Life for Larry Holmes, 31, the small-town car washer who became the heavyweight champion of the World Boxing Council, lately has been a frustrating game of "What About?" He'd beat one guy and the people would say, "Yeah, but what about...?" The latest version of the question he seemingly cannot make go away was: Hey, Larry, if you're so great, what about Leon Spinks? Before that it was what about Earnie Shavers, what about Kenny Norton, and, alas, what about Muhammad Ali?
Before his methodical destruction of Spinks, 27, in less than three rounds last Friday in Detroit, Holmes had won 37 fights and lost none. After winning the title from Norton on June 9, 1978, he had defended it nine times. But instead of bringing Holmes the great respect he deserves, his victories have, perversely, transformed good fighters into instant mediocrities or old men. It is Holmes' problem that he is so proficient, everyone he is in with looks shabby: Aw, Larry, anybody could have beaten that bum. What about...?
And so Holmes is constantly fighting a formless opponent he cannot smash with his 13½-inch fists, with the result that this marvelous fighting machine is consumed with disgust and rage. "What do they want of me?" he asked before the Spinks fight. "It's a stupid game I can't win. I don't know why I don't say to hell with it and quit. I've got more than I ever dreamed I'd have. All I wanted was enough to buy a small house and a small business. Now I'm a multimillionaire. I can walk away and be happy the rest of my life."
But Holmes knows he can't walk away. Not yet. Restlessly, he paced the floor of his penthouse hotel suite in Detroit. "Now it's what about Spinks?" Holmes growled. "A fighter with a 10-2-2 record who beat an old man to win a title, and they have the nerve to wonder if I can beat him. Damn, and after him it will be what about Cooney? And what about Greg Page and Michael Dokes? They never stop." There was an anger within him, and anger is usually foreign to this gentle, good-natured giant. "One day, they're going to push me until somebody gets in the ring with me and gets hurt bad, real bad," he said, the words coming from deep in his throat. It was that dark mood Holmes carried to the Joe Louis Arena to face Spinks. He would earn $1.9 million, but neither the money nor the title now drives the 6'3", 212¼-pound champion into yet another bout. Holmes fights now because of pride.
In Holmes' quiet dressing room an hour before the fight, Eddie Futch, the little trainer who replaced Richie Giachetti last April, spoke softly. "Remember, he's going to come charging right at you," said Futch. "Just move around at first. Get your timing together, get your distance. I don't want you to go out and start exchanging with him." Holmes nodded to show that he understood. He's too much the professional to permit anger to lead him into an ambush.
In Spinks' dressing room a line of friends paraded past, telling him he would win easily. Each received the same reply: "I'll do the best I can." Finally Mrs. Kay Spinks, the challenger's mother, joined in the "you'll-beat-him" chorus.
"Aw, Mom, shut up," said Spinks mildly. "I'll just do the best I can." At 200¼ pounds, Spinks, who held the world title for seven months in 1978, was in peak form. Behind him were seven solid weeks of hard work in the solitude of northern Michigan. He would earn his $490,000.
As expected, Spinks went after Holmes with a great rush, bobbing and weaving like a disco dancer in a frenzy, trying to get inside the champion's five-inch-longer reach and his snapping jab. In the gym Spinks is an excellent boxer; in the ring he reverts to a style more commonly seen on the streets. It is as though the bell erases everything from his mind but the instinct to attack.
As Spinks swarmed, Holmes circled, mostly to his right, using his jab more for measurement than punishment. Midway through the round, as Spinks started to hook. Holmes launched a hard overhand right to the head. A look of satisfaction said that that one punch told him it would be a short fight. Between rounds Futch advised Holmes to begin double-jabbing. "He's starting to counter over the jab," Futch said.
The second round was memorable because of an accidental ringing of the bell 25 seconds early. Seemingly only Holmes and his cornerman heard it. In the champion's corner Keith Kleven, a physical therapist, times each round with a stopwatch. With 30 seconds to go he signals Jake Holmes, a younger brother of Larry's and his acting manager, who then shouts, "Cut the tree." It's to tell Holmes that the round is coming to a close and to finish with a flurry. But now Jake had hardly shouted when the bell dinged. As Holmes dropped his hands, Spinks hit him with a good right. Led by Futch, Holmes' people started into the ring. Glancing at his stopwatch, Kleven shouted frantically for them to come back. "It's not over," he yelled at Futch.
Holmes grabbed Spinks and looked toward his corner. Referee Richard Steele, who hadn't heard the early bell, stepped between the fighters and ordered them to break. Angry, Holmes stepped back and whacked Spinks with both hands.
When the bell rang again, Holmes went to his corner and demanded, "What the hell is going on? I keep hearing bells."
"Yeah, you heard a bell," Jake said. "What the hell."
Futch took command. "Forget that; you're going good, Larry," he said. "Keep moving to your right, and when he starts that hook, hit him with the right."
But for Holmes there would be no more dancing this night. He had had enough. Going swiftly to ring center, he waited for Spinks. He fired a string of stinging jabs, crossed a right and jabbed twice more. Off-balance, Spinks tried a right hand, missed badly, and fell as Holmes disdainfully pushed him away. Hardly was he up before Holmes was on him, smothering him with a storm of slamming rights after a left hook to the body had nearly torn Spinks in half. With Spinks pinned to the ropes. Holmes, his long left arm stuck in the challenger's face as a measuring stick, hit Spinks with a short, chopping overhand right. Slowly Spinks toppled to his right, fell facedown on the lower strand, and then rolled over onto the canvas, landing on his back. Somehow, at nine, he regained his feet.
Referee Steele peered into his eyes, which were clear. "You O.K.?" Steele asked.
"Damn right I'm O.K."
With a savagery he seldom displays. Holmes opened up with a new assault of hard right hands. As Spinks reeled under the barrage, his younger brother, Michael, who will fight Eddie Mustafa Muhammad for the WBA light heavyweight title next month, bounded up the steps yelling for Steele to stop the fight. From below, Dale Williams, an assistant trainer, threw a white towel into the ring. But Steele had already moved in to stop the punishment.
A few moments later, Holmes, annoyed because he thought the fight should have been stopped sooner, was almost in his second battle of the night. While being interviewed by ABC's Howard Cosell, he spotted Gerry Cooney, the No. 1 contender, being steered in their direction by an ABC aide. Holmes' eyes flared; he has no love for Cooney.
"Howard, if he comes over here I'm gonna slap him," Holmes warned, rising as Cooney came closer.
"You got no class," Cooney said.
"You dirty..." Holmes screamed, "we're gonna fight right now!"
He lunged toward Cooney. During the melee, Holmes accidentally elbowed Cosell in the mouth, slightly cutting his lower lip. Later Holmes said of Cooney, "If he comes in here now, I'll punch him in the mouth. We'll fight for free. Don King offered him $5 million to fight me. I signed. When he signs I'll talk about him." That may not be for some time. Cooney has already signed to fight WBA champion Mike Weaver in the fall. For mysterious reasons, however, the WBA has ordered that Weaver must first fight James Tillis, who is only the No. 3 contender. But that's another fight....
Still, for Holmes, a new version of the old game has already begun. Hey, Larry, what about Cooney?