Larry Holmes: “One of the Greatest”

By Thad Moore on January 29, 2016
Larry Holmes: “One of the Greatest”
"Ali was one of my best friends. He took me places. He did things with me and for me."

“I dropped out of school in the seventh grade. Teachers told me if you don’t quit we’re going to throw you out…”

The impact of Muhammad Ali’s career on Larry Holmes cannot be overstated. Ali served as Holmes’ idol, mentor, sparring partner, and eventual opponent. Throughout Holmes’ illustrious career, which includes 7½ years atop the heavyweight division, along with 20 consecutive title defenses without a defeat, he owes much of that success to Ali.

Holmes, 66, explains that before becoming a fighter, he admired Ali for the way he carried himself. “I liked Ali growing up. I liked the [stuff] he talked. I liked Ali because he was always talking, getting under people’s skin,” said Holmes.

Ali saw Holmes fight as an amateur and invited Holmes to training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania. Holmes knew the experience of sparring with the legendary Ali would be invaluable. “Who do you go to but the best? For a whole year, I worked for Muhammad Ali with no pay,” Holmes continued. “When he started paying me, I got $500 a week. This gave me a home, somewhere to train with the best.”

During training camp, Ali taught Holmes lessons both inside and outside of the ring. “Ali was one of my best friends. He took me places. He did things with me and for me. He would try and hit me and hurt me in the ring for respect. I had a lot of respect from him. I was [like] his main sparring partner. Whenever he wanted to work really hard, he would call me.”

When the Holmes-Ali fight was announced, this made the situation uncomfortable for Holmes. “I told him (Ali) he was done before he stepped in the ring. In promotion, Ali said he was going to kick my ass. I said OK, fine. I went along with it. I never go 100% on a guy when I know he is hurt. Ali was hurt,” Holmes said. Holmes went on to win and retain his WBC heavyweight title after Ali’s corner threw in the town after the 10th round.

Holmes was born in Cuthbert, Georgia, and moved to Easton, Pennsylvania, when he was five. Boxing was introduced to Holmes at an early age after he got into trouble at school. “I dropped out of school in the seventh grade. Teachers told me if you don’t quit we’re going to throw you out. I was big for my age, played football, and was popular with the girls. I got into teachers’ fights. I wouldn’t let them beat me up. A lot of the white girls and black girls liked me. I liked the white girls. I told the black girls to go to hell.” Holmes continued, “I was walking up the steps and I hit one of them on the butt and she stabbed me eight or nine times with a pencil. The teachers told me to go home. That was it. I was out.”

Holmes’ happiest moment in the sport was winning the WBC heavyweight title from Ken Norton by 15-round split decision. The classic fight between the two warriors was the clear high point of Holmes’ career. “A lot of people said I would never be heavyweight champion,” Holmes said. “I won the title and celebrated being heavyweight champion of the world. They said you can’t make it, Larry. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be champion. I stayed champion for 7½ years. I stayed there. I fought everybody. I would fight every week if I could.”

During the highly competitive Norton fight, both fighters had to dig deep in the championship rounds. Holmes found a unique way during the final rounds against the slightly favored Norton and throughout his career to find extra energy: “I would say to myself c’mon body don’t fail me now. Especially when you’re tired, I would sing a song in my head 10 more miles, five more miles, one more mile. When there’s one more round it really seemed to help me out. Something in my mind said body don’t fail me now.”

Holmes has positive recollections about his 1981 title defense against Renaldo Snipes. Holmes, who was leading on all scorecards, suffered a knockdown in the seventh round. Snipes caught Holmes with a right hand early in the seventh to score the knockdown and Holmes fought back aggressively to make it the best round of the fight. The champion, who retained his WBC heavyweight title, eventually won by 11th-round TKO.

“It was a knockdown. I was hurt. He knocked the crap out of me. He hit me real good. I was beating him up and I dropped back with my hands down and he hit me—Bam! I went down to the floor. I found myself crawling up, pulling myself up by the ropes,” Holmes said. “I looked over and he was dancing and smiling and I said I can’t let this guy get me. I recover pretty good. When Snipes hit me, I didn’t see it. When you get hit, you hear something go bang and a noise goes off in your head.”

The hardest puncher that Holmes said he ever faced was Earnie Shavers. Just as he had done during the Snipes bout, Holmes recovered from a knockdown to win. Holmes won a lopsided decision over Shavers in 1978, but in the rematch Holmes was caught with a hard right hand that knocked him down late in round seven. Holmes was hurt, but Shavers only had seconds to follow up before the end of the round. Holmes went on to win by 11th-round TKO to retain his WBC heavyweight crown.

Holmes, who was recently honored with a statue in his adopted hometown of Easton, said that he and Shavers earned each other’s respect and have been life-long friends. “I tell everyone that I have a knot on my head from where he (Shavers) hit me,” said Holmes. Holmes lists his work ethic as a big reason why he was able to be so successful. When other fighters were hurt, they would often get stopped. Holmes had the heart, desire, and conditioning to get up from the canvas and come back and win. “I always stayed in shape. Not a lot of other people did. I worked hard.”

Holmes’ fight against future two-time champion Tim Witherspoon in 1983 was one of his most difficult title defenses. “I was fighting everybody. I was just going through the motions and I was getting ready to quit. I fought anybody they put in front of me. I wanted to get the money. I wanted to live happily. I didn’t and don’t owe anyone any money,” said Holmes. Holmes beat Witherspoon by 12-round split decision to retain the WBC heavyweight championship.

Another challenging title defense for Holmes was his fight against Carl “The Truth” Williams. Holmes won the highly contested bout by 15-round unanimous decision to retain the IBF heavyweight title. The champ lists the late Williams as the best pure boxer that he ever fought. “He boxed. Everything I did, he did. He was the man. It was a hard fight for me. This guy was knocking the [stuff] out of me. I asked him, did he copy off me? He said he copied off the best. He said he studied you Larry and wanted to be just like you,” admitted Holmes.

Holmes retired after his title reign ended with back-to-back losses to Michael Spinks. He did make several comebacks, the first being his challenge to a dominant, in his prime, Iron Mike Tyson. Holmes landed a couple of good combinations in the fourth round, prior to Tyson stopping him in that same round. Tyson retained the undisputed heavyweight title.

“It was time for me to take over (early in the fourth round). I felt like I could get him. I didn’t expect him to hit me. I swear to God if they had given me two more weeks to train, I would have kicked Mike Tyson’s ass. They would have said and new (heavyweight champion of the world). My timing was off. When I brought my hands up to block the punch, I couldn’t bring it up high enough or far enough. Mike had to come up and hit me on top of the head. That’s what gave him the fight,” said Holmes.

Two of his former opponents are quick to praise Holmes. James “Bonecrusher” Smith, who fought and lost to Holmes twice, is quick to point out what set Holmes apart. “Larry was experienced. He was always thinking. He was real good. He had a real strong jab and he was real quick. He crossed that right hand. It was really good. He had all the shots,” said Smith.

Witherspoon is very complimentary about Holmes’ strengths. Among heavyweights, only the great Joe Louis had more consecutive successful title defenses with 25. “Larry had a good jab and right hand. Holmes was the greatest heavyweight champion of that era. He would get off the canvas and knock guys out.” Witherspoon said, “He had great determination. Larry had great heart. Larry and I are good friends.”

Holmes wants people to look back on his career and reflect on what he was able to accomplish both in and out of the ring. “Boxing’s been good to me. I want to be remembered as a good guy. I wanted to have a clean reputation. I don’t want to think I’m better than you or anybody else. They can compare my record with anyone’s record. I may not be the greatest, but I am one of the greatest heavyweights of all time,” said Holmes.

Larry Holmes fought in a difficult time following one of the greatest fighters the sport has ever seen, Muhammad Ali. However, Holmes’ greatness should stand alone, and his heart and desire should be unquestioned.  His skills are among the best the heavyweight division has ever seen. For that, he should always be recognized.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

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  1. Jethro's Flute 03:47pm, 02/09/2016

    Nicolas is right, Holmes is highly unpleasant.

    ““It was time for me to take over (early in the fourth round). I felt like I could get him. I didn’t expect him to hit me. I swear to God if they had given me two more weeks to train, I would have kicked Mike Tyson’s ass”

    That tells its own story.

    Holmes is the undisputed king of goalpost-shifting and excuses.

    At 38, he had no chance against Tyson and still does not admit that he made a mistake fighting him.

  2. tuxtucis 05:44am, 02/01/2016

    I think his best performance, by far, was his first fight with Shavers.

  3. Mike Tyson 07:55pm, 01/30/2016

    They forgot to mention one of the greatest fights of his career where he showed a lot of guts and determination to win a close decision. That was his fight with the great BUTTERBEAM!  WHOA!

  4. nicolas 02:11pm, 01/30/2016

    While I never can question Holmes’s greatness as a boxer, and I have him in my top five all time, as champion I feel his reign left a little to be desired. Often the defenders will say that Holmes was disliked because of either the Ali era before, or just racism. For me though, watching him on TV, he was just an unpleasant man. Also for me he never gave rematches to people who gave him tough fights. Yes later on in his career I do believe that he fought Mike Weaver, and did fight James Bonecrusher Smith, but that was when they were basically all very old. After beating Norton by razor thin split decision he fought Occasion and Evangelista. really when Norton was fighting Shavers, he really should have been fighting Holmes. I don’t think he would have won, but I remember a comment he made before, that Norton would have to wait in line like everyone else. he was very rude about the Witherspoon fight afterwards, and never gave Tim a rematch. I think in his older age, he has somewhat mellowed out, and appears to be much nicer now, as seen with his appearances with Gerry Cooney.

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:26am, 01/30/2016

    Great write up….let’s us get a peek inside Larry’s noggin….his boxing IQ was/is off the charts. He must have been a handful in Junior High….reminds me of an asshole classmate of mine in seventh grade in ‘51 who jumped up and stabbed Mr. Fisher in the neck with one of them old timey ink pens with a nib. Mr. Fisher who was stocky, strong was just barely able to get that bugger under control and out of the room. The next day the miscreant’s fat ass Mom came to school and threw a shit fit at Mr. Fisher for defending himself. Yea….this shit has been going on forever folks!

  6. peter 07:21am, 01/30/2016

    Holmes is top ten.

  7. Eric 06:58am, 01/30/2016

    Oops. How could I leave a prime Tyson out of the top 10. My mistake. Tyson shows up after Liston at # 6. Drop Larry to numero 11 on my list.

  8. Eric 06:54am, 01/30/2016

    Not a big Holmes fan, but I have to give credit where credit is due, Holmes in his prime was always in shape. Can’t question Larry’s heart either, he showed grit in his wars with Weaver & Norton. The Shavers & Snipes fights is another testament to Larry’s ticker. Going into the Norton fight, Holmes had carried the reputation of maybe having some canine in his blood. This had followed Holmes around since his loss to Bobick in the amateurs. Larry proved that rumor to be false. BIG heart. I’ve seen Holmes ranked as high as the top 5 on occasion, and often just outside of it, I wouldn’t rank Larry that high given his competition. I would rank Holmes in the top 10 behind Ali, Louis, Foreman, Lewis, Liston, Wlad, Vitali, Dempsey, and Marciano.

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