He had started the day early, plodding along the road, slow-jogging mile after mile between the long fields of cornstalks. He followed the run with a light breakfast, just orange juice and eggs. After a brief nap, he suited up for a two-hour workout in the spacious and well-equipped gym built into the loft of the barn in Orwell, Ohio. The workout ended with six rounds of hard sparring, and now Larry Holmes, the new WBC world heavyweight champion, stood studying his reflection in the large mirror on one wall. "Do I look fat?" he asked, frowning at his belly. It was still a bit fleshed out from a round of mild celebrating and a brief international tour.
"Only a little bit," said Richie Giachetti, Holmes' trainer and manager. "It will come off easy."
"So who you fighting, Larry?" asked one of the onlookers.
Holmes continued to study the mirror. "Don't know. Don't matter much."
November 6, 1978
"Well, you don't know who, do you know when?"
"Don't know that, either." Holmes shrugged. "For years people been running away from me. Nobody wanted to fight me. Now they got to. And the door to Larry Holmes is wide open."
That was last Aug. 9, more than a month before the Leon Spinks-Muhammad Ali rematch in New Orleans, and just 61 days after Holmes had won the WBC title from Ken Norton. And now Holmes knows both who and when: he will defend his title next Friday night at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas against Spain's Alfredo Evangelista, who battled an elusive Ali for 15 futile rounds in 1977. The defense will come just one week after Holmes' 29th birthday.
"That's a sort of magic number," he says. "I'll be 29 and it will be my 29th victory. Of course, it'll only be my 20th knockout."
Holmes, now generally acknowledged to be a fighter with quickness and the ability to hit with either hand, is a creation of the streets, a tough and hardened young man who grew up in both violence and poverty. But in talking about his first defense, he says softly, "I have money now. And I now am the heavyweight champion of the world. And I didn't get either one of those things by just sitting around waiting for something to happen."
Holmes was born Nov. 3, 1949 in Cuthbert, Ga., fourth eldest of the 12 children of John and Flossie Holmes. He has been working since he was 13—since the day he walked out of the seventh grade at Shull Junior High and went to work for John DiVietro at the Jet Car Wash in Easton, Pa. for $1 an hour. The family had moved to Easton in 1954, but Holmes' dad had moved on alone to Connecticut, where he worked as a gardener until he died in 1970. Flossie was left to raise her large family on a meager portion of welfare and a powerful serving of maternal love.
"Their daddy would come back to see us about every three weeks," says Flossie Holmes, whose sad eyes brighten only when she speaks of her children. "He didn't forsake us. He just didn't have anything to give." Which is why, just one year into his teens, Larry gave up education for employment.
"It wasn't much of an education anyway," says Dan Radogna, a close friend of Holmes' and a teacher of mentally retarded children at Leibert School in the Easton area. "When Larry was in school, he was in special-education classes, and they weren't much. It was more like baby-sitting. Making sure the kids didn't get into fights. There's one teacher Larry had; I know him well, and he's still afraid to face Larry to this day. He says Larry didn't do anything, but...you know. They had to beat on all the kids a little bit. Coming from where Larry did to where he is now, well, I would call it a miracle."
As the champion remembers himself then, "I was crazy. I gave my mother a bad time. I gave everybody a bad time. Nobody could tell me anything. I was no angel. I'm no angel now."
"He gave me a bad time?" says Flossie. "What he gave me was money. He'd see I was short of money and he'd say, 'I have a couple of dollars.' He used to hide his own money in a flowerpot on the kitchen windowsill. He'd go and get it, and he'd give it to me. No, he wasn't a bad boy, but out on the streets he was mean. He called himself a street fighter. He was something. He didn't take nothing from nobody. Nobody pushed him around. He'd never start a fight. But if someone wanted a fight, he'd give them one. Larry was a good boy; he just never would take no stuff from anybody. He was stubborn."
"I used to knock out a guy every weekend," Holmes says, shaking his head. "There was always somebody to challenge you. I had streaks. Once I went 40 straight weekends, knocking out some guy every one of them. That's when I used to think about being a fighter. But growing up, I didn't have time. I always worked."
DiVietro, the car-wash owner, is a former Tulane football player who has made it a practice to hire the toughest kids he can find, and then—as well as paying them a salary—he tries to help them straighten out their lives. Even today Holmes occasionally goes back to him for guidance.
"Larry was typical of my kids," DiVietro says. "When he first came, he was insubordinate. He used foul language. Always had a chip on his shoulder. His was the natural animosity that comes from his background. I've got a kid like that now. He'd just as soon bust your tail as look at you. But I'm here from 8 a.m. until midnight and that kid is right with me. Larry was like that. Guys like that are looking for discipline, and when you give it to them they do one of two things: they go back to the streets for good, or they come back. Larry always came back. I knew then that there was a sliver of light. He wasn't going to wind up in jail or on welfare. He'd work. Always, he'd work."
Another who helped greatly in the shaping of the future world champion was Father Francis Barbato, a priest from Naples who founded the St. Anthony's Youth Center in Easton 25 years ago. The center is located in a predominantly Italian neighborhood, but Father Barbato opened it to everyone. By the time he was 10, Holmes had become a regular, primarily interested in learning to wrestle. Father Barbato often found the skinny black kid sitting on the stoop, waiting for the center to open. "The center was his second home," Father Barbato says. "He never gave trouble to anyone. He showed a willingness to be somebody, to do something with his life. It was clear he wanted to learn."
By the time he was 14, Holmes was trusted with turning out the lights and locking the center at night. At times it was an unpleasant chore.
"There were always guys who didn't want to leave," says Radogna. "Larry couldn't have been more than 14, and he was thin and not very tall. I remember one night he went up to turn out the lights and there was a bunch of guys playing basketball, big guys, football players, seniors in high school. Larry asked them to leave, and one of the guys hit him and knocked him down. Larry got up and turned out the lights. The guy knocked him down again. It went on like that: Larry turning off the lights, the guy knocking him down. He took a hell of a beating. But he never quit. In the end he got the lights off."
After working in the car wash, Holmes drove a dump truck in the town gravel pits. He also worked in a quarry. He poured steel, he was a sandblaster. He made artillery shells. And at times he had disagreements with the police. But by the standards of the streets, they were considered minor.
"Like I said, I was no angel," says Holmes. "I know how it feels to get in trouble with the police. I know how it feels to drink and get drunk. I know how it feels to smoke grass and get high. I've done it all. You can't tell me about it. But I worked for a living. I worked from the time I was a little boy. A lot of the guys I ran with didn't want to do that. They wanted to hustle and to pimp. Some got killed; some are in jail. I've always felt that you had to work for anything you got. I'm not ashamed to work and I've expressed that to my lawyer, Charles Spaziani, to Richie Giachetti and to Don King, the promoter. I'm the heavyweight champion, all right, but I can go back to work with my head up now—which I'll do if I am misused. I want to be treated honestly and with respect. If not, it's bye-bye, boxing."
Holmes was 19 years old when he decided to become a boxer. He had been thinking about it since the days, years before, when he and some friends and his brother Lee used to fight in bars on Saturday nights for free meals.
"We'd take gloves and fight right in the bars," Holmes says. "Me and Lee and Pooch Pratt, and Butch Andrews and Barry DeRohn. We'd fill the bars on a Saturday night. And no matter what happened in the fight, they'd always call it a draw. Then we could go in the kitchen and eat hot dogs and hamburgers, which is all we wanted anyway.
"When I dropped out of school, I had to go to work. Then one day I said, what the hell, I might as well be a fighter. You don't have to go to school to be a fighter, you don't nave to go to college. All you have to do is know how to fight and how not to get hurt."
Once his mind was set, Holmes took a direct, if somewhat unusual, route. He went to Earnee Butler, who runs a record store and shoeshine shop on South Third St. in Easton, and challenged him to a fight. Butler was then in his 40s; as an amateur welterweight, he had won 19 of 20 bouts; as a pro, he had lost just 14 of 104. He had retired in 1953, 15 years before. Still, "When I got off, we went to a gym and went at it," Butler says. "After it was over, Larry said, 'You're the best I've seen. Will you train me?' "
Holmes, who had grown to 6'3" and some 200 pounds, won 19 of 22 amateur fights. Then, still under the tutelage of Butler, he turned pro in March of 1973 and won six straight. Holmes and Butler later split, and since then Holmes' career has been guided by King, Giachetti and Spaziani, a former Northampton County district attorney.
"Larry thought I was bringing him along too slowly, too cautiously," says Butler. "It wasn't that. I just wanted to be sure he was ready."
Meanwhile, Holmes continued to win—in relative obscurity. On April 5, 1976 he knocked out one Fred Askew in Landover, Md., his 21st straight victory and 16th knockout. There was not a ripple of attention.
"King was acting as the manager back then, and I was the co-manager and trainer," says Giachetti, who ran an auto body shop in Cleveland in order to survive financially during most of Holmes' career. "But it was always Larry and me. We were the ones sacrificing, sharing the same bad hotel room, eating the same lousy food, taking the lesser fights. King's idea of a break was to put us on an Ali undercard. You can imagine how much attention you get when Ali is around. Nobody steals the show from Ali. It wasn't until we fought Roy Williams—Larry's 22nd fight—that I even got a budget for sparring partners. Before that, I'd pick up guys off the street."
During the lean years, Holmes worked as a sparring partner for Ali, Joe Frazier, Earnie Shavers and Jimmy Young. He was paid well, and he was learning; also, his confidence in his own abilities was growing. "I was young, and I didn't know much. But I was holding my own sparring those guys," Holmes says. "I thought, hey, these guys are the best, the champs. If I can hold my own now, what about later?"
In April of 1976, with only nine days notice, Holmes fought the towering Roy Williams and won an impressive 10-round decision. Three days later he was at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital having a broken right thumb repaired. He wouldn't fight again for nine months.
"I couldn't fight," Holmes says, "but every day for those nine months I was in the gym training. That's why my left hand is now so much better than my right. I forgot about my right, in a sense. I had a cast on it. When I got the cast off, the doctor said don't bang anything with it. I just worked with the left—the jab, the hook, the uppercuts. The left hand is probably 100% better right now than my right. If it wasn't for that hand, when I fought Norton for the title I probably would have lost."
After his right hand finally healed—imperfectly—Holmes won four minor fights. Then last March 25 he went against Earnie Shavers at Caesars Palace. It was the fight Holmes wanted, his first against a heavyweight of international stature, the chance to prove what he had been saying all along: that he was the baddest heavyweight in the world.
"And the rest of the world was saying I had no heart, that I'd fold and quit against Shavers," Holmes says, without bitterness. "Even one of my own uncles bet $1,000 on Shavers, and later I learned that Don King had already given Shavers $25,000 front money for his next fight after he beat me. All that negative stuff just made me work harder, just made me more determined. The only way Shavers was going to beat me was if they let him in the ring with a gun."
As a fight, it was no contest. A superior boxer with fast hands and quick reflexes, Holmes battered Shavers into submission, leaving him barely able to stand, winning every round from two judges, 11 rounds from the third.
"And what happens?" asks Holmes. "All I hear is what a great job Ray Arcel and Freddie Brown did."
At the last minute, Giachetti, covering all bets, had imported veteran trainers Arcel and Brown to work the corner with him. "It's Larry's biggest fight, and I'm young," says the 38-year-old Giachetti. "I figure maybe these guys can help."
"It was a mistake," says Holmes. "They're from the past, from the old school. They wear their hats indoors, they have cigars sticking out of their mouths and they growl at the fighters. The only thing they did was get all the publicity.
"Richie did all the work. Before the fight the only thing Arcel tells me is how much I hate Shavers. He flies into Vegas the night before the fight to tell me this. I told him, I don't hate Earnie. I've sparred with him, I've been to his home, I've had coffee with him. I don't hate him, I'm just going to fight him.' I don't hate anybody. Not even Ken Norton, like they said. If Larry Holmes ever gets to hate anybody, you're going to read in the papers that Larry Holmes has killed somebody."
And then it was June 9, with Holmes and Norton sitting in their corners, their lungs burning as they sucked in gulps of air. The scoring was all even after 14 brutal rounds of fighting.
"We thought I had the fight locked away," Holmes says. "I don't know what the judges were looking at. I was told just to go out and box, not to get knocked out. Hell, if he was going to stop me, he'd have had to kill me. He'd have had to hit me with a hammer.
"I had been thinking about that 15th round for a long time before we ever fought it. When I was running up those big hills, or along the towpath down by the river, I'd be thinking about that 15th round. And when the 15th round really came, all I thought about was all that running I had done to get that far. When I went out there in the 15th, I went out to fight, to give the people their money's worth. It didn't matter that I thought I had the fight already won. I fought Kenny Norton the way he wanted to fight. I fought him close, I fought him inside, I traded punches with him. He took punches, he gave punches, and we gave the people a great fight. That's why we were in there."
That was the night Larry Holmes became heavyweight champion of the world.
More than two months have passed since Holmes trained in the loft in the barn in Ohio. He worked hard for two more weeks, then returned to Easton, where he has bought a new house. He was in New Orleans to watch Ali defeat Spinks. And then he went back into hard training for his first title defense.
After Holmes finishes with Evangelista, Giachetti and Spaziani want another fight against another opponent they consider less than outstanding, someone like, say, Duane Bobick or, as Giachetti says, "an Ali or a Spinks. Then we'll fight the killers—the Nortons and the Youngs. Hell, we'll fight an Ali or a Spinks right away, but them other guys can wait a little bit longer. Remember, Evangelista is our third fight this year, and the other two were Shavers and Norton. And don't sell Evangelista that short. He is a top contender, and those kind of guys fight a hell of a lot tougher when it's for the title.
"We really don't want Ali," Giachetti continues, "but we can't turn him down if they offer the kind of money a fight like that deserves. Let's face it: Ali is shot. So who else can he fight but Holmes? You got to figure he's going to get licked by whoever he fights, so if he's going to get whipped, he might as well do it for the big money."
Of one thing Holmes is certain: it is going to take at least $5 million for him even to consider laying leather on his idol.
"I don't really want to fight Ali," he says. "Ali is a living legend. Once he was on his light side, but now he's on his dark side. If I fight him, folks are going to say, 'Well, Ali, he's an old man.' I'm hoping that he retires. There would be a lot of money involved if Ali fought on, but money is not everything. All that money is going to be here when you are gone. And I have so much respect for the guy. He's a real nice guy. And he helped me out a lot. He gave me a chance—to spar with him, to learn from him. No, I don't want to have to fight Muhammad Ali.
"But there are a lot of guys who want to fight for the title. They'll all get a chance. I don't think there's anybody out there who can beat me. Shavers can't beat me, Ali can't beat me, Spinks—all those people—they can't beat me. I'll give Norton another chance, maybe in a year. There's all those foreign dudes. They'll all get a chance. I'm like Ali. When Ali leaves this world, no matter what else was said about him, people are going to say he was a hell of a guy, a damn good human being."
Holmes pauses for a moment, thinking. Then tie smiles. "For a long time, people have been comparing me to Muhammad Ali, and it used to make me a little angry. But no more. Now when they say it, I say, 'Thank you.' I mean, what could be better than being like Ali, I ask you?"