooney who had nothing to be ashamed of, but even after that he still didn't receive the respect of which he felt worthy. Many in the crowd and press looked forward to the coronation of a charismatic white champion, and Holmes didn't help matters when he gloated instead of letting the manner of his victory speak for itself.
The promotion leading up to the Cooney fight stamped an image of Holmes in the public consciousness that was impossible to shake, though some praised Holmes when his lopsided beating of Randall "Tex" Cobb five months later drove Cosell to give up broadcasting the sport that helped make him famous.
From the Cobb fight forward, Holmes became a champion emeritus of sorts as he gradually gained weight while advancing in age. Most of his challenges were against heavy underdogs like Lucien Rodriguez, Scott Frank, Marvis Frazier, James "Bonecrusher" Smith and David Bey, but every once in a while, those underdogs would rise up and force Holmes to tap into his deeper recesses. Tim Witherspoon gave Holmes hell, especially in the ninth round, before losing a split decision while Carl "The Truth" Williams, a convincing facsimile of the prime Holmes, did the same. Holmes did try to set up a superfight with WBA champ Gerrie Coetzee, but the fight, scheduled for June 8, 1984 at Caesars Palace, was scrapped due to financial issues.
Holmes gave up his WBC title and accepted the IBF belt when Holmes the businessman accepted a $5 million offer to fight Frank and Frazier instead of fighting mandatory challenger Page. Holmes said in his book that he had promised to fight Page after taking care of Frank and Frazier, a proposition that Holmes said Page accepted, but when pressed by the WBC to fight Page instead of Frazier, Holmes publicly gave up their belt.
After beating Williams Holmes stood one win away from equaling Marciano's fabled 49-0 record, and when he signed to defend against undisputed light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks, a rendezvous with history had been virtually guaranteed. Barring a draw, Holmes would equal the mythical Marciano mark or Spinks would become the first reigning 175-pound champion to dethrone a heavyweight king.
Holmes would lose a 15-round decision to the awkwardly effective Spinks and Holmes would unleash his wrath and disappointment in the form of a rant that included the infamous phrase "Rocky Marciano couldn't carry my jockstrap." The fact that he said it with Marciano's brother, Peter, and his two children in the audience only deepened the wound. Though Holmes tried to issue an immediate apology, the damage had already been done and ever since Holmes has had to endlessly relive the episode.
Holmes' declaration might have been ill timed and inelegantly delivered, but there is much truth behind the reasons for his statement. He was largely correct when he said "I'm 35 fighting young men and he was 25 fighting old men." And Holmes is a greater heavyweight champion because he racked up far more title defenses while reigning for a far longer period of time.
Holmes has expressed his regret again and again and he should no longer be required to renew his apologies. While it is true that any profile of Holmes will include this unfortunate episode, it should not detract from his standing as one of the very best who ever plied his trade.
It would have been prudent to think Holmes was through after losing back-to-back fights to Spinks and Mike Tyson, but as it turned out Holmes would end up writing a completely new chapter to his boxing career. What was initially judged to be just another boxing comeback turned into an uplifting tale when the 42-year-old Holmes thoroughly outboxed 1988 Olympic gold medalist Ray Mercer despite a detached retina to earn a crack at undisputed heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. Fighting with a contact lens to correct a focusing problem, Holmes performed better than expected but still dropped a unanimous decision.
Armed with his still-potent jab and a boxing lifetime's worth of cunning, Holmes fought on. In 1995, the 45-year-old Holmes got a crack at WBC titlist Oliver McCall and had Holmes not faded down the stretch, George Foreman would have broken the record of Holmes, not Jersey Joe Walcott, as heavyweight history's oldest champ.
The McCall fight would be his last chance at a belt, but he continued to amaze observers by not only hanging with, but also beating, far younger men. Some say Holmes deserved the nod against Brian Nielsen but others would say Holmes got a gift against Maurice Harris. Following two "old-timer" rematches with Smith and Weaver, the 52-year-old Holmes ended his career with a comprehensive 10-round decision over Eric "Butterbean" Esch. His final record stands at 69-6 with 44 knockouts.
Holmes' name recently appeared on the World Boxing Hall of Fame ballot and he's a lock to be celebrating his induction this fall. Holmes is also a shoo-in to be enshrined into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in June 2008. Finally, at the age of 57, Holmes is about to receive the adulation and acceptance for which he has fought so hard to acquire.
Yes, Holmes has had his prickly moments, but the only difference between him and the rest of us is that those moments have been preserved for posterity. Holmes is a fiercely proud man, and when that pride is challenged he will react, as most of us would in the same situation.
Holmes has much for which to be proud. He battled his way out of a terribly difficult youth to become the king of boxing's mountain while making a mountain of money in the process. He has successfully made the transition from boxer to businessman and he has provided a stable home for his wife and children. He fought long after many observers thought he should have retired, but he did so because he wanted to, not because he had to. The boxing bug bites hard and it's difficult to get it out of one's system, especially when one still has the physical capabilities to beat everyone but the very best.
The numbers speak loudly for the "Easton Assassin." His seven-and-a-half year reign as the world’s top heavyweight is second only to Joe Louis’ 11 years and eight months. His combined 20 defenses of his WBC and IBF belts again are second to Louis. But the ingredients of the Holmes legacy consists of more than just numbers; more than once he stared down adversity and overcame it with a champion's bravery and resourcefulness. When it came time to make his mark on history, Holmes stepped up and made those moments his own.
As today's heavyweight division continues the search for its next great champion, Holmes' towering reign and deeds are being put into proper perspective. It is easy to ignore history as it is being made because we don't have the benefit of hindsight. More and more, historians are declaring that Holmes' profile should be chiseled onto the Mount Rushmore of heavyweight champions, and rightly so. For Holmes possessed all of the traits demanded of its legends: Skill, determination, courage, adaptability and, yes, class. Holmes may not have earned the bonus of acquiring widespread public adoration, but that shouldn't stop anyone from bestowing upon him what is rightfully his: A place among his sport's immortals.
As Holmes begins to accept the fruits of his labor, it would be wonderful if we who admire boxers from afar show him, at long last, the unvarnished appreciation for his fistic deeds. And here's hoping that Holmes will accept the plaudits in the spirit in which they are given. If this comes to pass, Holmes will finally receive what he has sought for so many years – appreciation.