Was Larry Holmes…”The Greatest”??

03.01.06 – By Kevin Kincade: I know, I know. There’s only one “Greatest”; but let’s open our minds, get past the rhetoric, and examine the in-ring accomplishments of this often overlooked and unheralded champion. The argument of “who was the best heavyweight who has ever lived” generally falls on the shoulders of two men: Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali. But is the answer so locked in that No One can challenge it? Is it really heresy to suggest that “The Easton Assassin” not only measures up to these two titans; but, quite possibly, surpasses them?

Is it that obscene of a question to ask? His numbers are comparable: 20 successful defenses, 7 years as world champion, 48 consecutive victories; or, to put it another way: only Joe Louis held the title longer (and he was inactive as a champion for 4 years during WWII), only Joe Louis made more title defenses (Muhammad Ali made 19 total defenses over the course of two reigns), and Holmes came within one win of tying Marciano’s record of 49-0 (and Holmes was 3 years older than Marciano when he racked up his 49th fight, while eclipsing Rocky’s defenses by 14). Folks, that’s not too shabby.

It couldn’t have been easy to be Larry Holmes following a fistic legend. It must have felt like a being a playwright in the time of Shakespeare or a struggling American musician following the British Invasion or an actor trying out for a part alongside Robert Dinero…..an utterly un-winnable situation. No matter what you do, how impressive you look, it’s never going to be enough; you’re never going to measure up. It simply can’t be done. How do you follow a demi-god?

Surely, Larry’s personality didn’t help matters, either. He was always at war with the press and came off as a guy with a Gibraltar-sized chip on his shoulder. “Rocky couldn’t carry my jock-strap” didn’t win Larry any fans, nor did “Mike Tyson’s going down in history as an S.O.B.” If Larry hadn’t made it as a fighter, he surely could have made a living as a contortionist, for I can think of no one as skilled as Holmes at putting both of his feet in his mouth at the same time. His pre-fight interviews made the purest scream from the very depths of his soul, “LARRY, SHUT UP AND FIGHT, ALREADY!!” I suspect if a fighter’s greatness were determined solely by his public relations skills, Larry Holmes would rank just slightly above Sonny Liston.

That’s it, isn’t it? That’s the key. We associate the word “champion” with the concept of being a role-model. That’s why Floyd Patterson was so popular as a champ, even though he wasn’t one of the best to ever hold the belt. I can think of very few people who would rank Patterson in their top 10 Heavyweight Champions of all time; but those same people would readily admit that Patterson wore the crown with class. Here’s a thought: If Larry Holmes had Floyd’s personality, would we rank Holmes at the top of the heap?

Public perception; it really does make a difference, as do our preconceived notions. It’s so hard to admit when we’re wrong, even in the face of irrefutable evidence. Of course, judging a boxer’s worth in the annals of time is a purely subjective endeavor, which is what make it so much fun…..and so nerve-racking. It wasn’t until after Larry had retired (the first time) that most people began to admit that he was “pretty good”. Larry had three strikes against him. He wasn’t highly touted as an amateur or as a young pro, he never came off in the press as the friendliest of guys, and he followed the most charismatic athlete of all time. If you throw in the fact that he used to be that athlete’s sparring partner, Larry’s strike-count climbs to four. That’s a lot of obstacles to overcome.

Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali were both groomed to be champions, though, in truth, no one really expected young Clay to beat Liston. Maybe that’s what helped Ali climb to the top in the some of the public’s mind…his continual defiance of the odds. People love someone who can overcome seemingly impossible barriers. Ali beat both Sonny Liston, and George Foreman, and took it one step further and defeated the mighty U.S. Government. Joe Louis beat the Color Bar by becoming the first Black Heavyweight Champion in twenty-two years and, then, stepped up by destroying the Arian Race’s unwilling representative and his former conqueror, Max Schmeling, on the Eve of World War II, becoming an authentic American Hero. How can anyone compete with that?!

Both Louis and Ali were larger than life characters in larger than life times; which greatly contributes to their lasting legacy. Poor old Larry came along at the end of one of the most turbulent eras in history and had no real dragons to slay. He had no fearsome threats like Sonny Liston or George Foreman or Nazi Germany. All he had in front of him were some pretty good fighters; but he beat them. Can anything else be asked of a fighter than to take on all comers and vanquish them? A fighter can not help when he is born or the environment of the world at the time he fights. All he can do is train hard and be the best he can be…..and Larry Holmes did just that.

Still, while we’re on the subject, how does Larry’s competition measure up to that of Louis and Ali’s? In “The Brown Bomber’s” pre-title days he beat some pretty fierce competition in former world champions Primo Carnera, Max Baer and Jack Sharkey as well as ranking contenders King Levinsky and Paulino Uzcudun. Baer was the Foreman of his day and was just months removed from losing the world title in an upset decision to Jim Braddock when Louis bounced him three times on the way to a fourth round stoppage. After kayoing Braddock in eight for the title, Louis defeated more men defending his belt than any other heavyweight champion ever to own the gold. Among the victims were such notable fighters as slick Englishman Tommy Farr, former world champion Max Schmeling, Big Abe Simon, Max Baer’s younger but bigger brother Buddy, former light-heavyweight champion, slick master-boxer Billy Conn, the explosive Lou Nova, the slick and awkward Arturo Godoy, the murderous punching Tami Mauriello, and the classic cutie Jersey Joe Walcott among many, many others…25 in all. Go ahead, check the record books. They weren’t all the bum of the month.

Ali? Well, for starters, he upset one of the most feared fighters of all time, Sonny Liston, to win the title in 1964. Then, during his first reign gained a mercy stoppage over former champ Floyd Patterson, humiliated WBA titlist Ernie Terrell, out-toughed tough man George Chuvalo, put on a dazzling display against faded puncher Cleveland Williams while stopping him inside three and kayoed Zora Folley in seven in his last defense before engaging in a three year battle with Uncle Sam. After the layoff, right out of the gate he stopped the #2 ranked fighter in the world, Jerry Quarry in three rounds on a serious cut and gave Oscar Bonavena the only knock-out defeat of his career in the fifteenth round before dropping a decision to then-champion, Joe Frazier. After the loss to Frazier, Ali beat contenders Jimmy Ellis, Buster Mathis, Mac Foster, Joe Bugner, and reigning Light Heavyweight Champion, Bob Foster among others before losing a split decision to Ken Norton. In his next fight, Ali returned the favor to Norton and then avenged his loss to Frazier before becoming only the second man in history to regain the heavyweight championship with a shocking eighth round knock-out over Sonny Liston’s protégé, George Foreman. Following Foreman, Ali took on all comers, like Louis, beating Frazier, Bugner, and Norton in rematches and taking on top contenders Ron Lyle, Jimmy Young, and possibly the hardest punching heavyweight who has ever lived, Earnie Shavers before losing his beloved belt in a huge upset to boxing novice, Leon Spinks. Still, he made history when he came back to decision Spinks in the Superdome and became the only man to ever win the linear Heavyweight Championship three times.

How does Holmes compare? Well, Larry didn’t start off his pro-career to much hoopla. It wasn’t until he faced and defeated the fearsome Shavers that the boxing public began to take him seriously. Then came his WBC Title victory over Ali’s old nemesis, Ken Norton, in a fight that could rival “The Thrilla in Manila” and Holyfield-Bowe I for most exciting heavyweight championship bout ever. No one was in their seats when the decision was announced in Holmes favor. Following his harrowing display of courage in winning the title, Larry, like Louis and Ali before him, turned no challenger away. Over the next seven years, Larry took on any fighter the promoters could throw at him and emerged victorious every time, sometimes picking himself off the canvas to do so. Future WBA Champion Mike Weaver had him in serious trouble in the 10th before Larry came back in the very next round to drop “Hercules” twice before the referee called a halt to it. Everybody thought Larry was through when Earnie Shavers landed that big right hand in the 7th round of their rematch; but somehow, through some bottomless reservoir of heart, courage, and will, Larry got up and out lasted “Mr. Devastation”, finally stopping him in the 11th. Being World Heavyweight Champion meant everything to Larry Holmes and you could feel that every time he climbed through those ropes.

Other notable defenses include wins over future Alphabet Soup Titlists, Trevor Berbick, Tim Witherspoon, and James “Bonecrusher” Smith. Among future “champs”, Holmes also stopped the two men to precede him to the throne. Leon Spinks went down in 3 and an old Ali was forced to retire after 10. Throw in a few highly ranked and undefeated contenders such as Leroy Jones, Renaldo Snips, Gerry Cooney, and Carl “The Truth” Williams and what you’ve got is a resume that rivals those of both Louis and Ali. Seriously, do their records look that much better than Larry’s, if at all?

Here’s a hypothetical questions: If there hadn’t been WWII, if there hadn’t been the social revolution of the 1960’s, if the playing field were equal, would Holmes be considered the best? Ali and Louis both had extraordinary circumstances surrounding their reigns, Larry just had Reaganomics. Louis reigned four years longer; but he was inactive as champion for four of those years. Why isn’t Larry Holmes considered the Greatest Heavyweight of All Time, is it because Louis and Ali were better or is it because the times in which they reigned were more memorable? Think About That!

Joe had more power, Ali had more flash and pizzazz, and both had more charisma; but Larry had just as much heart and determination as the two of them and beat almost as many men of equal quality….maybe more. This is about boxing, isn’t it? Larry Holmes was your ordinary average guy with a fire in his belly who wanted to prove to the world that he was somebody. He didn’t have Ali’s hand or foot speed or Louis’ fearsome punch; but what he did have was heart and skill and the drive to make the most out of the talent he did have, which was considerable. In the end, if you take away the extracurricular circumstances, if you take away the “We’re gonna Win because God is on Our Side,” and “No Viet Cong Ever Called Me Nigger!” and focus just on what happened inside the ring, does Larry’s reign and accomplishments really differ that much?

Don’t misinterpret this piece. I’m merely playing the role of Devil’s advocate. By no means am I saying Larry Holmes was the Greatest Heavyweight Champion of All Time. All I’m trying to get across it that the question is indeed worth asking. Is He??

Questions or Comments: kevin.kincade@citcomm.com