Minutes after Larry Holmes had retained his world heavyweight title with a 12th-round TKO of James (Bone-crusher) Smith last Friday night in Las Vegas, he revealed to an astonished press that he'd fought with a fracture on the tip of his right thumb, incurred while training in July. "Tell us, Larry," one wag of a reporter yelled, "can you still pick up money with it?"
Picking up seven-figure bundles of greenbacks is what matters most to Holmes these days. But after raising his record to 46-0—with 33 KOs and 18 successful title defenses—by defeating the rawboned and awkward Smith, Holmes had to have been wondering how long his fist will be able to scoop up cash.
Holmes, who turned 35 six days before the fight, which was held in an outdoor stadium in the parking lot of the Riviera Hotel and Casino, earned his $1 million only after grinding through a year's worth of ring rust, being staggered by Smith's slow but powerful right in the fifth and eighth rounds and sustaining a butt wound in the seventh that caused him to bleed from his left brow—it took eight stitches to close the cut—for the remainder of the fight. But Holmes showed he still has a champion's heart (this bout was technically only for something called the International Boxing Federation crown, though every mother's son knows that Holmes is the undisputed world champ, even if the WBA and WBC don't) by ending the fight at 2:10 of the 12th after using a short right hand, fracture or no, to inflict a cut over Smith's left eye even worse than his own.
Though Holmes was well ahead on points at the end, the fight was surprisingly competitive. At 6'4" and 227 pounds, Smith was 5½ pounds heavier, an inch taller and four years younger than Holmes but light years behind in skill. The highlight of Smith's 14-1 career had been a 10th-round knockout of England's Frank Bruno last May. It was off that fight that Smith became Holmes's latest sacrificial lamb.
Holmes may have thought fighting Smith would be an easy $1 million (Smith got $175,000), but his postfight attitude reflected neither joy in victory nor disappointment. On a scale of one to 10, Holmes said, "I'd rate my performance about a seven." Holmes is only four fights away from retiring undefeated with more wins than Rocky Marciano had in his unblemished career. But Holmes wanted no part of promoter Don King's hype, which had this bout billed as part of the Countdown to Glory. "The record is important to everybody else," Holmes said. "I don't follow history."
Holmes hadn't fought since he knocked out the overmatched Marvis Frazier in one round on Nov. 25, 1983. Tired of King's penurious business practices, Holmes, who gave up his WBC title, tried to promote his own fight with WBA champion Gerrie Coetzee. But Holmes's new backer, Ken Bounds's JPD Sports, pulled out after advancing Holmes $3 million. Finally, in September, after nine months of the twilight of his career had been wasted, Holmes took the fight with Smith, who was ranked ninth by the WBA, 10th by the IBF and 17th by the WBC, even though King was the promoter.
"I'll keep fighting as long as the money is there and I feel like it," said Holmes, who estimated he's worth $18 million after having made approximately $40 million in the ring. "A fighter is supposed to fight, and I hope my fights are easy. The only thing that means anything to me now is to fight and not get hurt. I don't want to get hurt."
It was difficult to tell from the Smith fight whether it was erosion of skills, the layoff, the sore thumb or just a big, strong, awkward opponent that kept Holmes from looking better. "Style makes the fight," Holmes said afterward. "This guy don't know what he's going to do, how am I going to know."
But Bonecrusher, a self-professed country boy from Magnolia, N.C. who was also known as Sominex in his amateur days, is a man of few words but definite ideas. "I figure if I hit a man on his chin or anywhere on his head, he's going to sleep," he said before the fight. "I will knock Larry Holmes down, and he will not get up."
After winning the first four rounds and landing several straight rights that had little effect on Smith, Holmes got caught with a big right in the fifth after missing with one of his own. Immediately, Holmes hung on and walked the inexperienced Smith around the ring until his head cleared. Then toward the end of the seventh, Smith came out of a crouch after ducking a right hand and hit his head against Holmes's brow, opening a deep wound. Despite the efforts of cut man Percy Richardson, the bleeding continued almost unabated.
In the eighth Holmes was caught with a wicked right, and again he had to hold on. After the round, trainer Eddie Futch told Holmes to stop loading up with the right hand and to box. "Larry sacrificed some of his skills going for the knockout," said Futch. "I told him to move and jab more, and to throw the right hand from a shorter distance so Bonecrusher's counter would go over his shoulder."
Holmes took control, hurting Smith with a Futch-designed short right in the 11th that tore open Smith's left eyelid. Holmes continued to work on the cut in the 12th until referee Davey Pearl asked Dr. Donald Romeo to look at it. When the doctor informed Smith that the cut was serious and asked Smith if he wanted to continue, Bonecrusher said, "Call it off." The cut required 20 stitches.
Later, at Desert Springs Hospital, Holmes was examined by Dr. Richard Adams, who said Holmes fought with a significant fracture of the distal phalanx that had worsened, based on X rays of the original break. Said Adams, "It's not an injury I would box with."
Why, then, didn't Holmes take the time to let the thumb heal?
"Well, because I'm 35 years old, and I got to do it while I feel like it," he said outside the emergency room. "You have to take a chance. That's what boxing's all about."