Matt Christie reflects on Larry Holmes and one of the greatest heavyweight careers in history
LARRY HOLMES had one of the best jabs in history, superhuman recuperative powers, and intelligence that shone through his extreme talent. Above all, though, he was the right guy at the wrong time.
Larry was the fourth of 12 children and such was the family’s poverty, he dropped out of school in the seventh grade and worked at a car wash in an effort to provide support. Larry began boxing at the age 19 and quickly found the art of fighting to his liking. He competed in the 1972 Olympic Trials in just his 22nd bout but after being disqualified against Duane Bobick he opted to turn professional.
In the year 1973 Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton were hogging the heavyweight attention at the top with the likes of Jerry Quarry, Joe Bugner and Ron Lyle scampering around just below. Holmes’ arrival on the landscape went virtually unnoticed.
But Ali and Frazier were soon aware of Larry, as he honed his skills as their sparring partner, also working with the likes of Jimmy Young and Earnie Shavers while winning fight after fight. By 1978, Ali’s legs were feeling the strain of a long career and Frazier and Foreman had walked away in the years before. The time was right for the unbeaten Holmes to strike and after beating Shavers in an eliminator he was matched with WBC leader Ken Norton.
Epic is an overused word but it sums up this incredible showdown; power and pain collided as supremacy was tossed between the two gladiators for 15 of heavyweight history’s greatest rounds. Holmes, who had ignored a torn muscle in his left arm, was adjudged the winner on the cards and a legend should have been born.
But the public were too busy pining for Ali who, after years of sluggish form, had produced a performance that reminded everyone how special he once was when he revenged Leon Spinks to claim the WBA belt. But Ali didn’t want to fight Holmes, or at least not yet, and retired.
Larry turned back challenges of Mike Weaver, Shavers and Scott LeDoux before a 38-year-old Ali came out of retirement in October 1980 to take on Larry. The world wanted another Muhammad miracle. It never came, of course, as Holmes pounded the remnants of his friend into 10th round retirement. Holmes attacked Ali as sympathetically as the confines of a prize ring would allow, but still, his public assault on a national hero did little for his popularity.
Nor did the fractured state of the heavyweight title as fans were forced to recognise at least one other champion for the entirety of Holmes’ seven-year spell at the top. He dominated Trevor Berbick over 15, emphatically halted Leon Spinks in three, and outclassed White America’s hero, Gerry Cooney, over 13 rounds. That bout, from the racially charged build-up (largely down to promoter Don King) through to the ring walks (Holmes, the champion, entered first) was an ugly spectacle and it is little surprise Holmes grew tired of trying to please the public.
Larry relinquished his WBC belt so he could thrash Marvis Frazier in a round before he modelled the newly-formed IBF’s version of the title. Wins over James “Bonecrusher” Smith, David Bey and Carl Williams followed and then, with his record standing at 48-0 (one short of Rocky Marciano’s spotless total), he lost on points to light-heavyweight champion Michael Spinks in 1985.
Many felt Holmes deserved the verdict in the rematch but after losing the split decision he retired in a cloud of bitterness only to be persuaded to challenge a peak Mike Tyson in January 1988. Holmes didn’t disgrace himself, his jab and movement frustrated the young lion at times, but Larry couldn’t stay out of range for long enough to avoid a fourth-round knockout defeat.
That appeared to be that, but with Tyson knocked off the perch and the George Foreman comeback doing big business, Holmes returned in 1991, aged 41. With the division almost as good as when he had originally entered almost 20 years before, Holmes proved his worth by remaining a contender for much of the decade, beating Ray Mercer and losing decisions to undisputed champ Evander Holyfield in 1992 and WBC boss, Oliver McCall, in 1995. He retired for good in 2002 – arguably more popular at the age of 52 than he’d been before – when he outpointed Eric Esch and took his comeback record to 21-3.