Larry Holmes vs. Mike Tyson—Who Would Win in their Primes?

By Thad Moore on June 13, 2016
Larry Holmes vs. Mike Tyson—Who Would Win in their Primes?
"Holmes would have been quicker, but Tyson was so hard to hit because of his style.”

“Tyson was never a straight target. He was always weaving and ducking. Larry was a straight up fighter. He was easier to hit than Tyson…”

We have all heard people create hypothetical who-will-win scenarios throughout boxing history. Today, I am exploring who would emerge victorious in an in their prime matchup between boxing champions Larry Holmes and “Iron” Mike Tyson. Picture the “Easton Assassin” in 1981 against Tyson circa 1988. Holmes and Tyson common opponents Marvis Frazier, James “Bonecrusher” Smith and Jose Ribalta weigh in as to who would win this fantasy bout.

As a heavy underdog, Frazier would challenge WBC heavyweight champion Holmes on NBC in prime-time in 1983. Since Frazier was unranked, the match went off as a non-title bout. Many criticized the Frazier camp for agreeing to take the fight, as this was just Marvis’ 11th professional bout. Holmes had a record of 44-0 with 31 knockouts. Fans at ringside paid $300 to watch the two go head-to-head. 

The 23-year-old Frazier was on the wrong end of a Holmes left jab, followed by a big right hand that put him on the canvas with one minute left in the first round. Frazier was able to get up, but was noticeably hurt. Holmes wasted no time in ending the fight by landing thunderous right after right. The titleholder waved in referee Mills Lane, who eventually stopped the fight.  Afterward Holmes said, “I didn’t want to hurt him.”

In 1986, Frazier would challenge the dominant “Iron” Mike Tyson. Tyson brought a record of 24-0 (22 KOs) into the ring and was just coming off a second round knockout of Lorenzo Boyd. Frazier, 16-1 (7 KOs) was fresh off a six-fight winning streak after the Holmes defeat. His most recent victory was one of the best of his career, a 10-round unanimous decision win over “Bonecrusher.” Tyson was deemed by many to be the heir apparent to the heavyweight title and was ranked number two by the WBC. Frazier was ranked fourth by the IBF.

Shortly after the bell rang, Tyson landed a right uppercut in the center of the ring as Marvis retreated to the corner. Tyson set-up Frazier by using the left jab and then landed two big right uppercuts against the ropes. The final blow connected as Frazier was already out on his feet. Referee Joe Cortez started to count, but quickly stopped and called a halt to the proceedings just 30 seconds into round one. Tyson said afterward, “I’m the best fighter in the world.”

Frazier stresses how challenging it was to have to go to battle against Holmes: “His jab and his right hand are so strong. He was a great fighter. When he knocked me down, the first thing that came to mind was that I wasn’t ready.”

Frazier discusses Tyson in his prime: “His uppercut was powerful. He knocked a lot of guys out with that. He was a tough guy and a warrior.”

The Philadelphia native said it was difficult for him to decide between Holmes and Tyson. Frazier on his prediction of what would happen if the two men met at their peak: “When Larry hit me, I got back up. When Mike hit me I was out and down for the count. Mike hit harder than Larry. I think he would have been able to get inside Larry and hit him with uppercuts. I think Mike would win.”

In 1984, “Bonecrusher” challenged Holmes for the IBF heavyweight crown. The bout was expected to be a tune-up for Holmes, who in his most recent ring action had knocked out Frazier. Smith earned the title shot by besting undefeated Frank Bruno in England via a 10th round knockout. “Bonecrusher” entered the ring with a record of 14-1 with 12 KOs. The reason for the match taking place was that Holmes’ two scheduled fights with John Tate and Gerrie Coetzee had to be cancelled. Enter Smith, the IBF’s 10th ranked contender.

While the champion controlled most of the contest with his left jab, followed by the straight right, “Bonecrusher” had his moments. In the fifth round, Smith landed a right that stunned the titleholder. Holmes relied on his experience to tie up the challenger until his head was clear. Again in the eighth, “Bonecrusher” caught Holmes with a right that forced the champion to hold once again. Smith was also effective in landing his left jab in this stanza.

Holmes’ trainer Eddie Futch was able to get “The Easton Assassin” to settle down and use his boxing skills the rest of the way until he stopped “Bonecrusher” on cuts in the 12th round.

In 1987, “Bonecrusher” challenged Tyson, reigning WBC heavyweight king. Smith earned this opportunity by scoring an upset victory by a first round TKO over WBA champion, “Terrible” Tim Witherspoon. Tyson was coming off of a second round stoppage of Trevor Berbick to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history. Tyson was 28-0 with 26 KOs and “Bonecrusher” was 19-5 with 14 KOs. Tyson was 13 years younger, Smith had an 11-inch reach advantage, and Tyson was a seven to one betting favorite.

The unification match excited many in the boxing community, who expected a short fight that promised to be a brawl. Instead, “Bonecrusher” held for 12 rounds drawing boos from the Las Vegas crowd. Tyson was able to land, but was often tied up before he could put together a series of combinations. Smith did not have offense on his mind in this contest and when he finally let his hands go at the end of the 12th, he appeared to stun Tyson with a combination. It came way too late as the bell sounded.

Smith analyzes Holmes’ strengths: “Larry trained with Muhammad Ali and definitely had a strong boxing background. His jab and lateral movement was strong. He knew what he was doing in the ring and was always thinking. Larry was so quick, was strong mentally and knew how to win. Larry had all the shots.”

On Tyson’s attributes in the ring: “He was the most difficult to hit. Tyson would crouch down and he was a short target. He would stop the punches. He had a great left hook and could really punch. I was a little bit intimidated by him, I must admit.”

Smith, who was in the ring with each man for 12 rounds, understands that their styles are vastly different. Since both performed at an elite level, he contends that each would be challenging to go up against and could have fought in any era. “Bonecrusher” was pleased to describe how a head to head matchup would go.

“The Tyson I fought you had to be very strong to tie him up. I don’t think Larry could’ve done it. Tyson was never a straight target. He was always weaving and ducking. Larry was a straight up fighter. He was easier to hit than Tyson. I think it would’ve been Mike controlling him and knocking him out. Mike would’ve gotten inside and got him on the ropes and stopped him.”

In 1988, heavyweight contender Ribalta climbed into the ring with the undefeated Tyson. Tyson was ranked number one by the WBA and Ribalta eighth. Tyson entered the fray just one month removed from his victory over Frazier. Ribalta, 22-3-1 (15 KOs), had just defeated journeyman, Rick Keller. Tyson connected with explosive body punches that shook Ribalta throughout the fight.  Ribalta’s best work was courtesy of the right uppercut. In fact, in the sixth round, he was able to draw blood from Tyson’s nose. Some in attendance got behind Ribalta’s gutsy effort by chanting “Ribalta” at the start of the eighth round.

Tyson then pushed his attack into overdrive and the end was near. In the 10th and final round, Ribalta got back up after being knocked down for the final time and Tyson stopped him with a combination punctuated by a strong left hook. Tyson scored knockdowns in the second, eighth, and 10th rounds. According to HBO Punchstat, “Iron Mike” was able to land an astonishing 68% of his punches during their bout.

In 1993, as Ribalta’s career was drawing to a close, he challenged former heavyweight champion, Holmes. Holmes dictated the action with his left jab and right hand. Ribalta had a difficult time getting inside of Holmes’ long arms to put together a consistent attack. The best punch of the fight was landed by Holmes in the eighth as he knocked down Ribalta with a big overhand right.

As “El Nino” would try and throw his jab, Holmes was almost always quicker at the point of attack. Ribalta’s best blows of the fight were his left hook and right hand to the body, which periodically landed. It was not enough as Holmes scored a 10-round unanimous decision.

Ribalta on Holmes’ expertise in the squared circle: “Larry was a great fighter. His jab was tremendously strong. He had a great right hand and he could punch too. He told me I never hit anyone that hard with the right hand as he did to me.”

On his experience squaring off against Tyson: “He was very powerful and strong. When I fought Tyson, I saw how quick he was. I thought he was a guy who was just big and strong. I was wrong. He had great speed that was really amazing. At that time, Tyson didn’t have any weaknesses.”

Ribalta understands and appreciates that he had the rare opportunity to battle two revered champions. However, he was clear in his assessment as to who would be triumphant.

“Holmes would have been quicker, but Tyson was so hard to hit because of his style. When Tyson would jab, he would turn sideways which made him tough to hit. He also had great head movement. Tyson had great speed and could really hit you. Tyson would knock Holmes out in the middle rounds, around the sixth.”

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Larry Holmes vs Marvis Frazier

Mike Tyson VS Marvis Frazier 1986-07-26

Mike Tyson vs. Jose Ribalta

1993-09-28. Larry Holmes - Jose Ribalta 1/3

1993-09-28. Larry Holmes - Jose Ribalta 2/3

1993-09-28. Larry Holmes - Jose Ribalta 3/3

Larry Holmes | James 'Bonecrusher' Smith I 1/5

Larry Holmes | James 'Bonecrusher' Smith I 2/5

Larry Holmes | James 'Bonecrusher' Smith I 3/5

Larry Holmes | James 'Bonecrusher' Smith I 4/5

Larry Holmes | James 'Bonecrusher' Smith I 5/5

Mike Tyson - James Smith. 1987-03-07

1987-03-07 Mike Tyson vs James Smith (full fight)

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  1. Dudette 02:10pm, 01/13/2019

    The Holmes of 1980, when he beat Ali…

    Larry just can’t miss with the jab for the first four rounds, and catches Tyson with several flashing combinations, more than a couple of those shots back Tyson up. Tyson chases a freakily light footed Holmes and gets so frustrated he pushes the latter man down in the fifth. Tyson starts getting to Holmes in the sixth, shaking him once or twice, then knocks Larry down in the seventh. Holmes shows the heart of a champion (something Tyson never had) and actually catches Mike with a couple of killer right hands as he comes in for the kill. From there Larry loses a couple of rounds, one after the ninth when he nearly stopped Mike with a freak right uppercut that buckled him. Tyson tries to take advantage of Holmes’ slowing down and thinks he has him with a monster right hand that nearly knocks Larry off his feet. Holmes covers up and ties him until the round ends. Coming out into the eleventh Tyson’s face is very swollen from all the jabs, and he’s obviously irritable because of being tired. Holmes stops jabbing and starts winding up with the right. Tyson goes down after a wide overhand, and Holmes gets him in the corner with right after right until the ref stops the fight with Tyson’s eyes completely somewhere else.

    The only chance a prime Tyson had against Holmes would be an early knockout and Larry didn’t do that until he a grandfather. As Holmes put it, Tyson wouldn’t have made it against ANY of the truly great heavyweights like Louis, Ali, Holmes, Norton, Foreman, Frazier. He just didn’t have heart; when he got hit really hard it was usually the end for him. Nowhere near even the top twenty greatest, certainly not an Evander Holyfield or even Lewis.

  2. Jethro's Flute 09:46am, 06/23/2016

    If Holmes won, he’d praise Tyson for being difficult to hit, being able to take a punch and it taking several rounds of steady punching to wear him down.

    It Tyson won, Holmes would bitch about it, make excuses and pretend that other fighters could beat him easily.

    As for Tillis, Tyson was 19 when he faced him. Mitch Green? Tyson beat him soundly with Green winning only one round.

    To use that as the basis for a Holmes win is highly illogical.

  3. Paul Calhoun 03:22pm, 06/19/2016

    Kind of hard to say what either fighter could do against each other, Holmes has that jab and have some of Ali’s teaching far as ring savvy.  Holmes can go distance something Tyson lacks, discipline may be a key factor for both fighters once the battle begins.  Personally, I would give Tyson the edge because of power and strength, when Tyson comes out to attack, his pee-a-boo style would catch Holmes for sure, Holmes would show a lot of skills, Tyson’s body punches will be too much for Holmes, winner Tyson.

  4. tuxtucis 11:14pm, 06/13/2016

    If Tyson had some trouble with Tillis, Holmes was never a defensive master and was knocked down by past prime Shavers and unexceptional puncher Snipes; he had troubles too with pressure fighters like Norton and Weaver. The 1988 Tyson easily defeats the 1978 Holmes, no way.

  5. rdelemos 09:33pm, 06/13/2016

    OT: All Manny Pacquiao Fans, check this video.. Manny this abs workout is a really good experience to do it.. God bless you brother..

  6. Gordon Analla 11:47am, 06/13/2016

    If Tyson had problems with Quick Tillis, and Mitch Green, and he did.  He really would have had problems with Holmes.  Larry’s jab was fantastic.  Also,  look at the Holyfield fights.  Holmes a clear winner.  Probably via a ko.

  7. Eric 11:10am, 06/13/2016

    “Holmes would have been quicker..” Maybe with the feet but Tyson was one of the fastest punching heavyweights of all time, perhaps only Ali and Patterson were ever faster. “Tyson would knock Holmes out in the middle rounds..” Now that part of Mr. Ribalta’s opinion, I completely agree with. Tyson by tko in 7 or 8 rounds.

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