Because two of the three judges decided he had won the stunning 15th round, Larry Holmes, once a $3-an-hour steel worker out of Easton, Pa., joined Muhammad Ali, Leon Spinks and Ken Norton and became this year's fourth heavyweight champion. And then, when he tried to raise his arms in the traditional signal of victory last Friday night, he nearly passed out from pain and exhaustion. "Oh God, help me hold them up," he moaned to Richie Giachetti, his barrel-chested manager and trainer.
"It was the greatest display of courage I have ever seen in a ring," Giachetti was saying Saturday morning, only a few hours after Holmes had taken a split decision and Norton's title at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. "Both of his arms were hurting so bad it was agony just to keep his hands up. How he was able to throw punches and win the round I'll never know."
As an audit of the officials' cards showed, if the unbeaten Holmes was to become champion in his 28th professional fight, he needed to win the final round. After 14, all three judges—Harold Buck, Lou Tabot and Joe Swessel—had the fight dead even at 133-133 on the 10-points must system. In Nevada the referee doesn't score a fight.
Six days earlier, Holmes and Giachetti were wondering if there would be a fight to score. While sparring with Luis Rodriguez—no kin to the old welter-weight champ—Holmes suddenly left the ring clutching his left arm. His elbow had collided violently with Rodriguez' elbow.
June 18, 1978
"It feels funny," Holmes told Giachetti, who packed the arm in ice. An hour later they were at the Desert Springs Hospital, where the fighter was examined by Dr. Anthony Serfustini and Keith Kleven, a physical therapist, who found torn tissue in the biceps.
"How bad is it?" Giachetti asked.
The answer: bad enough to postpone the fight.
"For how long?"
Holmes shook his head. "No way," he said. "What can you do for me now?"
Kleven suggested an hour's ultrasonic hot-water treatment twice a day. He also advised Giachetti to call in Dr. James Garrick, a Phoenix specialist who works with professional football players. When Giachetti called, Garrick said he would fly to Las Vegas on Wednesday.
"O.K., we'll hold a decision until Dr. Garrick checks him out," Giachetti said. "Meanwhile, start the treatments."
That night Giachetti called his wife Nancy in Cleveland and told her the fight was off. "Larry says he can fight Norton with one arm," he said, "but if this guy from Phoenix says no, it's no."
"You better have a drink," Nancy said.
"Hell, I'm calling you from a bar."
On Wednesday, Garrick examined Holmes, confirmed the injury and said Kleven's treatment was perfect.
"Can he fight?" Giachetti asked.
"If he wants to," Garrick said. "When the fight starts, his arm should be 100%. It's later the trouble will come. In the late rounds he will lose 6% to 8% effectiveness. And if he gets hit on the tear he could lose as much as 40%."
That night Giachetti told Holmes that he was going to postpone the fight.
"No," Holmes said. "We've come too far, worked too hard. A lot of people are counting on me. A lot of people will lose a lot of money if we postpone the fight."
On that less than optimistic note. Holmes set about taking away Norton's 84-day-old WBC title, which he had acquired after the WBC had stripped it from Spinks. For his first defense, Norton was paid $3.7 million, most of it from ABC, which televised the fight. Holmes' share was $500,000. With the national spotlight beaming on him, Promoter Don King also elected to showcase Jimmy Young, the No. 1 contender, and Alfredo Evangelista as future opponents for the winner of Holmes-Norton.
Young, unfortunately, came in fat and ill-prepared at 220 pounds and lost a dull split decision to Osvaldo Ocasio, Bill Daly's young prospect out of San Juan. And Evangelista had all he could do to win a decision over Holmes' stablemate, Jody Ballard. So much for the future.
But the present more than made up for it. Bad-blood fights are for the most part products of a publicity man's imagination, but the Norton-Holmes hate is for real. Each nurtures a genuine and deep dislike for the other.
It was Norton's plan to make Holmes, who is essentially a stand-up counter-puncher who relies on his jab and quickness, overextend himself early and thereby tire himself out. "He claims he throws 100 punches a round," Norton said. "So if I can make him throw 150 I've done my job. I'll make him work harder than he wants to work."
And so, Norton started slowly, very slowly, and he would say later that it was his critical mistake. With Norton tucked into his turtle defense and punching hardly at all, Holmes won four of the first five rounds, largely on the strength of the persistent jab.
"Now it's my turn," Norton told Bill Slayton, his trainer, in the corner. In the sixth he shook Holmes with a powerful right to the head; in the seventh he hurt him with a right to the body followed by a left hook to the head. Midway through the seventh he banged Holmes on the left biceps with a looping right hand. For a moment Holmes thought the arm had gone dead.
Now Norton really poured it on, advancing relentlessly, chasing Holmes and finding him often. After losing four of the first five rounds on all cards, Norton won five of the next six. But the violent pace had taken its toll; both men began to show signs of exhaustion. His jab working effectively once more. Holmes took the 12th.
Then they exchanged two big rounds. Holmes dominated the 13th, staggering Norton twice with right hands. Both had to push themselves to come out for the 14th; Norton pushed himself a little harder. Twice he staggered Holmes, and just before the bell he ripped him with six straight punches to the head and body.
Norton, who was superbly conditioned, started strongly in the 15th—jabbing, hooking, pounding Holmes with overhand rights. Holmes threw four punches, then Norton was on him again. Blood was pouring from a cut inside Holmes' lower lip, which had been split in the eighth round. The next morning it would need 11 stitches.
"Move. You've got to move!" Giachetti screamed at him, and Holmes began to move. Ignoring the pain knifing through both arms, he also began to attack. They stood there toe to toe, no thought of defense, barely able to stand, but swinging. Then, punching furiously, Holmes took command and, just before the bell, staggered Norton with a right.
Only with a great effort of will did each make it back to his corner without falling. Then came the decision.
Judge Buck: 143-142 for Holmes. Judge Tabot: 143-142 for Norton. Judge Swessel: 143-142 for Holmes. "...and the new heavyweight champion of the world...."
A few moments later, Norton, who said his only plans were to regain the title, was lying on a rubbing table in his dressing room. The door opened and his father came into the room.
"Well, I tried, Pop," Norton said.
His father put a hand on Norton's shoulder and said, "You fought a hell of a fight, son."
Holmes, who had collapsed from exhaustion in the ring, was also thinking of the future in his dressing room. "Before the fight, they were saying that if I won, my first title defense would be in September. Now I don't know if I want to fight in September. I don't know when I want to fight." He tried to lift his arms, winced and gave up. Then he said, "This isn't easy, you know."