The right hand appeared to have been launched from somewhere around the fifth row of the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, out there among the seats the toffs had shelled out $200 apiece for to watch Larry Holmes defend his WBC heavyweight title against lightly regarded Renaldo Snipes last Friday night. The fight had been labeled Imminent Danger, a halfhearted hype to suggest that an upset by Snipes, a journeyman of little note, would derail Holmes's multimillion-dollar Don King-promoted date with Gerry Cooney next spring.
Holmes had spent the first six rounds patiently toying with the awkward Snipes, who resembled a cork bobbing crazily in a storm-swept sea. So I was hardly surprising that in the seventh Holmes seemed almost mesmerized as he stood—with his arms at his sides watching the aforementioned right become a blur of red.
With a thunderclap that may have been heard 550 miles away in Kiamesha Lake. N.Y. where Cooney was dozing, the punch landed hard against Holmes's head, just above his left ear Twenty seven seconds into the round the stricken champion dropped to the canvas like a sack of 13 million silver dollars. No longer will anyone wonder why King's hair stands at attention.
As Snipes's muscular arms shot toward the heavens. Holmes rolled over and pushed himself up on all fours. He wasn't thinking of the Cooney fight or of the millions it meant. "My title," Holmes thought. "He's trying to steal my title."
As Referee Rudy Ortega glided in to pick up the count at six. Holmes, pushing off his right foot first, stood but remained bent at the waist. Dazed, he lurched forward, striking his head against a neutral-corner turnbuckle. He never felt it.
It is the destiny of this remarkable fighter that he can only be at his peerless best when he's being truly tested. He constantly threatens to become a ring bully, but it is not within him. Not, that is, until he's threatened with defeat.
Earnie Shavers, whom Holmes likes, floored the champion in their second fight, and Holmes responded by knocking Shavers out. Mike Weaver, now the WBA champ, had Holmes down (it was ruled a slip), and although Holmes was weakened by an infection, he got up and hammered Weaver until the fight was stopped. Now Snipes, a fighter of such small consequence that Las Vegas refused to put this bout on the boards, dropped Holmes on his broad back.
After Ortega had performed the ritual of wiping off the champion's gloves, Holmes, still dazed, walked absently toward Snipes's corner, where the challenger's handlers were screaming at their man to move in for the kill. In his desire to get at Holmes, Snipes almost bowled over Ortega. Another wild right from Snipes tagged Holmes on the shoulder. The champ gave his antagonist a bemused look; then, his head clearing, he shifted into a controlled fury.
With Snipes still attacking wildly, Holmes began battering him with right hands, at one point landing 11 straight punches before Snipes scored with a hook just before the bell.
In the eighth, Holmes went back to the jackhammer jab that had been missing since he had ripped Snipes over the left eye in the fifth. "I've got to quit doing that," Holmes admonished himself later. "I saw the cut and said, 'Aw, hell, I don't want to hit that.' I let him off the hook and then he knocks me on my ass. From now on I'm going to be pure mean."
Holmes was mean while stalking the whirling, bobbing and weaving Snipes through the ninth and 10th. The champ was looking for the one big right to end it. But Snipes is as tough as he is awkward, and he came on with a seemingly endless supply of those whistling right hands. In the 10th, he caught Holmes with another, this one fired from the $20 seats, but the champion rolled enough to soften it. Following the 10th round, Holmes, who had turned 32 three days earlier, decided he'd had enough. "I'm going to shorten everything up and end this," he told Trainer Eddie Futch in his corner.
After taking two steps toward Snipes at the start of the 11th round, Holmes paused and winked at his wife. Diane. "I just wanted her to know this would be the last round," he said.
A moment later Snipes got the same message in the form of a right to the body. Then the champion went to work with singular purpose, blending a blur of stiff jabs with the sledgehammer right. Just 45 seconds into the round, a right sent Snipes reeling sideways into his corner. Holmes moved to him quickly. There would be no reprieve this time. Two rights and a hook to the body pinned Snipes to the corner. Using all the power in his 6'3", 213-pound body, Holmes hammered three terrible rights to the head. As he was loading up to throw a fourth, Ortega stopped the onslaught.
There was 1:55 left in the round and no escape for Snipes. He never would have left that corner on his feet. And Ortega will never make a more merciful or correct decision. "I never hesitated," he said. "Snipes's hands were down, and his body was broken. He was pinned in the corner, and every punch Larry threw was hitting its target. You don't need a guy like Holmes beating on you. No way."
And then the other fight started.
ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell, who seems to be making a habit of getting in postfight brawls, was interviewing Snipes and Holmes simultaneously. Snipes's people were angry that the fight had been stopped, in their view, too soon. Jake Holmes, the champion's burly brother, was the innocent instigator.
"Snipes never hurt Larry," Jake told Futch during Cosell's interviews.
Overhearing Jake, Nick Rattenni Jr., Snipes's manager, told him to shut up. Jake called Rattenni a name, which, contrary to rumor, wasn't the magic word. Rattenni cocked a fist, which is a lot more invitation than Jake ever needs.
As Jake went after Rattenni, Snipes had another go at Larry, who pushed him away. Wisely, Cosell ducked for cover. During the melee, which was joined by a host of security guards, Snipes was pushed back against the Rev. Jim Williams, his trainer, who wielded a pair of scissors he intended to use to snip the tape from Snipes's hands. Instead, the scissors accidentally opened a deep crescent-shaped three-inch cut in Snipes's left forearm that required 40 stitches.
"I take the blame for the whole thing," Rattenni said later, adding, "but we're filing an immediate protest with the WBC and the Pennsylvania commission over the precipitous action of the referee in stopping the fight. We feel that the referee was wrong. The fighter wasn't even down."
Duke Durden of the Nevada commission and the WBC's representative at the fight said. "If the ref hadn't stopped it Snipes could have been killed. When Ortega came in. Snipes's legs were wobbling and he was defenseless. They can protest all they want. Ortega was 100 percent correct. "
The following morning Holmes, richer by $1.1 million, unmarked and now 39-0 after 11 straight defenses of the title he won from Ken Norton in June of 1978, was relatively happy Snipes, his arm in a splint, the eye wound closed by five additional stitches, his lacerated mouth and face swollen, remained in seclusion. "He's pretty bitter that they robbed him." said Rattenni.
(All three judges had Holmes well ahead: Spider Bynum scored it Holmes 97-91; Eddie Woods had it 96-93; and Tony Castellano's scorecard read 96-91.)
Holmes couldn't find fault with Ortega's cease-fire. "But I wish he hadn't stopped it," he said cheerfully. "At that point I wanted to punish Snipes some more. But I think when his people look at the tape replays they'll quit protesting. When Davey Pearl stopped the Leonard-Hearns fight, I thought he was wrong. But when I saw it on TV, I was wrong."
Holmes laughed when he was asked about the other fight. "It was just a lot of name calling," he said. "Snipes called me a chump, which I didn't like. Then Jake and Snipes's manager started calling each other names, and that's something you don't do with Jake. He's my brother, and if he wasn't, I sure as hell wouldn't want to fight him. When I jumped up I was just trying to calm Jake. Then I said to hell with it, and me and Howard ducked under the ring."
And that's when Snipes, who made $175,000 for losing for the first time career fights, got scissored. It may have been the first postfight interview in history ever stopped on cuts.