Larry Holmes had a career that was in some ways quite similar to that of Marvin Hagler. Like Hagler, Holmes went pro to zero fanfare, picking up just a few bucks for his first few paid bouts. Like Hagler, Holmes was never, ever offered the easy path, both men who defied the odds to become long-reigning, great world champions instead having to do things the hard way. Also like the recently deceased Hagler, Holmes won his biggest fights when he had turned the age of 30. Hagler at age 30 and beyond fought the two biggest fights of his career, against Tomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard. Holmes at age 30 and beyond fought his massive fight with Gerry Cooney.
And two more similarities between the great middleweight (some say the greatest middleweight in history) and the great heavyweight (some say one of the top-3 greatest in history) is the fact that both Hagler and Holmes lost their treasured world title thanks to a hugely controversial and debatable decision – Hagler dropping that split decision to Leonard in 1987, Holmes losing that bitterly close decision to Michael Spinks two years before. And of course, both greats toiled whilst they were largely in the shadow of somebody – Ray Leonard in Hagler’s case, Muhammad Ali in Holmes’ case.
But Hagler and Holmes are enormously respected and admired for, among other things, their sheer determination and staying power. Hagler suffered some bad breaks on the way to the title, while Holmes, though he managed to stay unbeaten on his run up to becoming word champ, had to dig deep in a number of testing fights that a lesser fighter would have grown discouraged at having to get through. In a nutshell, Hagler and Holmes earned every single victory, every single pay day (some of them insultingly small) and every single break that ever came there way.
It was 48 long years ago this week (March 21, 1973) when Holmes punched for pay for the first time (interestingly, Hagler went pro just a few weeks later, in May of ’73). Holmes, aged 23 and having had a short, 19-3 amateur career, pounded out a four-round decision over a guy named Rodell Dupree. Learning his craft as a sparring partner for Jimmy Young, Earnie Shavers and later Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, Holmes quietly worked his way up the ladder, up the world rankings. Often fighting on the undercard of a big fight, of Ali’s or of George Foreman’s, Holmes was also often matched tough. Roy “Tiger” Williams and Earnie Shavers being two of the rough and tough fighters Holmes had to defeat on his way to a title shot.
But when his big chance finally came, at age 29, after 27 straight wins, Holmes made it count. Carrying an arm injury, Holmes nevertheless fought one of his greatest fights on June 9, 1978. In fact, some say Holmes’ epic 15 round win over Ken Norton was his finest hour. The fight was incredible, the final round perhaps the greatest in heavyweight history. Holmes edged Norton via split decision and he then set about racking up no less than 20 world title defences.
Among the formidable fighters Holmes defeated: Shavers (in a rematch that saw him decked heavily, Holmes somehow getting back up from a Shavers bomb that landed flush on his head, nobody really knows how), Mike Weaver, Trevor Berbick, Renaldo Snipes (Holmes again knocked down and seemingly in dire trouble only to again show astonishing recuperative powers), Gerry Cooney, Tim Witherspoon, Bonecrusher Smith and Carl Williams. Holmes, with his awesome left jab (the finest in the history of the division say most experts), his great conditioning, his determination, his solid chin and his all-round ability, beat the lot, eventually getting to a mightily impressive 48-0. We know what happened in fight #49. Holmes was beaten via a decision that perhaps ranks second only to Hagler’s decision loss to Leonard as far as most debated decisions go.
Hagler quit the sport in disgust after falling foul of the judges, Holmes fought on. For a further 26 fights.
Holmes lost another debatable decision to Spinks and his ‘Jinx,’ and Larry never again ruled as heavyweight champion. But even the old Larry Holmes was occasionally capable of pulling off a big win, as he proved in 1992, when he took the dangerous and tough Ray Mercer to school. Holmes was stopped just once, by Mike Tyson, this when the ex-champ had been lured back by Don King’s promise of a massive payday (and a lot longer amount of time in which to train and rid himself of getting on for two years of rust.)
Holmes could have called it a career after “losing” to Spinks. Instead, this man who loved fighting as much as he loved proving his critics wrong devoted himself to the sport for an additional ten-plus years. Today, Holmes is fully recognised as a special, special fighter. Hagler has sadly left us, but Holmes is still very much here.