“Rocky Marciano couldn’t carry my jockstrap,” blustered Larry Holmes in the aftermath of his razor-thin defeat to Michael Spinks in 1985, with his professional record now standing at 48-1 and his chance to level Marciano’s 49 fight unbeaten streak was left in tatters.
The disparaging remarks over one of boxing’s most beloved sons, made in the heat of the moment, is still regarded as one of the most controversial statements in the sport’s history and it would haunt Holmes for the entirety of his career and ultimately tarnish the legacy of one of the most supremely-talented heavyweights to ever grace the squared circle.
Holmes holds the second most title defences in the heavyweight history behind Joe Louis (19), he holds the record for the longest individual heavyweight title streak in modern boxing history and is one of only five men to defeat the great Muhammad Ali - so why is ‘the Easton Assassin’ so overlooked? Was it purely because he had the gall to criticise one of boxing’s most famous champions?
Questionable respect for heavyweights of boxing past aside, Holmes was a victim of the era in which he fought also. When he claimed the heavyweight world title on June 9, 1979 against the tough-as-nails former US Marine Ken Norton, who’d given Muhammad Ali fits in their three encounters, the so called ‘golden age’ of boxing’s marquee division was beginning to come to an end. Holmes’ punch-perfect demolition of Ali on October 2 1980 was confirmation of the dawn of a new era and, sadly, Holmes didn’t have the star power to carry it.
Holmes, now 70, is cited as one of the best heavyweights of all-time and often one of its most criminally overlooked. Boxers seldom become world champions unless they can get the fundamentals right and the jab is the epitome of that. Holmes carried arguably the best jab in the history of heavyweight boxing - a concussive, piston-like, flick of the wrist that steamed its way through even the most rock-solid of defences, often leaving its victims crumpled in a heap on the canvas.
He learned from the very best, so his fistic genius came as no surprise. Holmes turned pro in 1973 at the height of the heavyweight golden age and his education into the world of prizefighting couldn’t have been better, working as a sparring partner for the likes of Ali, Joe Frazier and the hard-hitting Earnie Shavers. "I was young, and I didn't know much. But I was holding my own sparring those guys", Holmes once said. "I thought, 'Hey, these guys are the best, the champs. If I can hold my own now, what about later?'"
He beat Shavers in 1978, won the world title in the same year against Norton, before picking up wins against top heavyweights such as Ali, Alfredo Evangelista, Gerry Cooney, Trevor Berbick, Leon Spinks, Tim Witherspoon and James ‘Bonecrusher’ Smith, cementing himself as the bona fide star of heavyweight boxing in the early to mid eighties.
Holmes, while undoubtedly talented, was cursed by the Ali-shaped hole that had been left gaping wide open with the Louisville-fighter over the hill and flirting with retirement. Soft spoken, with an occasional stutter, Holmes just could not match the brashness and charisma of the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest’ and despite his considerable accomplishments in the ring, he could not capture the imagination of the world like his former sparring partner and foe.
Another reason Holmes’ legacy might have been diminished was the contrast between himself and the heavyweight flag bearer that came after him, Mike Tyson. The polar opposite to the bombastic Muhammad Ali, this time Holmes’ career would ultimately be outshadowed by a man who captured the world’s imagination in an entirely different way - fear and intimidation.
Holmes was of course pulverized by a young Tyson in 1988 inside four rounds, albeit well past his prime. The victim of one of boxing’s most popular champion’s most devastating knockouts did little to enhance Holmes’ reputation to a new era of fight fans - even today, people wax lyrically about a prime Tyson’s raw ferocity, yet give little time for Holmes, who in hindsight achieved much more across his career.
Being sandwiched between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson is the pugilistic equivalent of a rock and a hard place. Boxing really is the cruelest sport.
Holmes was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2008 and retired in 2002 with a 69-6 (44). It might not have been the unblemished record he’d hoped for in 1985 when he doubted Rocky Marciano’s own legacy but Holmes still shines brightly as one of the very best heavyweights to enter the ring in boxing’s long and storied history.
Oh, and on dream match-ups of boxing past, whisper it quietly, but Larry Holmes beats Marciano every day of the week and twice on Sunday.