Recently, former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes gave a phone interview to the DesertSun.com on the state of professional boxing, with a major focus on today's heavyweight division. As most boxing fans know, Holmes succeeded Muhammad Ali as champ and was never quite accepted by the boxing public and his due respect as an all-time great heavyweight fighter/boxer was a long time in coming.
A lot of that was because he wasn't comfortable during interviews and also lacked Ali's quick wit and charisma. However, let no one forget that he was Ali's near equal as a fighter and only Joe Louis held the title longer and made more consecutive successful defenses of it than Holmes did.
Today, the 62 year-old Holmes is no longer camera shy and loves to talk about the sport he dominated as champ for seven plus years. Larry is a tremendous ambassador for boxing and his thoughts and opinions are highly valued. But there is one aspect of Larry's personality that can be grating sometimes, and that's the fact that he always refers to himself as being part of the golden age of heavyweights that was dominated by Muhammad Ali, "Smokin" Joe Frazier and George Foreman.
No, Holmes is not a card-carrying member of the golden era of heavyweights. Other than that, the only negative aspect thing a critic could say about Holmes’ career and tenure as champ is, and it's something he had no control over, is who did he fight as champion that was so terrific or borderline great? In truth, Holmes' opposition is on par with that of former champ Mike Tyson, who dominated the second half of the eighties with the same authority Holmes did the first half of the decade.
The golden age of the heavyweights really only lasted about five years (1970-75). During those five years Ali, Frazier and Foreman passed the title back and forth among each other. Holmes, who turned pro in 1973, wasn't even a thought and really hadn't arrived as a title threat until early 1978. By the time Holmes defeated Earnie Shavers in his first career signature fight, Ali had lost the undisputed title to Leon Spinks. Joe Frazier was two years retired and touring with his band "Joe Frazier and The Knockouts" and George Foreman was a year into his retirement and starting his Ministry.
The reason Holmes can talk so conclusively about Ali and Frazier is because he served as an upper-tier sparring partner for both circa late 1972 through mid 1975. Larry worked with Frazier during Joe's preparation for his rematch with Ali in January of 1974, being that no other heavyweight in the world was more suited to emulate Ali's movement and jab better than Holmes. Shortly after that Holmes went to work for Ali and was one of his main sparring partners, along with Roy "Tiger" Williams, in helping him get ready for his upcoming title bout with champ George Foreman.
During the interview Holmes was asked to compare the champions during the Ali and Frazier era to the era dominated by Mike Tyson.
“Tyson would not have been able to stand up in that era,” Holmes said. “He came along at the right time and that's it. He couldn't stand up to guys like us, Ali, Frazier. Mike Tyson proved he's a good fighter and a good front-runner, but if you hit him first, then things change.”
That may be a little bit of an overstatement on Holmes' part, but it's more accurate than inaccurate. The part that's closest to being accurate is both Ali and Frazier at their best would be favored to beat Tyson during his prime, who as Larry said was the ultimate front-runner. Although Frazier may have had some shaky moments with Tyson early, I'd favor Joe to survive and be around to grind Tyson down and stop him after eight or nine rounds. The inaccuracy of the statement is the part where Larry says Tyson couldn't stand up to guys like "us" because he wasn't a contender during the so-called golden era of heavyweights.
The fact that Larry was stopped by Tyson at age 38, three years after he lost the title to Michael Spinks, doesn't really come into play when matching them prime-for-prime. Holmes was looking for a payday when he fought Tyson in 1988 and wasn't nearly the fighter he was six years earlier. The bout between 21 year old Tyson and 38 year old Holmes is not an indication on how they would've matched up prime for prime.
The writer says when Holmes fought, it was part of the heyday of the heavyweight division, but that's not true as it's been highlighted above. Today, the division is dominated by Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. And after the Klitschkos one would be hard pressed to name the third best heavyweight fighter in boxing.
“The Klitschko brothers aren't carrying it. People are asking me everyday, ‘Who's the heavyweight champion?' I don't know,” Holmes said. “I feel sorry for boxing today because the heavyweight division carried boxing and the middleweights carried boxing. The only thing that's carrying boxing now is the middleweight division, and people aren't thinking about the other weight classes.”
On that Holmes is completely right. And just as it was the case when Larry was champ, there's nobody around for either Wladimir or Vitali to fight to measure them-self against. Holmes needed an empty package named Muhammad Ali to beat up to get the proverbial monkey off his back. The Klitschkos don't even have that type of fight out there for them.
Larry Holmes may not have been part of the golden era of heavyweights, but he is the greatest heavyweight to come along since the end of that era. And it's a reach to think of a heavyweight title-holder since Larry's prime who would be the betting favorite over him in a head-to-head clash. At his best I'd favor him to beat the likes of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis and both Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko.
Actually, it's a little bit sad that Holmes, inarguably one of the greatest all-time heavyweights, is still insecure enough that he needs to tie himself in with those other three (Ali, Frazier and Foreman). Because his accomplishments certainly measure up to the greatest of the greats who have ever held the heavyweight title.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com