When Leon Spinks upset the odds by beating Muhammad Ali, it sparked yet another round of political in-fighting, which culminated in Larry Holmes taking the world crown. The WBC demanded that Spinks face top contender Ken Norton after Neon Leon’s victory over Ali. The Spinks camp demurred, favouring a return bout with Ali. The WBC promptly stripped Spinks of his title and installed Norton as their heavyweight champion. Holmes would be his first challenger.
Holmes had spent four years as Ali’s sparring partner in the mid-1970s, and had only recently broken out of the legend’s shadow to make a name for himself in his own right. He felt that his victory over Roy Williams in 1976 was a turning point. Williams was a big man and a big hitter. Few relished the prospect of facing him, including Holmes. But it was business, it was what Holmes did, and he just got on with the job. He had been providing for himself since the age of 13, when he left school. A father at 17, he had always supported his family. Yet he was acutely aware that if it weren’t for boxing, his seventh-grade education was unlikely to open many other doors. This was the mentality of the man who faced, and beat, Roy Williams.
Victory over Norton
Two years later, on 10 June 1978, Holmes took his 27-fight unbeaten record into the ring against Ken Norton. Both men emerged with immense credit in what was one of the great contests in the sport’s history. Holmes took the fight to Norton from the start, clearly winning four of the first five rounds. Norton came back strongly in the middle part of the fight, but Holmes finished the stronger. The challenger looked the superior boxer throughout and won on a split Decision, none of the three judges having more than a point in it. Holmes was slumped in his corner, utterly exhausted, when the announcement was made.
After two comprehensive victories, over Alfredo Evangelista and Osvaldo Ocasio, Holmes faced Los Angeles heavyweight Mike Weaver, who was just breaking into the WBC’s top ten. Holmes stopped him in the 12th.
On 28 September, 1979, just three months after the Weaver fight, Holmes made his fourth defence, against Earnie Shavers. It was to have been Ken Norton, but Shavers had demolished Norton inside a round on the same card as the Holmes-Ocasio fight. ‘Now we’ll see if Holmes can take my punches,’ Shavers said after effectively ending Norton’s career.
Holmes had easily outpointed the rough, tough Shavers a year earlier. He won again in September 1979, but not without a scare or two. In round seven Shavers unleashed a right that landed with such power that Holmes later said he thought his head had exploded. Shavers was almost celebrating becoming champion, but Holmes somehow made it to his feet and went on to stop his man in the 11th.
Holmes fights his idol
Boxing fans had entertained the hope that Holmes might take on his mentor, hero and former employer Muhammad Ali. It looked as if that would never materialise after Ali announced his retirement at the end of 1978. An ill-advised comeback by The Greatest two years later meant that master and pupil would indeed face each other in the ring. It was to be a sad spectacle.
More immediately, Holmes was denied his rightful place as the undisputed heavyweight champion. After Ali’s retirement, the WBA was not about to bestow its title automatically on Holmes. Instead, the organisation sanctioned its own tournament. In October 1979, a month after the Holmes-Shavers fight, John Tate beat South Africa’s Gerry Coetzee and was duly declared holder of the WBA’s version of the title. Events then took a farcical turn when Tate was knocked out by Mike Weaver, in March 1980. Holmes’s earlier victory over Weaver should have settled the issue, but the WBA wouldn’t concede. Holmes had to be content with moral supremacy if not the actual unified title.
After three more quick-fire wins in 1980, Holmes finally got the fight he would rather not have had. His idol, Muhammad Ali, couldn’t resist the lure of another big payday and the chance to enhance his status even further by taking the title for a fourth time. ‘What I’m about to do is considered impossible by a human being,’ Ali declared. ‘People think Holmes will whup me. I’m going to come back and wipe out Holmes. I trained him. He is my little boy. I’ll eat him up.’ 3 8-year-old Ali was past backing up his words in the ring. It was a travesty and a mismatch. Ali covered up and barely threw a punch. Holmes paid his dues by refusing to go in for the kill, something he could have done with ease. Ali’s corner finally called it a day after ten rounds. Holmes shed a tear for his vanquished opponent.
Holmes was finally taken the distance by his next challenger, Canada’s Trevor Berbick. A mere points victory might have spoiled his record, but it meant that the Holmes juggernaut rolled on. By now he should have won over the fans. But for all his ruthless efficiency he lacked charisma. That, together with his defeat of the revered Ali, meant that the fans couldn’t quite take Holmes to their hearts.
Revenge over Leon Spinks
His next defence saw him stop former champion Leon Spinks in three brutal rounds. Normally, boxing was just business with Holmes; there was nothing personal. The exception was Spinks, who had made some disrespectful comments about the champion and his family. Holmes exacted swift revenge.
The following year, 1982, Holmes came up against the Irish-American Gerry Cooney. Publicists talked up the race factor: the Great White Hope taking on the black champion. It was redolent of the Willard-Johnson clash of 1915. Holmes let the media get on with it, but there was no extra edge to the fight as far as he was concerned. The two actually got on rather well. As far as the fight itself was concerned, it quickly became clear that Cooney was out of his depth against a man of Holmes’ class. It was all over in the 13th.
After four more victories, Holmes agreed to fight Marvis Frazier, Joe’s son, in a fight not sanctioned by the WBC. Holmes went ahead anyway, took Frazier Junior out in one, and handed back the WBC belt.
He took over the newly-formed International Boxing Federation’s version of the title. This left the WBC, like the WBA, scrambling around for a champion. These two titles passed through the hands of several boxers. But Holmes had either beaten the incumbents, or beaten men who had themselves scored victories against these so-called champions. Anyone analysing the situation dispassionately had to conclude that Holmes was the true champion.
Shaken by ‘Bonecrusher’
Holmes made harder work than anyone expected of his first IBF defence, in November 1984. James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith, who had dented Frank Bruno’s progress the previous May, had Holmes in trouble on a couple of occasions, but each time fell a punch short of capitalising on his good work. ‘He hit me hard, shook me up,’ Holmes admitted after the fight. He was somewhat fortunate that a severe cut to Smith’s eye finally ended the challenger’s chances in the 12th.
Some thought the tide had turned for Holmes, despite the fact that he had just won his 46th fight. There was talk of retirement, but not from Holmes, who now had his sights firmly on Rocky Marciano’s record mark of 49 straight victories.
Wins over David Bey and Carl Williams in 1985 moved Holmes to within one fight of his target. These two victories couldn’t disguise the fact that Holmes was undoubtedly a declining force. Even so, most pundits firmly believed that he would have no trouble reaching a goal which had now become an obsession for the champion. The reason was simple. His opponent was the light-heavyweight title-holder Michael Spinks, the latest boxer to attempt to step up and challenge for the greatest prize. Holmes was dismissive of his opponent’s chances. ‘How does that skinny boy think he’s going to hurt me? Surely not with his fists?’
As so often with heavyweight champions, or any top sportsmen facing an underdog, unwise predictions all too easily became hostages to fortune.
Above: Larry Holmes. Holmes dominated the heavyweight boxing scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Although Holmes became WBC champion in 1978, purists didn’t accept his claim to be world No.l until he fought Ali.
Born: Cuthbert, Georgia , USA. November 3 1949
Height: 6’3’ Weight: 211lbs.
Champion: 1978-1984 (lost IBF title in 1985)
Record: Won 67 (43 Kos) Lost 6