The jab was a bolt of beauty, a cobra striking again and again at the already reddened and swollen face of Mike Weaver. It always begins this way—with the wicked jab. It is the drum roll for another anticipated brilliant performance by Larry Holmes, 29, the heavyweight champion of those portions of the globe that no longer swear fealty to Muhammad Ali.
"The jab is my dogs," a confident but troubled Holmes had said a few hours before his WBC title defense against Weaver last Friday night at Madison Square Garden. "I send the dogs out, then I go in."
Early in the first round the dogs were off their leads and doing their work. Weaver, 26, an ex-Marine from Pomona, Calif., was verifying the rumors about his abilities: he was plodding and easy to hit. He looked every bit the unappealing out-bet underdog he had been labeled by the Las Vegas bookies and the New York TV moguls.
The crowd of 14,136, the fans who watched on closed circuit in 45 locations, and the two million subscribers in their living rooms who could be thankful that Home Box Office shelled out the fire-sale price of $150,000 to buy a fight program that the three major networks deemed unworthy of display, warmed to the promise of Holmes' heavy fists.
The mood had been properly set, first by Jimmy Young, who had waddled in at 235 pounds, 23 more than he weighed when he beat George Foreman in 1977, but 24 fewer than he weighed only three weeks before this fight. He stifled a merry outcry at his obesity by knocking out one Wendell Bailey in the third round.
Then it was the turn of Roberto Duran, bringing a sense of almost surrealistic beauty to savagery, fighting for the first time as a welterweight and, after 10 brutal rounds, chasing Carlos Palomino, the former WBC champion, into retirement. Duran had been awesome among the lightweights, whom he ruled without mercy for seven years. He may be even better at 147 pounds. The higher weight slowed Duran not at all. He bewildered Palomino with flicking head and shoulder feints; he battered him with punches thrown at blinding speed. At times, just for fun, he feinted from the left, feinted from the right, and then, with Palomino in a flux of frantic confusion, stepped back and flashed a wolfish grin as Palomino untangled himself. Duran won 99-90 on all three cards.
"Aw, I wasn't that good," he said after this, his 66th victory in 67 fights. "I didn't train that hard in Panama. I guess I am just lazy. But next time I will train very hard. Next time I will be very good."
Next time should be against Pipino Cuevas, the WBA champion, sometime in September. And the time after that he should be matched with the winner of December's Sugar Ray Leonard-Wilfredo Benitez WBC championship fight.
"I don't think any of those people want to fight Roberto," said Carlos Eleta, Duran's patron and manager. "But now we leave them no choice. We have them in a position where they can't run from us."
Despite the action-filled welterweight fight, Friday night belonged to Holmes. He is an immensely proud man, and, despite the fact that he privately downgraded Weaver, it annoyed him that his fight was drawing less media attention than Duran vs. Palomino.
"They aren't even in a title fight," Holmes complained. "It's a 10-round preliminary, and I don't care who's in it, that's all it is. They all act as if Weaver was going to walk into the ring and drop dead. Hell, he's a fighter. He's going to throw everything he has at me because he has nothing to lose. He wants my title and for him it's the chance of a lifetime. And I'll kill him before I let him take it from me."
It was equally unsettling to the champion that the TV networks were ignoring a heavyweight title fight for the first time since Sept. 28, 1976. The networks had chosen instead to show an eight-year-old tearjerker movie; a rerun from an adventure series; and Eddie Capra solving a murder he had solved for TV at least once before.
All that merely hurt Holmes' pride; the financial terms he had accepted were disastrous. For his defense against Weaver—a muscular and shy young man sometimes billed as "Hercules," and who, according to the latest WBC mythology, was ranked eight steps from Olympus on the basis of the 20-8 record he seemingly had achieved in camera—Holmes was first promised the relatively modest sum of $1 million.
Holmes wasn't unhappy with that figure. No matter how the fight was billed, Weaver was no more than a tune-up for a proposed Sept. 14 rematch with Earnie Shavers, and for that one the champion would be paid $2.5 million. But then the $1 million for risking all against Weaver began to dissolve. The TV people decided that Holmes-Weaver wasn't worth prime-time exposure.
The final blow was delivered by Madison Square Garden, a full and losing partner with promoter Don King in his last four New York ventures. This time the Garden elected to recoup some of its losses with a flat $45,000 rental fee and let King go it alone. He could pay for the ads and promotion.
"And I went from $1 million to zero," Holmes said morosely. "Don said I had to gamble. I get 100% of everything over expenses. He says we need 14,000 at the live gate to break even. I hope we draw 14,001. I'd like to make a dollar."
Holmes' patience was bent near to the breaking point when, after a warmup in his dressing room, he entered the ring ready to fight only to find a screeching and quivering ring announcer who spent 20 minutes introducing everyone in the first 10 rows, including a local Cadillac dealer.
The ring announcer turned out to be Bill Merriman, whom King imported from San Antonio, where he must practice his craft by calling pigs.
Holmes at least was spared the $1.98 performance of King's Queens, a group of young damsels who were herded into the ring to prance about in multicolored but uniformly skintight outfits.
As Merriman's roll call of the audience went on, Holmes almost chucked it in. He told King later, "One more minute of that and I was gonna climb out of the ring and go home. You damn near didn't have a fight. I came in sweating and ready to go, and then I had to stand there listening to that guy introduce all those people, and nobody knew who any of them were."
Cooled down, as was Weaver, Holmes finally got to fight. He knew the bout wouldn't go 15 rounds; he just wasn't sure when it would end. "Some guy wrote that I predicted a knockout in the fourth round," he said. "I never said that. I'm not like Ali; I don't make predictions. I just said it wouldn't go more than seven, and only because one of my daughters asked for that."
In the past, when the 6'3", 215-pound Holmes chose the moment to follow his dogs to the quarry, it had been with thunderous hooks and straight rights and uppercuts. In just two days short of a full year, he had decisively beaten the formidable Shavers in 12 rounds, and then, on a split decision, had taken the title from Kenny Norton and defended it twice, destroying Alfredo Evangelista and Osvaldo Ocasio, each in seven explosive rounds, improving with each fight.
But when Holmes stepped in to unload on the slow-moving Weaver, he found he had nothing to go with the jab. Everything he threw, except that slamming straight left, missed.
"Weaver thumbed him in the left eye in the first round," said Richie Giachetti, Holmes' manager and trainer. "He complained about it when he came back to the corner."
"What are you seeing?" Giachetti asked him.
"Sometimes I see double, sometimes triple. And sometimes I can't see anything."
Working quickly, Giachetti washed out the eye. Then he pressed the swollen tissue around it with a coin, forcing the swelling away from the eye to keep it from closing.
"All you can do is go out and move and jab, move and jab," Giachetti said. "And wait for the eye to clear."
Holmes moved, but he was cumbersome. This wasn't the Holmes of the last four fights. His legs were sluggish, his reactions slow. There was only the jab, and even that at times was less than perfect. Weaver, his face taking a beating, began to walk through it. In the fourth round he hurt Holmes with a hook to the body, and then shook him with a long right to the head. As Holmes tried to escape, his right foot found a puddle of water in his corner and he went to one knee. "A slip," ruled referee Harold Valan.
After losing the first three rounds to the jab, Weaver, 13 pounds lighter than Holmes, won the next two. Sensing an upset might be in the making, the crowd began to cheer "WeaVER, WeaVER, WeaVER."
"I heard them yelling for him," Holmes said later, "but it didn't mean anything. At the time, he was beating the hell out of me. So they yelled for him. When I was beating the hell out of him, they was yelling for me.".
Going back to the jab, pawing at times with the right, Holmes regained some control. He won the sixth and seventh rounds, but he was breathing hard. He appeared to be spent.
In the crowd, Shavers, seeing his September title shot unexpectedly slipping away, became alarmed. "You're messing with my money!" he screamed up at Holmes. "I got to feed my babies. Run from him. If you can't run from him, give me the baton and I'll get in the ring and run from him."
In the eighth and ninth rounds, both men, too tired to run or to give chase, battered each other about the ring. At any moment it seemed as though one—or both—would fall from exhaustion.
It was while trudging back to his corner at the end of the ninth round that Holmes decided enough was enough. "I thought about my title," he said. "And I thought about this guy trying to take it from me. I knew I had made a lot of mistakes: that I had taken him too lightly, that I should have trained a lot harder. I decided to suck it up. If I was going to be a champion, then, damn it, I was gonna fight like a champion. He was gonna have to kill me to take my title."
As the 10th round began, Holmes said to Weaver, "I'm the champion. There's no way you're gonna beat me."
"I'm gonna try," Weaver answered.
They went at each other with a fury. Near the end of the round Holmes drilled a right to Weaver's jaw and bounced another off the top of his head.
"Now," Holmes thought.
He stepped in—and took a solid right on the chin that staggered him. Reaching deeply within, Holmes remained toe to toe with Weaver for the last few seconds.
"I was scared to death," King, who will promote the September fight as well, said later.
"What the hell," said Giachetti. "You think you were the only one scared?"
The 11th round began with the crowd once more urging Weaver to end it. Once more the fighters went at each other head to head. With a minute to go, Weaver was cut over the left eye. His face was cherry-red and swollen from the jab, from the heavy punches now getting past his tired arms.
Holmes caught his man with two lefts and a right, and then a solid right cross. Weaver backed into the ropes and the champion followed him, stepped in close and threw everything he had left into a paralyzing right uppercut.
Weaver dropped. There were 12 seconds left. Somehow the challenger pulled himself up, just beating the count. It earned him a minute's rest, but that wasn't enough.
As Weaver came out for the 12th round, referee Valan asked, "Are you O.K.?"
"Yeah," was the reply.
Holmes advanced quickly, fired four quick jabs and then went to work with both hands. Weaver backed against the ropes and hung there, unable to do more than defend himself. Valan stopped the fight 44 seconds into the round and the network TV people took off after King, bidding for replay rights to the bout. "They all wanted it," King reported later. "I gave it to ABC and they'll run it on July 1. Giving it to ABC was the right thing to do. After all, they'll televise Holmes-Shavers."
And Holmes' dogs will not only have their day; Larry will have a payday.