AS 1980 dawned, John Tate may have had the WBA title belt in his possession, but there was only one world heavyweight champion and his name was Larry Holmes.
“The Easton Assassin” got his WBC strap the hard way, winning an epic 15-rounder over Ken Norton in June 1978, and following that bout, he successfully defended his title four times through 1979, stopping Alfredo Evangelista, Ossie Ocasio, Mike Weaver and Earnie Shavers in succession.
Evangelista and Ocasio were easy, Weaver was tougher, but it was Shavers who nearly dethroned the champion when he landed a flush right hand in the seventh round of their rematch that sent Holmes crashing to the canvas.
“You know, I was champ for five seconds,” laughed Shavers when recalling the fight in a 2018 interview. “Larry got up and he wasn’t happy.”
Over 40 years after that fight, Holmes does not dispute this statement.
“He made me mad,” laughed the champ, who went on to stop Shavers in the 11th round. It was just what he did.
“I wanted to prove people wrong,” said Holmes. “If Earnie Shavers knocked me out, you know what they’d be saying about me?”
As feisty as ever at 70, Holmes recalls those days as being ones where every fight was a test to show that he was not just a worthy successor to Muhammad Ali, but a great fighter in his own right. In 1980, four more title defenses followed, including a 10th round stoppage of Ali that took him out of the shadow of “The Greatest” in the eyes of many. But not everybody.
They said, ‘Well, he was old,’” recalled Holmes. “I never could win. But I don’t really care.”
What Holmes did care about was piling up the wins, the title defenses, and the paydays, and he scored on all three fronts.
“I was greedy, I was hungry,” he laughs. “I wanted to prove to people that I could fight, for one thing, and I wasn’t just a fly-by-nighter. People used to tell me that I can’t do it, and I said, ‘Okay, fine. I can’t do it.’ But I just kept on going – actions speak louder than words.”
Ultimately, Holmes would run his record to 48-0 with 20 successful title defenses before losing his unbeaten slate and his heavyweight crown to Michael Spinks in 1985. He never lost that competitive fire, though, as he fought on and off for another 17 years until he outpointed Eric “Butterbean” Esch at the age of 52.
It was a great career, to put it mildly, one that landed him in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2008 and in the upper level of any list of great heavyweights. But when he turned pro in March 1973, there were questions about Holmes. Could he compete at the elite level? Was his disappointing loss to Duane Bobick in the 1972 Olympic Box-offs an aberration or a sign of things to come?
Fans at the Catholic Youth Center in Scranton, Pennsylvania would get the answers before the rest of the world did, as Holmes made his bones 70 miles from his home in Easton.
“That was my home,” said Holmes. “(Promoter) Lou DelVecchio kept bringing me up there, along with Ernie Butler as my trainer, and I just went out there and fought all the New Jersey guys and the Philadelphia guys and anybody they brought in there. I was happy I was doing it. The people in Easton would say, ‘You can’t fight, you ain’t gonna be nothin.’”
They loved him in Scranton, though, and he fought nine times in the Catholic Youth Center, bringing in fans who were intrigued by the heavyweight prospect.
“We would fill that damn place up,” said Holmes, who pulled in a grand total of $63 for his debut win over Rodell Dupree. The paydays would eventually get better, but for the time being, Holmes was paying his dues while serving an apprenticeship as a sparring partner for the likes of Ali and Joe Frazier.
It was while working with Ali that Holmes began thinking of boxing as more than a way for a young man with a seventh-grade education to make a living. He began to believe he could be great.
“What made think that I had a chance to be the heavyweight champ of the world was when I was with Muhammad Ali,” he said. “I wasn’t really trying to hurt him, but just to work with him and learn, and that’s when I knew I was going to be champion. When he went all out to try to get me out of the ring and knock me out, I stood in there and fought. I got black eyes, but that was with Muhammad Ali.”
Holmes laughs, recalling similarly rough days with “Smokin’ Joe.”
“He broke my ribs but I said I ain’t quitting. I’m working with Joe Frazier. I’m not gonna quit.”
The sparring with Ali has always received the lion’s share of attention, but what of his time in the ring with Frazier? What did those sessions look like?
“I ran my ass off,” he laughs. “I was a mover, man. Joe couldn’t touch me. He used to call me ‘The Roadrunner.’ I was not gonna stay in there and let Joe bang me up in the ribs and everything. He caught me one time. One time.”
He pauses, then continues.
“I think about Joe a lot,” Holmes said of Frazier, who died in 2011. “Joe was my man. Ali would call him names and Joe said to me, ‘I like Ali, but he calls me all kinds of names, trying to embarrass me, and that’s why I bang the s**t out of him. I’m trying to bust him up.’
“But I learned from both of them,” he continues. “Joe was a good guy, but he would bang you out because he was trying to get prepared for his fight. And if you got knocked down, like I saw him put guys like Jimmy Young down, they’d say what happened, and he’d say, ‘That was the one you didn’t duck, motherf**ker.’ Ali didn’t show off or try to bang you out until a lot of pretty women came into the gym! You gotta be ready, then. You gotta fight.”
They were tough times for the young heavyweight prospect, but it was when he got his PhD in the sport, something college could never give him. And as fondly as he remembers Frazier, he shares the same feelings for Ali, who passed away in 2016.
“Ali was a good guy,” said Holmes. “He let me hang in the gym more than anybody, I think. He treated me well every day until the day he died. He liked me.”
Holmes recalls a conversation with Ali where he admitted that he still wasn’t getting respected back in his hometown.
“I said, ‘Man, look, there’s a lot of people down in Easton say that I don’t know you. Can you come down and show these motherf**kers that I know you and you’re my man, you’re my boss?”
Ali didn’t hesitate. Soon, he was in Easton, visiting every place he could to let them know who Larry Holmes was.
“He went to the schools, went to the courthouse, you know how big that made me?” said Holmes. “Ali going to visit the prison, going to the school for Larry Holmes. I couldn’t thank him enough for that. He was a good man.”
Soon, Holmes wouldn’t need any assistance in letting the world know who he is, and in his eyes, his fistic breakthrough came when he brought his 21-0 record to Landover, Maryland in April 1976 to face the criminally underrated Roy Williams.
“My biggest test was Roy Williams,” said Holmes. “Six-foot-five, two hundred something pounds. He used to beat up Ali every night in the gym. But I stayed moving, I stayed on the side and used my left hand. That’s what won me the fight, my left hand.”
That left hand won Holmes a lot of fights, his jab considered to be one of the most potent weapons in boxing history. And two years after beating Williams, he was a world champion and on his way to a Joe Louis-esque string of excellence at the top. He retired after losing a rematch to Spinks in 1986, but a knock on the door a couple years later brought him back to face a heavyweight wrecking machine named Mike Tyson.
“Don King didn’t call me,” said Holmes. “He came and knocked on my door. I was home, watching TV, and the knock came at the door. I go check the door and open it – BAM, ‘Don King, what the hell are you doing here?’”
“I got you something,” said King. “I got you a fight.”
“Oh s**t, I ain’t fighting Mike. Two years I have not gotten ready for a fight. Two years. And you’re gonna come up and say fight Mike Tyson? I can’t whup Mike Tyson.”
“Well, Larry, there’s three million dollars for you.”
“Three million dollars? Where’s Mike? Go get that motherf**ker.”
Holmes laughs, mimicking King’s unforgettable cackle and noting that he also received $500,000 in cash from the promoter that night.
“It’s kinda hard to turn down money,” said Holmes. “There’s only one guy that I seen that turned down a lot of money in my boxing career. You might know who that is.”
“Nah, we would have fought him ten times a week,” he said before revealing the name as George Foreman.
“He was the one that I wanted to fight,” said Holmes of the 1999 bout between the heavyweight greats that was ultimately scrapped due to financial issues. “The guy [promoter Roger Levitt] brought money to us and gave me four hundred thousand dollars to sign the contract. And he gave George Foreman a million dollars to sign the contract. So we go along, and he’s supposed to get a certain amount of money to George by a certain time. He missed the damn date and George said I don’t want to fight.”
It may be the only regret Holmes has when it comes to opponents he never got to meet in the ring.
“I wanted him,” said Holmes of “Big George.” “I was gonna kick his ass. I still call him and say, ‘George, you should have took that fight.’ He was gonna get 10 (million) and I was gonna get four.”
That’s a far cry from $63 against Rodell Dupree, but Holmes did all right for himself even without the Foreman fight, and he was smart with his money and smart outside the ring in terms of his lifestyle. He’s even been married for 40 years to his wife Diane.
“I’ve got a good woman and she got a good man,” said Holmes, who still may lace on the gloves one more time for a rematch with foe turned friend Gerry Cooney.
Settle down, folks, it’s an exhibition for charity. That doesn’t mean the 70-year-old Holmes is going to show up out of shape to meet his 63-year-old foe.
“When me and Gerry Cooney put on this exhibition, I’m gonna be ready, in case Gerry gets mad at me and hits me with something,” he laughs. “I’m gonna have to hit him back. Gerry might want to get even with me, but I told him already I ain’t gonna be having no s**t. We’re gonna go out there and box, put a headguard on and big gloves on and we’re gonna box. But I don’t want it to be a real fight. I like Gerry.”
And the world likes Larry Holmes right back. As for the whole greatest heavyweight of all-time debate, Holmes chooses not to engage in such discussions.
“I never thought I was the greatest fighter of all-time and I never said to myself I could be one of the greatest fighters of all-time,” he said. “I don’t get into that. I’m the luckiest one and the blessed one for all the times I spent in the ring and meeting the people that I’ve met. I’m just blessed. I did what I needed to do and I didn’t need to prove it to others; I needed to prove it to myself.”