There is absolutely no doubting the greatness of Larry Holmes. Not only did “The Easton Assassin” reign as heavyweight king for over seven years, not only did he have arguably the finest left jab in the history of the division, and not only did Holmes have an amazing chin – Larry also took on many tough, unbeaten and young contenders.
Throughout his 1978 to 1985 reign, Holmes overcame the challenge of Gerry Cooney, both young and undefeated, Renaldo Snipes, both young and unbeaten, Tim Witherspoon, young and undefeated, and Carl Williams. He was also young and unbeaten at the time of his title challenge of Holmes. For sure, Holmes took on, as he put it himself, some bad dudes.
Yet Holmes, who is still annoyed over how he feels he was denied the full credit he and his talents deserved, was the beneficiary of some close, debatable decisions during his career. Indeed, for a fighter who says he never had any real breaks, Holmes was given a couple during his title reign. Plenty of people felt at the time that Williams had done enough to have either won or gotten a draw in his fight with Holmes. While a whole lot of people still feel Witherspoon deserved the decision that went against him when he challenged Holmes back in May of 1983.
It was a great fight, yet another hard one in the career of Holmes. Witherspoon, like Holmes before him, had learned plenty while working at Muhammad Ali’s Deer Lake “Fighter’s Heaven” training camp. Like Holmes before him, Witherspoon had sparred Ali. Now, with just 15 pro fights under his 25-year-old belt, “Terrible Tim” (the nickname given to him by Ali) challenged Holmes for the title.
A massive underdog going in, Witherspoon surprised everyone with a great effort. It was a smart approach and a gutsy performance. Holmes, by now aged 33 and sporting a 42-0 record, was made to look a tired, hurt fighter by Witherspoon quite a few times throughout the exciting 12 round battle that took place in Las Vegas. Holmes, who was making the fifteenth defense of the WBC crown, later said he had come in at a too-low 213 pounds; that his strength was not what it should have been.
Witherspoon, possessing an excellent left jab of his own, a “can-opener” of a right hand, great stamina, a solid chin, and unquenchable desire, pushed the champ hard. It could be argued how Holmes had never before been pushed so hard and for so long since his title-winning effort against Ken Norton in 1978. The fight with Witherspoon came close to matching that epic for action and excitement.
The ninth round was special – for the fans and the challenger. Witherspoon cracked Holmes with plenty of leather, and he seemed to have the champion on the brink of going down, of being stopped. But Holmes, as we all know, was no ordinary fighter. Able to dig deep at a time when it was most needed, Holmes’s greatness allowed him to avoid disaster in some fights (see Holmes Vs. Earnie Shavers, Holmes Vs. Snipes). And Larry got his shovel out again in the Witherspoon fight, during that rough, tough, and memorable Round of the Year in particular.
Holmes was swollen around the eyes at the end of the 12 rounds, looking every inch his 43 fights and 33 years. It was a split decision in the end – one judge having it for Witherspoon at 115-114, the other two officials had it 115-113 and a ghastly 118-111 for Holmes. There would be no rematch.
In time, Holmes managed to become a two-time belt-holder, yet it could be argued that “Terrible Tim” boxed his career-best fight that May evening in 1983. For Holmes’ part, though the decision was controversial, Larry had proven once again that it would take a herculean effort if anyone were going to take the man’s title. ‘Spoon sure came close.