Larry Holmes turns 74 today, and is perhaps the most under-appreciated heavyweight great in boxing history. Cast as the villain in the post-Muhammad Ali landscape of 80s boxing, Holmes was a magisterial presence, turning away pretenders with the finest jab the sport has ever seen. ‘The Easton Assassin’ made 20 defences of the heavyweight crown, and bridged the gap from the Ali era to Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and beyond. Holmes remained a fixture in the world rankings throughout the 90s, growing old gracefully as one of boxing’s finest veterans.
In truth, no athlete in the world could have followed Muhammad Ali. Not merely a boxer, nor a sportsman, the man born Cassius Clay was a cultural phenomenon. Holmes was never destined to become the most famous man on Earth, as his predecessor and former sparring partner had been. But in terms of ring-craft, boxing acumen and ability, there could have been no finer successor.
Holmes entered the global consciousness when he won the WBC championship in an all-time classic battle with Ken Norton in 1978. Norton had given Ali all he could handle through a glorious trilogy, and was making the first defence of his long-awaited championship. Holmes was not in the mood for Norton’s coronation though, instead initiating his own. Considered one of the great fights of the peak-heavyweight era of the 70s, a blistering final round saw both men empty their tanks in pursuit of victory. Holmes walked away with the split decision, and a title he would hold for seven years.
The general public were slow on the uptake with Holmes, still missing the retired Ali. Despite Holmes racking up seven defences in a two-year period, an unthinkable rate by modern standards, the comparisons were widespread and unflattering. This eventually led to ‘The Greatest’ returning to the ring to take on the young pretender to his throne. It would be a rare mistake in Ali’s glittering career.
Their 1980 bout remains a viscerally upsetting watch to this day, with Holmes pounding a faded fighter who had left his reflexes far behind him. Holmes was visibly upset as he hammered the empty shell that once contained the finest heavyweight fighter there ever was. The Ring and lineal heavyweight championships he received as a result were no consolation. Public opinion was also unmoved by the victory, with the perception being Holmes had beaten Ali in name only.
The consummate boxing businessman, Holmes was undeterred, and continued to storm through the division. Future champion Trevor Berbick was beaten by decision, former undisputed king Leon Spinks was blasted out inside three rounds. Holmes was dropped heavily in his next defence by Renaldo Snipes, but recovered well to stop the unbeaten contender. His next fight would present his biggest challenge so far.
Holmes’ 1982 clash with Gerry Cooney was a huge cultural event, motivated partly by an uncomfortably racially-motivated promotional campaign from promoter Don King and Cooney’s manager, Dennis Rappaport. Cooney was the dubbed “The Great White Hope”, facing a Holmes who was unfairly cast as arrogant and aloof. Cooney was never comfortable with this element being brought into proceedings, preferring to focus on fighting for the championship.
The New Yorker came into the fight with an impressive 25-0 record, including eye-catching stoppage wins over Ken Norton, Ron Lyle and Jimmy Young. Cooney was under intense pressure to dethrone Holmes, who was once again unjustly playing the villain as he had against Ali two years before. Cooney would eventually wilt under the pressure, being dropped twice and looking exhausted by the time the fight was stopped in the 13th round. Once again, Larry Holmes had torn up the script and retained his heavyweight championship.
The victory elevated Holmes to 40-0, putting him on the home straight of a prestigious record. Rocky Marciano had retired as heavyweight champion in 1955 with a 49-0, the longest unbeaten of any heavyweight at the time, and the only heavyweight titleist to retire undefeated. After seeing off the considerable challenge of Cooney, most insiders backed Holmes to surpass these records. Eight post-Cooney victories, including impressive wins over future champions Tim Witherspoon and James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith, put Holmes on the brink of history.
Undisputed light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks would serve as the challenger when the 48-0 champion looked to take his place at Marciano’s side in the record books. The Riviera in Las Vegas played host to this slice of boxing history in 1985. A tense, engrossing battle saw Holmes struggle to pin down Spinks for sustained periods, as the lighter man used clever movement to avoid his shots. ‘The Easton Assassin’ still felt he’d done enough to get the judge’s nod, but lost a controversial unanimous decision, and his chance at the 49-0 record. Deeply frustrated, Holmes drew derision for his post-fight comments, where he said “Marciano couldn’t carry my jockstrap.” Aiming his invective at the deceased former ring great meant that rather than praising Holmes’ wonderful achievements as champion, he was once again the subject of scorn.
Holmes would lose an even-closer rematch to Spinks, this time via split decision, before retiring in disgust in 1986. Two years later, he would be tempted out of retirement to face the man who had brutally dethroned Spinks inside a round, ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson. The youngest heavyweight champion of all time blew the rusty Holmes away in four rounds, and the then-38 year old returned to retirement.
Unhappy with how his career had concluded, the former champion would return once again in 1991. This final comeback confounded expectations, lasting for eleven years and taking in two shots at the heavyweight championship. The old stager fought 23 times after his return, losing just three of those bouts.
An upset victory over former WBO champion Ray Mercer led to a title shot at Evander Holyfield. Holmes was beaten on points but fought on, winning his next seven bouts. This earned the Georgia man his final world title shot, when he faced WBC champion Oliver McCall in 1995. While the old skills had not deserted the former king, and he managed to outbox ‘The Atomic Bull’ for periods, he was ultimately outworked on the way to losing a close decision. Holmes continued fighting until 2002, when at the age of 52 he won a decision against the infamous Eric ‘Butterbean’ Esch.
History has been far kinder to Larry Holmes than his detractors were at the time. His 20 defences of the world heavyweight title sees him rank third in the all-time list, behind only Joe Louis and Wladimir Klitschko. His superior jab is studied by young fighters to this day as the quintessential example of boxing’s most important punch. Holmes’ dominance of an era, and the fact he remained world-ranked well into his 40s, speaks to a man of incredible skill and durability. The Sportsman ranked Holmes third in our list of the greatest heavyweights ever, behind only Louis and Ali. Larry Holmes was put in an impossible position, having to follow the illustrious Muhammad Ali. The truth is, inside the ring he was every inch a worthy successor to ‘The Greatest’.
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