Larry Holmes – A Hall Of Fame Career

12.12.07 - By Matthew Hurley: It was with great satisfaction that I placed a check mark next to Larry Holmes’ name on my International Hall Of Fame ballot a few months ago. Holmes has long been a favorite at this address and he’s also been a fighter I’ve defended since way back in 1982 when he faced off against Gerry Cooney in a fight whose racial overtones even spilled over onto the playground of my grammar school.

I can remember specifically how popular Cooney was and how convinced all my schoolmates were that he would become the new heavyweight champion of the world. Although Cooney’s skin color was a factor to some of the kids at the school I went to, which had no black students, another reason was that Holmes was never fully accepted as the true champion in the wake of the overpowering personality of his predecessor Muhammad Ali. At the time Holmes was viewed as an interim champion until someone more charismatic came along – at least by his critics. Cooney represented Rocky Balboa to my friends but Holmes was not Apollo Creed. That was the problem many people had and would continue to have with the proud champion even after he dissected Cooney in arguably his finest performance. He was never a star, just a dedicated, hard working professional fighter who achieved brilliance through that very diligence. That was what I loved about him all those years ago when I insisted to my friends that he would defeat Cooney, and it’s why I continue to rank him highly among the all time great heavyweight champions.

It was announced today by the International Boxing Hall Of Fame that Larry Holmes will be inducted into the hall in 2008 during the annual June ceremonies on the grounds at Canastota, New York. The ‘Easton Assassin’ will be enshrined among his peers as the longest reigning heavyweight champion in boxing history. He held the title from 1978 when he defeated Ken Norton in an epic battle in Las Vegas until 1985 when light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks upset him and ended the champion’s run for Rocky Marciano’s perfect record of 49-0.

Along the way there were triumphant high points like the Cooney spectacle or the night he climbed off the canvas after getting hit by a perfect Ernie Shavers right hand to stop the fearsome puncher in the eleventh round. There were also nights that highlighted Holmes’ inability to capture the public’s imagination such as his bout with the faded Ali or the fifteen round shellacking he handed out to the vastly overmatched Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb – a bout that Howard Cosell used to announce his exit from the sport.

The Ali bout was particularly hard on Holmes because it proved to him that he could never quite step out from behind his idol’s shadow and sadness would envelope him as he slammed punch after punch into a man whom he considered a friend and who was all but defenseless.

“Emotionally, it was a tough fight,” Holmes said. “I love the guy. He was thirty-eight years old and they were calling him an old man and washed up, so if I beat him, so what? I was in a no-win situation.”

But Holmes went out and did his job in that workmanlike, professional manner that became his hallmark. That stoicism in the ring, which sometimes he was unable to muster outside the ropes, was evident before the Cooney bout when he, the champion, was introduced to the crowd first, belying decades of ring tradition. Holmes didn’t blink when this happened, he simply raised his arms above his head and then waited for the bell to ring so he could ply his craft.

A few years ago when I was at the hall of fame I met legendary referee Arthur Mercante and former trainer and announcer Gil Clancy. I asked both of them myriad questions in the short time I had but one regarded Larry Holmes and both men used the same word to describe him – underrated. It’s a word that Holmes has grown more comfortable with over time because he realizes that now his career has been reevaluated by many of the same people who refused to give him credit when he was active and they not only regard him much more highly now but many of them have voted him into the hall of fame.

Holmes’ lost his beloved title in 1985 on a night when he greatly underestimated Michael Spinks. The looming record of Rocky Marciano was something that Holmes desperately wanted to break because he was tired of being held back by the legacy of yet another champion who came before him. When he failed to achieve his goal the bitterness and aloneness he had been feeling for years poured out in an unfortunate post-fight statement in which the weary fighter said that, “If you really want to get technical, Rocky couldn’t carry my jockstrap.” The remark would haunt Holmes for years and many maintain that any chance he had of getting a decision against Spinks in the rematch, which most people felt he won, went out the window. Holmes felt as much after Spinks was declared the winner and sadly told HBO’s Larry Merchant that, “To the judges, the promoters, they can kiss me where the sun don’t shine. And since we’re on HBO that’s my big black behind.”

That bitterness and hurt that Holmes had a tendency to express in the wrong way was also indicative of his honesty as a human being. When he felt slighted by the media or ripped off by the likes of Don King he let it be known. But if he went a bit too far, as with the Marciano remark, he humbled himself and apologized. Going back again to the Cooney fight, after all the animosity that had built up to the breaking point, it was Holmes who tapped gloves with his more popular challenger and said “Let’s have a good fight.” Years later, the two men at the center of that ugly, racial cauldron have become good friends.

The comeback fights that Larry engaged in were scattershot but there were a few surprises such as his upset decision victory over top rated contender Ray Mercer and his strong showing against then champion Evander Holyfield. Those two fights came after his first return to the ring against a prime Mike Tyson who stopped him for the only time in his career in the fourth round in 1988. His final try for a championship belt came in 1995 against Oliver McCall and Holmes again surprised by hanging tough but dropping a close decision to the WBC champion.

Holmes’ place in the pantheon of heavyweight greats continues to be a hotly debated topic. Is he rated to low, or is he now being rated to highly? The fact is he simply deserves to be right in the mix of the discussion because he was that good. Not only did he have remarkable recuperative powers as witnessed against Shavers and Renaldo Snipes he also had, arguably, the greatest jab in the history of the division. He also had a fighting spirit that carried him through some of his toughest tests that came later in his career as his body was slowing down. One of the best examples of this was his last successful title defense against a spry Carl ‘The Truth’ Williams. The young contender fought like a mirror image of Holmes, slamming pile driving left jabs into the champion’s face. But Holmes dug down deep and won the final championship rounds to retain his title. It was a night when Holmes showed all the signs of an aging fighter and yet all the courage and will that made him such a great champion.

Larry Holmes retired from boxing in 2002 with a record of 69-6 with 44 KOs. Always good with his money, he invested wisely and now owns a nightclub and a restaurant along with several successful real estate ventures. He continues to make public appearances often helping out former foe Gerry Cooney with Cooney’s program FIST (Fighters’ Initiative for Support and Training) that tries to help professional boxers make the transition from boxing to life outside the ropes.

Article posted on 12.12.2007

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