At five o’clock on December 6, Larry Holmes walked into Ecco, a popular Italian restaurant in downtown Manhattan. Holmes was in New York to attend the Shadow Box Film Festival, where a documentary about his life entitled In The Arena would be screened that night.
Holmes is regarded by most experts as worthy of a place on the short list of great heavyweight champions. One way or another, he found a way to beat people up.
The legendary trainer, Ray Arcel, who worked with Holmes late in their respective careers, once observed, “Larry had it all in the ring. The one thing he seemed low on was self-confidence. I always had to give him a kick to make him realize how good he was. I think some of that came from the fact that Don King kept him around for so long as Muhammad Ali’s sparring partner. He was looked at for so long as just the warm-up guy that he never really developed the sense of pride and confidence and feeling of belonging that a fighter needs. I had to keep telling him, ‘You’re going to be long retired before people realize what a great fighter you are.’”
“I became a more determined fighter when I left Ali,” Holmes says today.
That determination showed in the ring again and again, but never more notably than on September 28, 1979, when Earnie Shavers – who hit as hard as anyone in the history of boxing – left Holmes for dead on the canvas in round seven after landing a crushing overhand right.
“Holmes went down with a finality one does not often see, not even in the movies,” Carlo Rotella wrote of that moment. “It looked like he had been shot with a tranquilizer dart just as he stepped on a land mine. I have never seen a man go down harder in a fight that he ended up winning.”
But Holmes got up and won every round other than the seventh. He knocked Shavers out in round eleven.
“First, you get up,” Larry explained afterward. “Then you worry about whether or not you’re all right.”
Holmes believes that the best he ever was as a fighter was on June 9, 1978, when he decisioned Ken Norton to claim the heavyweight throne. The fight that means the most to him was his June 11, 1982, victory over Gerry Cooney. Sandwiched in between those conquests was his October 2, 1980, execution of Muhammad Ali.
“Larry Holmes has shot Santa Claus,” Jim Murray wrote afterward.
At Ecco, Holmes was comfortably dressed in a sport jacket and slacks. Several years ago when he was dining at Gallagher’s Steak House, a fan had approached and complimented, “Larry; you’re looking good.”
“No, I’m not,” Holmes countered. “I’m fat.”
He has shed some pounds since then. And his life is good.
When Holmes fought, he bought real estate, not bling. There was a time when he had considerable real estate holdings. Larry and his wife have lived in the same comfortable house in Easton for thirty-four years. But apart from that, he has been downsizing. An office building, a hotel, and the buiilding in which the courthouse in Easton is lodged have all been sold. Holmes’s last commercial real estate holding is his restaurant, Champ’s Corner, which he plans to sell in the near future. He makes about fifty paid personal appearances a year and works a room well. He also co-hosts a cable-TV show entitled “What the Heck Were They Thinking” that’s distributed in the Lehigh Valley area.
“People always criticized me when I fought,” Larry says. “Now, on my TV show, I can criticize other people.”
Among the words of wisdom that Holmes offered at Ecco were:
* “I never wanted to be like Muhammad Ali. I wanted to be like Larry Holmes. I wanted to do my own thing, and I did.”
* “I learned from Ali. The most important thing I learned from him about boxing was how to move in the ring. I improved my footwork by sparring with Ali. But to be honest, I liked hanging out with Joe [Frazier] better. Joe sang; he danced. We’d talk about everything. Joe was more fun.”
* “I always I told the truth as I saw it. I still do. That the way I am. Some people don’t like it, but I call things the way I see them. If I’m wrong, I can say I’m sorry afterwards.”
* “All these athletes and celebrities and other people who force themselves on women; there’s no excuse for that. ‘No’ means no. Anybody can understand that. ‘No’ is the first word you learn after ‘mama’ and ‘dada.’”
* I’m happy to be alive and well, and I’m sad for anyone who’s not.“
And there was one more vintage Larry Holmes thought.
“What’s the best thing about being a fighter?” I asked.
“The best thing about being a fighter is making money,” Holmes told me. “Why do football players play football? For the money. Why do basketball players play basketball? For the money. Why do baseball players play baseball? For the money. I didn’t fight to entertain people. I fought to get paid. Nobody was allowed to punch me in my face for free.”
“Suppose you could travel back in a time machine and fight any heavyweight champion in history. Who would you want to fight?”
“If the money is the same,” Larry answered, “tell me which one is the worst fighter, and that’s the guy I want to fight.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (“The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens”) was published recently by Counterpoint.