The narrative at the time was that he couldn’t punch, had skinny legs, lacked heart and was too consumed with being a Muhammad Ali clone. That was the prevailing thought regarding Larry Holmes prior to his first title bout against WBC champ Ken Norton on June 9th, 1978.
What a difference 40 years make.
Holmes was fighting for his respect before going in against Norton, and today most of the boxing observers who hold an opinion I value consider Larry Holmes one of the top-5 all-time great heavyweight champs, as do I.
Larry supported himself by working in a car wash while working his way up the heavyweight ranks. He was mocked for being stopped by Duane Bobick in the finals of 1972 Olympic Trials while Muhammad Ali provided color commentary with Howard Cosell for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. After being stopped by Bobick, Holmes was all but forgotten. On March 21, 1973 without any media attention or fanfare Holmes turned pro winning a four round decision over Rodell Dupree in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a fight for which he was paid exactly $150. After beating Dupree, Holmes ran off 26 consecutive victories on his way to becoming the world’s top ranked heavyweight under the promotional guidance of Don King. During the five years between fighting Dupree and Norton, Holmes filled out physically and developed one of the best left jabs and footwork in heavyweight history.
Before winning the title Holmes was best known for being a sparring partner for “Smokin” Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, along with contender Earnie Shavers. Ironically, it was Shavers who Holmes would have to beat in an elimination bout in order to get in position to fight Norton for the title. And on March 25, 1978, Holmes put on a boxing clinic and won every round against Shavers en route to securing a 12-round unanimous decision.
Three months later on June 9, 1978, Holmes would enter the ring at the Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion in Las Vegas as the challenger to titlist Ken Norton who was just appointed champion by the WBC (supplanting Leon Spinks who was stripped of the title for reneging on his agreement to fight Norton in his first title defense, opting instead for a rematch with Muhammad Ali).
Most members of the press at that time were big fans of Ken Norton who had fought three close fights with Muhammad Ali. Norton was favored by the press, but many boxing insiders knew Holmes was really the goods and that he had an excellent chance to take Norton. A few days before the fight a report surfaced that Holmes had suffered a torn left triceps muscle during training. This really sparked the Norton sentiment and by fight night most were leaning towards Norton.
When the fight started, Holmes never looked better, Circling the ring and boxing on the move like his mentor, Ali, he was just too fast from head to toe for Kenny. On top of that, Norton couldn’t get past the Holmes’ jab in order to get inside and work the body, hoping to slow Holmes down and getting him to come down off his toes. For eight rounds it was all Holmes with Ken a step behind and fighting a little tentative. Norton just couldn’t get inside on Larry in order to do any real damage. Then in the 8th round Norton finally got through and scored heavily to Holmes’ head and body.
Arthur Mercante, who was doing the ABC broadcast with Howard Cosell, didn’t score a single round for Norton until the 8th round. After 10 rounds Mercante said to Cosell that he had the fight 8-2 Holmes, and the only way Norton could retain the title on his card was if he stopped Holmes. For the next five rounds Holmes and Norton really went at it and had some tremendous exchanges with both fighters getting the upper hand in brief spots. After 14 rounds, I had Holmes safely in front, but the fight was very close on the judges’ cards.
Holmes and Norton came out and fought the final round as if their entire lives depended on it. Boxing fans were truly the beneficiaries of that mindset because round 15 was a round for the ages with Holmes and Norton both looking as if they were on the verge of finishing the other.
At the bell both fighters staggered back to their corners to await the verdict. The decision was split and went to Holmes by the narrowest of margins: 143-142, 143-142, and 142-143.
This was the crowning moment of Larry Holmes’ career. After years of being called a cheap Muhammad Ali imitation and being told that he wasn’t good enough, Holmes showed he was. The Holmes-Norton title bout ranks up there with some of the greatest heavyweight championship bouts of all time. The 15th round was one of the best rounds in heavyweight history. Forty years later it’s still debated as to who really won it.
The only negative aspect of Holmes’ career, and it’s not his fault, is that he didn’t face great opposition during his title reign. But neither did Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston. The reality is Holmes had the misfortune of meeting one great fighter, Muhammad Ali, when Ali was a shell of the fighter he once was. The other three greats he faced, Michael Spinks, Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield came when he was aged 36, 38 and 42 and past his prime. Unlike other greats who came before and after him, Holmes never had another great fighter to measure himself against during his prime. But that shouldn’t count against him. All anyone has to do is watch the films of his fights circa 1978-83 to see Holmes could fight. And even though he won the title from someone who had never won it in the ring, Holmes completely restored credibility to it.
During his title tenure Holmes often said he didn’t get any respect and suffered because he wasn’t Muhammad Ali. Today that’s no longer the case. Forty years after beating Ken Norton for the title, Larry Holmes is regarded as one of the greatest heavyweight champs of all time by an overwhelming majority of boxing observers, fans and historians.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com
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