Sunday, December 16, 2007

Larry Holmes’ Long Fight for Respect is Finally Over

Larry Holmes (right) battles Ken Norton for the heavyweight title, June 1978.

He was never who we wanted him to be. But that wasn’t Larry Holmes’ fault.

In June 1982, minutes after he dealt Gerry Cooney a thirteen round beating in the sweetest victory of his long career, Holmes stepped through the ring ropes in the sweltering heat of the Las Vegas night and said to the boxing beat writers, “I’m sorry I’m not what you guys in the press want me to be. I’m not Muhammad Ali. I’m not Joe Louis. I wasn’t born to be those people. I was born to be myself, Larry Holmes.”

He did everything that was asked of him, and then some, in a boxing ring. But he was the heavyweight champion of the world at a time when no man could have stood outside the long, dark shadow cast by a retired Muhammad Ali. As a result, for most of his years in boxing, a bitter Larry Holmes battled for the respect he felt he deserved - and to quell the voices of his many critics.

Not long after Holmes dispatched Cooney in what was, up until then, the largest grossing money fight in boxing history, Joe Gergen, a sportswriter with Newsday newspaper put it best. “There is a deficiency in Holmes that virtually guarantees he will never be accorded the acclaim he feels his accomplishments warrant,” wrote Gergen. “The man simply is dwarfed by the title he carries.”

And so it was for Larry Holmes. But last week that view changed when he was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

“It’s a tremendous honor because so many great athletes are already in the Hall of Fame and it’s an honor to be among that group,” said Holmes upon notification that he had been chosen for one of boxing's highest honors. “It’s a pleasure for me to be among the greatest fighters of our world.”

Larry Holmes didn’t have the high quality of opposition that Ali had, but that wasn’t his fault either. Instead of names like Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman – Holmes was relegated to facing no names like Lorenzo Zannon, Leroy Jones and Lucien Rodriguez in early title defenses.

But it also didn’t help that Holmes was abrasive and ornery toward the boxing press. He wore a hard and sharp edge on his sleeve and his reputation paid for it. As a result, the public never warmed up to him and they never saw the man for who he truly was because they were simply too pre-occupied in comparing him to Ali and not seeing Holmes the individual.

“I am arrogant,” Holmes says, in an attempt to explain himself. “But I always thought I could get along with people by telling ‘em where it’s at from the beginning.”

Holmes was and is a man of strong character and deep convictions, but when he was champion he didn’t possess the charm and charisma that would endear him to a fickle public. He was simply his own man - a maverick in boxing trunks - and his rags-to-riches journey is perhaps more compelling than that of any other boxing champion.

He was the fourth of twelve children born to John and Flossie Holmes in Cuthbert, Georgia in November 1949. His parents were sharecroppers who resided in a small shack with a tin roof and a dirt floor that was situated next to a set of railroad tracks.

After the family moved to Easton, Pennsylvania, where he still resides, Holmes quit school in the seventh grade to help provide for his brothers and sisters. He took jobs washing cars for a dollar-an-hour and he eventually found his way behind the wheel as a truck driver.

“I’ll never forget how people used to make fun of us when my mother took us over to Northampton Street, the nice part of Easton,” said Holmes, who managed to save and invest his millions wisely. “They snickered when we went to the Salvation Army rummage sale to get our clothes. I always felt humiliated when I had to go with her to the welfare office, even though welfare was the only way we could have survived as a family.”

But Holmes forged on and he turned pro in 1972 against Rodell Dupree in Scranton, Pennsylvania and the rest, as they say, is history. He was paid $63 for his pro debut, served as a sparring partner for Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and fought on several of Ali’s undercards as he learned his craft with the help of his then trainer, Richie Giachetti.

The bombastic Don King promoted Holmes throughout much of his career. It was a dysfunctional union of the self proclaimed “world’s greatest promoter” and for a while at least, the world’s best heavyweight boxer. Holmes was never happy with King and Don did skim money from Larry’s purses. After a fight, King would shave hundreds of thousands of dollars from Holmes’ announced purse if a fight did poorly at the gate. Holmes and King often got into heated shouting matches and confrontations regarding compensation and King's creative accounting methods.

Holmes and Don King had a long, yet tumultuous, relationship over the years.

But for a myriad of reasons, Holmes never seemed able to muster the courage to break free from King until many years after he had lost his titles. And King even promoted Holmes’ ill-fated fight with Mike Tyson in 1988 - helping himself to $300,000 of Holmes’ $3.1 million purse - before Holmes eventually sued King and got $150,000 in a settlement. But Holmes also had to agree not to speak badly of King in the future. When their relationship was finally all said and done, Holmes said of King, “That man is the devil, that’s why he combs his hair that way, to cover the horns.”

In June 1978, Holmes won the WBC heavyweight title from Ken Norton in a fifteen round classic and for the next seven years he ruled the heavyweight division and defended the championship 20 times, second only to Joe Louis’ record of 25 heavyweight title defenses. It was not until 1985, when his record reached 48-0, would he lose to Michael Spinks in a squeaker of a decision that cost Holmes his heavyweight championship and his quest to surpass Rocky Marciano’s legendary record of 49-0.

After the fight, a bitter Holmes further alienated himself from the public when he uttered the now infamous line, “If you want to get technical about it, Rocky Marciano couldn't carry my jockstrap.”

Asked about that comment a few years later, an apologetic Holmes simply said, “It was a poor choice of words at the time. But it was too late. They didn’t let me take it back.”

Holmes, pictured in training camp during his younger days and in his prime.

But to focus on those types of outbursts, and there were many, would be overlooking all that Larry Holmes really accomplished during a professional boxing career that spanned 29 years. While he was never comfortable in social settings and could never seem to say the right things in front of a room full of boxing reporters, in private he was a man who was deeply introspective and who always counted his family as his most important asset.

Holmes had a great sense of humor and he eventually acquired a taste for the finer things in life, such as Rolls Royce cars and the indoor swimming pool at his home that was shaped like a boxing glove. But during his years in boxing, Holmes never lost the chip on his shoulder, nor could he forget the foul taste that being the son of a poverty-stricken sharecropper had left in his mouth.

He was eventually forced into fighting his idol, the comebacking Ali, in a farce of a fight that took place in October of 1980. It was a match that Holmes didn’t want to take because he knew that Ali, at age 38, was damaged goods and a shell of his former self. But Holmes was philosophic about his plight in the days leading up to the fight and about what he had to do and why. “I’m not fighting to defend my championship,” Holmes said. “I’m fighting for my identity.”

He dispatched Ali in ten one sided rounds and even showed compassion in not emptying his full arsenal upon the faded former champ. “I loved the man, I really did,” said Holmes. “Ali was everything to boxing, a real hero. But that fight was something that would shake me free from the monkey on my back, from the shadow he cast. I did what I had to do, and that was it.”

"The Greatest" was no match for Holmes when they met in Las Vegas in 1980.

“The Easton Assassin” possessed perhaps the best left jab in the history of heavyweight boxing. He once said of his stinging jab, and his propensity to use it, “When in doubt, stick it out.” The punch was a rapier-like weapon that he used to dismantle a host of the world’s top heavyweights and he defeated eight fighters that were or would become heavyweight titlists.

At 6’3” tall with an 81” reach, Holmes was the perfect specimen of a heavyweight with underrated punching power and unmatched mental toughness. He was quick on his feet and could take a punch and he was knocked out only once in 75 professional fights – against Mike Tyson in a hastily arranged comeback fight in 1988 when he was 38 years old. Holmes fought on and faced Evander Holyfield in 1992 and Oliver McCall in 1995 for cracks at the title, but he came up short in losing competitive decisions. He eventually called it a career and retired in 2002 with a career mark of 69-6 (44) KO’s.

Now 58 and a multi-millionaire, Holmes owns two restaurants in Easton, Pennsylvania, has several real estate ventures, his own cable television show and he has settled into a comfortable life as a great-grandfather and philanthropist.

When asked what he would like his epitaph to read, Holmes simply says, “I would probably call it ‘The Truth of the Man,’” as he smiled. “The reason why is because I’m a man that tells the truth and that’s the way I would like to go with it. I’m The Truth of the Man.”

And he was a pretty darn good fighter, too.

December 2007

1 comment:


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