Larry Holmes’ Greatest Hits: Easton Assassinations
Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of The Ring Magazine
LARRY HOLMES USED GUTS, INTELLIGENCE AND A CANNON-LIKE JAB TO STAMP HIS NAME IN THE LINEAGE OF HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONS
Joe Frazier decimated opponents with the left hook. George Foreman’s wrecking ball right hand struck fear into the heart of the heavyweight division. Mike Tyson’s uppercut was as accurate as it was pulverizing. But for Larry Holmes, it was the stick, that face-busting left jab that led to one of the most dominant title reigns the glamour division has ever seen. It really was the most exquisite of heavyweight signature moves.
Holmes departed the amateur ranks with a less-than-modest record of 19-3. In his final two unpaid bouts, during the 1972 Olympic trials, the stick-and-mover from Easton, Pennsylvania, was stopped in one round by Nick Wells and disqualified for holding against Duane Bobick. No one, absolutely no one, was tipping Holmes as a prospective world champion, and many critics labeled him a “quitter.”
Turning professional in March 1973, the 23-year-old Holmes was essentially learning on the job. But he worked hard in the gym and received invaluable experience as a sparring partner, cutting his teeth under the likes of Joe Frazier, Earnie Shavers and even “The Greatest” himself, Muhammad Ali.
“There was no holding back from Ali, but I held back a little because he was the champ and I wasn’t there to hurt him,” said Holmes, who was still an amateur when he began sparring the great former champion in 1971 and remained a regular camp member until 1975.
“People would have paid money to watch me and Ali in sparring. We also did one or two exhibitions when I was younger, one of them in Reading (Pennsylvania). That work made me a better fighter. If you work with the best, you become the best. I learned how he jabbed, I learned how to throw the right hand and I learned how to not get hit.”
‘People got mad at me because I was winning so much!’
By June 1978, Holmes had taken his unbeaten record to 27-0 (19 knockouts) and had posted excellent decision wins over the fearsome Roy Williams and ex-employer Shavers. The latter of those two victories saw Holmes installed as the No. 1 challenger for Ken Norton’s WBC heavyweight title, and the war was on. This was baptism by fire.
The lightning-quick Holmes got off to a terrific start, jabbing Norton at will and landing with eye-catching combinations. By the midway point, however, Norton was landing bombs and the challenger was bleeding profusely from the mouth. Following an incredible battle, which culminated in arguably the greatest 15th round in boxing history, Holmes was declared the winner by split decision.
Having worked so hard for his prize, the new champion was in no mood to give it up. Holmes made 20 successful defenses over the next seven-and-a-half years. Among his victims were Mike Weaver, Shavers, Trevor Berbick, Leon Spinks, Gerry Cooney, Tim Witherspoon and a faded version of Ali. In late 1983, Holmes would trade the WBC heavyweight title for the inaugural IBF version, but boxing politics were irrelevant. Holmes, who also held the Ring championship from 1980, was the best.
In September 1985, light heavyweight king Michael Spinks sensationally outpointed Holmes in Las Vegas. That setback was hard to take for a variety of reasons. Holmes was a born winner, and he’d fallen just one victory shy of Rocky Marciano’s legendary 49-0 mark. A rejuvenated version of the ex-champ appeared to have done enough to win a Spinks rematch in April 1986, but the judges – whose colleagues Holmes had berated following the first fight – went against him.
“People got mad at me because I was winning so much,” offered Holmes, his voice rising. “They were jealous because I could win. They’d all said that Larry Holmes couldn’t fight; Howard Cosell and all the rest. He became a believer, though, and so did everybody else. You’re a believer too, right?”
Anyone who knows the sport of boxing is a believer when it comes to Larry Holmes. That unquenchable desire to prove people wrong is what made him what he was as a fighter.
Holmes challenged three more times for the championship but fell short. He was knocked out by Mike Tyson in 1988 and outpointed by Evander Holyfield and Oliver McCall in 1992 and 1995, respectively. The great ex-champion fought on until he was 52 years old, retiring for good with a record of 69-6 (44 knockouts).
We now go back in time to revisit eight of The Easton Assassin’s greatest hits:
April 30, 1976/ Capital Centre, Landover, Maryland • Titles: Non-title bout
“Roy Williams was a big guy – 6-foot-5, strong, real strong. I knew I had to box him, because I’d worked with him before (in sparring). He hit hard – not real hard, but he was strong on the inside. I had to stay on the outside and work him, not stand still. At one time, Williams was considered a top prospect, but he couldn’t get a title shot because nobody wanted to fight him. The only reason I fought him is because (promoter) Don King told me I had to. I don’t think Don expected me to win, but I knew I could outbox him, and that’s what I did. (Muhammad) Ali was in the main event that night against Jimmy Young, and I watched the whole fight. Jimmy boxed him, moved, and when Ali got close, he tied him up. He didn’t get the decision, because everyone loved Ali. Jimmy Young needed a knockout that night.”
Result: Holmes UD 10
March 25, 1978/Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion, Las Vegas • Titles: Non-title bout
“I knew I could beat Earnie. I knew he’d run out of stamina after four or five rounds, so I just had to box him. It was my first 12-rounder, I fought at my own pace and I didn’t want to get myself involved in a war. You don’t fight against a guy like that – box, box, box. I gotta win, so I outboxed him, because he was strong and he was always ready to go. I’d sparred Earnie and knew how big a puncher he was. The money was really good for training with him, so I did that. He was another guy that I didn’t wanna fight, but I had to fight him if I wanted a title shot. For four or five rounds against Earnie, you’re in trouble, so you need to box and stay away from him. That’s the only way to win.”
Result: Holmes UD 12
June 9, 1978/Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion, Las Vegas • Titles: WBC heavyweight
“Norton was there to fight, and that was the hardest fight I ever had. When I fought Shavers, it was nothing like that. When I fought Cooney, it was nothing like that. It was also hot that night and I lost seven pounds in the one hour that fight lasted. I was so determined to win, and that’s what got me through the 15th round. He’s puttin’ pressure on me … I’m puttin’ pressure on him … He’s puttin’ pressure on me … I’m puttin’ pressure on him. I thought I was winning the fight from the beginning, because I used my jab, outboxed him and kept moving. I didn’t realize it was that close (going into the 15th round), but I came out victorious, and I was happy. I’d been written off my whole life: ‘Larry ain’t nuthin, Larry ain’t gonna be nuthin.’ I proved all of them wrong, and victory was sweet.”
Result: Holmes SD 15
October 2, 1980/Caesars Palace Outdoor Arena, Las Vegas • Titles: Ring and WBC heavyweight
“It was tough, mentally, because I didn’t want to hurt him. I knew what Ali could do, and I knew what I could do. I’d worked with him for so long; we’d sparred hundreds of rounds together, for years, so I knew everything about him. He was my friend, but I couldn’t let my emotions get the better of me. I didn’t want to hurt him, so I boxed and was aiming to win a decision. It’s kill or be killed in the ring, but I still didn’t try to hurt him that night. I’m not a mercenary. I’m not a George Foreman or a Joe Frazier, looking to kill you with one punch. Jody Ballard (former heavyweight contender and Holmes’ sparring partner) once said I was the meanest guy in the ring, but what Jody means is, I was serious. I can box and I can fight – I don’t want to hurt you, but if you try to hurt me, I’m gonna hurt you.”
Result: Holmes TKO 10
June 12, 1981/Joe Louis Arena, Detroit • Titles: Ring and WBC heavyweight
“It was a pleasure to fight Leon. First of all, I’m a fighter. And we all go out there to do the best we can. Just don’t cross the line with me; don’t call me names, don’t cuss me out, don’t call my wife names, don’t call my kids names. You don’t do that! I know that you want to win, but just come out and kick my ass if you can. Leon got under my skin before the fight, and I said, ‘OK, I’m gonna knock your ass out!’ He was made for me, because of his style. He’s not 6-foot-3, he don’t box and move, side to side. Leon come straight at me, and if you come straight at me, you’re my target. Leon came straight at me like Joe Frazier, and Leon’s certainly not Joe Frazier. I beat up on Leon like he was a little boy.”
Result: Holmes TKO 3
June 11, 1982/Caesars Palace Outdoor Arena, Las Vegas • Titles: Ring and WBC heavyweight
“If I don’t knock Gerry out, I lose that fight. They were setting me up to lose. They would do anything. They blew up my mailbox, called me ‘nigger.’ There was a lot of shit. I’ll tell you what, people still do it! To this day, there are people who will drive by my house and yell, ‘Go home, nigger!’ But I am home, this is my house, now get the hell out of here! They don’t want to remember my fight with Gerry Cooney. I don’t want to remember how I was treated before that fight. Gerry Cooney don’t want to remember how I was treated before that fight. Gerry don’t want people to act like that. But there are assholes out there that just don’t care. I was with Gerry the other day; he came down for my son’s birthday party.”
Result: Holmes TKO 13
May 20, 1983/Dunes Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas • Titles: Ring and WBC heavyweight
“I wasn’t surprised that the Witherspoon fight was close, because I was prepared for anything when I went in the ring. The only surprise for me was that he didn’t respect me. It was a hard fight, a close fight, but I thought I won. If I’m being honest, I trained too hard for that fight. My weight was really low (Holmes was 213 pounds and would never be that light again in his professional career) and I’d definitely overtrained. By that time, I’d been champion too long and (the system) wanted me out. They couldn’t control me. The press labeled me as the bad guy, and anything I did, the press would pick it up. If Larry Holmes does something, then he’s low class, and I hate this and I hate that. If Gerry Cooney does something, it’s OK.”
Result: Holmes SD 12
February 7, 1992/Convention Center, Atlantic City • Titles: Non-title bout
“That was a good fight. I wasn’t as sharp as I would have been in my younger days, but I was good enough, and it was a great fight. I fought for money. I didn’t fight to be the heavyweight champion of the world; I fought to feed my family. I wanted to make sure that I had something when I finished fighting. When I signed a contract to fight, it was money that was on my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I never thought about losing; that word wasn’t in my vocabulary. I do not lose. Nobody wants a loser. But let me tell you something: I am now 69 years old, and if you give me enough time, I could fight now. I’m just as good now as I was at 42 years old. I could beat these guys. The champions that they have now, give me two months and I could beat them all.”
Result: Holmes UD 12