Larry Holmes: ‘After Ken Norton my 20 title defenses were playground stuff’
It is arguably the greatest heavyweight championship fight ever staged in Las Vegas.
On June 9, 1978, the unbeaten Larry Holmes challenged the vastly more experienced Ken Norton for the WBC title. It was an intriguing matchup, but, in reality, the fight was overshadowed by Muhammad Ali’s upcoming rematch with Leon Spinks which was scheduled for September of that year in New Orleans.
After outpointing Ali for the undisputed championship, Spinks reneged on a prior agreement to face Norton, who was the WBC’s mandatory challenger. There was millions of dollars available for an Ali return and, at that point, Norton was probably the tougher assignment. As a result, the WBC stripped Spinks of their title and upgraded Norton, who had won a final eliminator over Jimmy Young the previous November.
Holmes would be Norton’s first title defense.
“I’d been in with Roy ‘Tiger’ Williams who was 6-foot-6 and strong as hell, and I’d been in with Earnie Shavers who was one of the greatest punchers in boxing history,” said Holmes in an interview with THE RING. “I did good against both of those guys and I knew I had room to learn more and get better.
“And don’t forget, I only had one arm in the Norton fight. I pulled a muscle in my left arm in training and I didn’t tell nobody. I didn’t want the fight to be postponed and I wasn’t gonna allow them to take it away from me. I had the heart and the guts and not everybody has those things.”
The fight took place at the Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion and this was a gladiator’s appointment. Holmes got off to a great start, using a rocket left jab and snappy right hand to keep the champion at bay. Norton pressed the action, but Holmes’ feet were too quick and the challenger had built a commanding lead by the midway point.
As the rounds passed, however, Norton began to get closer and the odd right-hand bomb landed with chilling impact. Holmes absorbed the punishment, but Norton was also cutting off the ring and working the body effectively. His legs depleted, Holmes was forced into a violent shootout against a genuine knockout-puncher.
The 15th and final round is perhaps the finest ever contested at heavyweight.
“The way we were trading in the 15th round, I knew I was gonna get hit so I didn’t pay it no mind,” recalled Holmes. “I had to stay in there and show the people that I had fight in me. Norton fought like hell and I had to match him.
“I’m proud of this fight because I won the heavyweight championship of the world from a great fighter. Nobody thought I could do it. Norton had beat Ali – broke his jaw – so everyone picked against me. I went out there and showed them what Larry Holmes was made of.”
Holmes claimed a razor-thin 15-round split decision. Two judges awarded him a 143-142 verdict and the third voted for Norton by the same margin.
Over the next seven-and-a-half years, Holmes defended his championship 20 times over. There were other tough outings against the likes of Gerry Cooney and Tim Witherspoon, but 40 years on “The Easton Assassin” acknowledges that his first title fight was, by far, the toughest.
“To be honest, I thought I won the Norton fight by more than one point but they still gave me the news I wanted to hear,” said Holmes. “I was the new heavyweight champion of the world. I don’t care if I win by one point or 10 points. And the thing is, after Ken Norton my 20 title defenses were like playground stuff.
“I proved what I could do and my record speaks for itself. I had 75 fights, 69 wins and 44 knockouts. That shows you the ability of a great fighter. I’m not saying I was the greatest because there’s been a lot of great fighters, but I’m one of the guys you have to recognize. I was a force to be reckoned with and you had to be ready or I would take you out of there.”
Tom Gray is Associate Editor for THE RING. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing
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