Larry Holmes: The Fight For Acceptance
Timing is everything in life, probably even more so in sport. Larry Holmes had the unenviable task, an impossible one in many ways, of having to follow the greatest world heavyweight champion in history.
As Muhammad Ali faded as a fighter, and tragically his deteriorating health took away much more, Holmes had to follow the great man. Ali couldn’t be equalled, and Holmes fought for acceptance for much of his career.
A defeat to Duane Bobick in 1972 when he was fighting to be part of the American team for the Munich Olympics dogged him for years. Holmes was dropped in the opening round, he protested it was a slip, that was only the start of his nightmare.
Holmes lasted until the 3rd round, but he was officially warned twice in the 2nd for his clinching, before a third warning in the following round resulted in Holmes being thrown out for his excessive holding. The loss would hurt Holmes for many years. Accusations of a cowardly performance, crawling out of the ring in fear, a lack of heart, Holmes ended his amateur career to some degree of disgrace. Hopes of Olympic glory were over, at 22 and after a 19-3 resume Holmes turned professional.
Holmes always had it tough, nothing seemed to come easy for the future heavyweight champion of the world. Born in 1949, he grew up in Easton, Pennsylvania. A large family, eventually consisting of twelve children, living on the poor side of town, welfare checks helping to put food on the table. Standing in line at the American equivalent of food banks, his early life a far cry from what was to come.
Shining shoes in his early school days to help feed the family, later he would move on to shining cars, his siblings worked in factories to do the same. Holmes like many others living in that desperate street life environment did what he needed to survive. The not so straight and narrow. The chip on his shoulder, which never left him, evident even in those learning years.
The boxing apprenticeship started when he was 10, Wednesday night bar fights for the entertainment of the alcohol-induced customers. Street fights were plenty, Holmes said he went forty straight weekends undefeated.
Holmes would eventually find his way to a more acceptable way of using his fists. The amateur career grew, grinding steel in a Phillipsburg factory to help with the costs of his by now growing family of his own.
An early visit to Deer Lake to spar with Ali would become more regular which would help and hinder his own career in numerous ways. The black eye he got from his first spar with Ali he wore with pride, he referenced it as his badge of honour.
The way his amateur career ended meant Holmes turned professional with little fanfare or hope. The aftermath of the Bobick fight still lingered, unfairly labelled a ‘dog’ a quitter, winning titles looked remote.
Meagre purses, little reward or recognition and the struggle continued. The forgotten fighter, the Ali sparring partner, Holmes couldn’t find his place in the mix. There was always another fighter deemed more worthy of pushing. Holmes had his role, a cheap fighter to pad out a card. A running battle with Don King for his time and due reward never seemed to end.
But in 1976 Holmes finally saw light. He was 26, and undefeated in 21 fights. He reluctantly took a fight on eight days notice against fringe contender Roy Williams on the Ali-Jimmy Young undercard. King offered him $2,500, there was no negotiation.
It was a turning point, Holmes prevailed despite breaking his thumb in the fight. The injury kept him out for nearly nine months, no money, rising medical costs, even in victory there was no end to the struggles of life. Holmes called those months a black hole.
But the win got him ranked, finally, he was being noticed and making headway. It didn’t happen overnight, but taking the risk against Williams served its purpose.
With the promise of riches, Holmes was part of a tournament shown on ABC-TV which was supposed to crown a United States champion with the winning getting $150,000. Holmes had one fight on the unlikely setting of an aircraft carrier, before the tournament was cancelled. Accusations of rigged officials and records of fighters being inflated and the network pulled the plug.
Holmes carried on still looking for the big break. In 1978 it finally happened. In March Holmes took on the fearsome puncher Earnie Shavers. The long wait would not be in vain, Holmes didn’t waste his moment. Shavers was thoroughly outboxed, two judges gave Holmes every round.
Ali had just lost to the novice Leon Spinks in a seismic upset, and when Spinks gave Ali an immediate rematch, the WBC declared Ken Norton their new heavyweight champion. Norton had won a final eliminator over Jimmy Young and was the WBC mandatory challenger. Norton would defend his title against Holmes, it had taken five years but Holmes was finally out of the shadows.
Holmes still had questions to answer, particularly did he have the heart and desire to win in a tough gruelling fight, the Bobick fight was hard to shake off. Finally in Las Vegas, Holmes had a chance to make his point.
In one of the greatest heavyweight fights in history, everything his critics doubted about him, Holmes answered them. The heart and courage they said he lacked, he showed in undoubted abundance. Holmes entered the 15th and final round with the fight dead even. Those last savage three minutes were probably the finest in heavyweight history.
Richie Giachetti in his corner told him he had the fight won and stay away from Norton. Holmes knew better. The two fighters stood, they traded, they exchanged to win, to survive.
All three judges scored it by a single solitary point, but Holmes had two of them favouring him, and Norton would see his reign with a difference end before it had started. A heavyweight champion without an actual win in a title fight, he should have got his hand raised in his third meeting with Ali and easily could have against Holmes, a sport where the pen decides so much.
But Holmes, despite his heroics found acceptance harder to overcome. Ali beat Spinks later that year and was viewed by most as the true heavyweight champion. Norton was handed the title, beating him to claim the heavyweight throne was a tough sell.
Even when Ali retired after he beat Spinks, he was a tough act to follow. Holmes lacked the charismatic personality of his old employer, he wasn’t Ali and that was part of the problem.
Holmes defended his title seven times, but the opposition largely lacked or inspired, and Holmes failed to convince the masses. They still remembered, still craved what Ali brought to the dance. Despite finally retiring the presence of Ali would still loom large. Talk of a return gathered steam, and when a planned fight for the WBA title fell through, Ali turned his attention to his old hired hand.
It was a fight for many reasons Holmes couldn’t turn down. But he couldn’t win regardless of the outcome, beating Ali wouldn’t win over the fans. The old champion was a shell of what he once was, he had lost the retirement flab he had accumulated. But the mirror can’t hide the years of decay.
The fight in 1980 was a horrible watch, the great man reduced to a punching bag. Ali had nothing, age and medication had robbed him of everything. It was a relief to Holmes when Ali was finally rescued.
But the manner of the victory didn’t do anything for Holmes. It was in many ways a hollow win, it was the dirty side of boxing in full view for all the world to see. In different ways, both Holmes and Ali were victims of the dark side of boxing. He received death threats for beating Ali and little praise. Holmes hoped it would move his own career on, but many never forgave him for the beating he gave Ali. The fight left Holmes with the exact opposite of what he was looking for.
The fight for acceptance, appreciation and recognition was a long one, but eventually it came. As the years went on there were close calls, a big fight with race very much at the helm, regrettable comments but eventually Holmes got what he was looking for.
Many tried to bury him and his career. Holmes was too resilient and too good for that to happen.