Earnie Shavers, Renaldo Snipes, Tim Witherspoon. Three fine fighters who have one thing in common: they each came within a whisker of either stopping or knocking out the great Larry Holmes. Throughout his long and distinguished career, Holmes earned the utter respect and admiration of his critics, largely due to the incredible recuperative powers he had.
In the three fights recalled here especially, Holmes was able to somehow fight back from apparently unavoidable disaster and, digging deep, pull out a win many a lesser fighters would never have been able to manage. Holmes had plenty of fine attributes as a fighter – his famed left jab, his stamina, his big right hand and his longevity. But for many, it was Holmes’ astonishing ability to come back from what looked like certain defeat, to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, that made him one of the top three or four greatest heavyweights in history.
September, 1979, Las Vegas.
Holmes, making the fourth defence of the heavyweight championship he had won by defeating Ken Norton in an all-time classic, met the murderous punching Earnie Shavers in a rematch. Holmes was boxing well, picking up points and seemingly on the way to a repeat decision win over the shaven-headed slugger. But then, in round seven, Shaver’s belted Holmes with a savagely placed right hand of a bomb to the jaw. Holmes went down in a heap, looking for all the world like a man who had been felled with a gun.
Somehow, to this day nobody really knows how, Holmes, motionless for a few seconds, then stirred himself and got back up. On unsteadly legs, Holmes then managed to scrape himself through the remainder of the round. Has any heavyweight champion ever managed to get back up from such a deadly punch, one with KO written all over it, and win? Perhaps not.
Holmes eventually scored a TKO over a badly fatigued and busted up Shavers, stopping him in the 11th.
November, 1981, Pittsburgh.
Making the eleventh defence of the crown, Holmes faced an unbeaten challenger in the form of Renaldo Snipes. Once again a massive, perfectly placed right hand had Holmes down and hurt and walking on queer street. And once again it was round number seven when apparent disaster struck. After a torrid sixth round, Holmes and Snipes continued to trade in the seventh. Snipes than caught Holmes with a monster right hand that landed flush. Holmes fell like a stone, perhaps even more hurt than he had been by Shavers (if that’s possible). Up quickly, Holmes then stumbled face-first into the corner-buckle of a neutral corner.
Snipes went right at the dazed champ as battle commenced yet Holmes fought back – to the extent that he had Snipes hurt later in the round while he himself never looked buzzed again. Truly incredible. Snipes was already celebrating his upset victory as Holmes was down. But Holmes proved again how legendary his recuperative powers truly were.
Eventually, as he had done to Shavers, in yet another similarity to that fight, Holmes got the TKO win in round eleven.
May, 1983, Las Vegas.
Making the fifteenth defence of his title, Holmes met another unbeaten challenger. Tim Witherspoon never managed to drop Holmes, but it could be argued how “Terrible Tim” came closer than both Shavers and Snipes did in actually beating the all-time great. Witherspoon opened up in dramatic style in round nine, hitting a tired Holmes with combinations that had him reeling at least twice. Looking all-in, both tired and hurt, Holmes was teetering on defeat. Had a referee other than the ultra-experienced Mills Lane have been officiating the fight, Holmes might have been stopped.
Witherspoon fought to the final bell, having further moments of success. But Holmes, who could so easily have lost his title on the score-cards, was awarded a controversial split verdict. Holmes had perhaps fought through the toughest fight of his career since beating Norton to become champion.
There is no doubt when looking back, Larry Holmes was one special, special fighter. On any other given night against just about any other defending heavyweight champion, Shavers, Snipes and Witherspoon would have walked away with the title after having done what they did in rounds 7, 7, and 9. But as each member of this near-miss trio found out, Holmes was no ordinary champion.