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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 domain.

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 boxing writers.

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 Tunney short.

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 levels.

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 fearlessness.

“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 guys did.

“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 Jim Flynn.

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.”


No cigar 

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 well.

“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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