Here's the word from Larry Holmes on why he lost his heavyweight title to Michael Spinks last September and why he thinks he can beat Spinks in their rematch on April 19 in Las Vegas. Holmes told SI senior writer Pat Putnam that he fought ineffectively against Spinks because he was worried about a herniated spinal disk that was putting pressure on a nerve in his neck. According to Holmes, a Las Vegas neurosurgeon told him 10 days before the fight that one solid punch could paralyze him for life. "I was scared because of the pinched nerve," he said. "That damned pinched nerve. I was thinking about it too much. I was thinking about his counter." Holmes said that's why he threw so few of his usually devastating rights. He also said that he shouldn't have worried about the pinched nerve the last time out and that he won't give it a thought this time.
Holmes obviously needs to prepare himself mentally for the Spinks rematch, and he can properly do that only if he somehow explains away last September's defeat, his first after 48 victories. And, of course, alibis for that unexpected result might also hype the rematch.
But there appears to be at least some truth to what Holmes is saying. Dr. Vance MacDonald, a neurosurgeon on staff at the University of Nevada's Medical Center, is the specialist who examined Holmes before the first fight. He recalled last week, "The bottom line was that, from the one test that he had, there was the possibility of a ruptured disk in his neck. There was some weakness in his [right] arm which suggested the same thing." But MacDonald also said, "I think I may have said that if he did have a ruptured disk, there was the potential possibility of paralysis. I am not denying I said that. No matter what I said, it was based on supposition.... I would have liked to have done other tests."
After seeing MacDonald, Holmes went to another specialist for a second opinion. That doctor, according to Holmes, said the chances of paralysis were negligible. He says he has come to accept this assurance more fully than he did at the time and, as a result, will be less sparing with his right hand on April 19. Of that fight, he told Putnam, "I want it so bad I'll probably go in there tight, but I'll go in there fighting. Either they count me out or they count him out. That's the way I want this fight to be."
Alibi or not, Holmes sure sounds as if he believes it.
While too many college athletes take time off from the books to play ball, baseball players at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology did just the opposite last week. Playing against crosstown rival Indiana State in their annual Mayor's Cup game in Terre Haute, R-H enjoyed a 7-4 lead after three innings when designated hitter Mark Mayfield and two reserves abruptly departed; they were due back on campus for a mechanical engineering exam. Indiana State scored single runs in the fourth and fifth. In the sixth the Engineers lost two more players: Centerfielder James Yoakum and shortstop Alan Snedeker also had tests to take. Its ranks depleted, R-H still hung on for a 7-6 win, only the third for Division III Rose-Hulman against Division I Indiana State since the Mayor's Cup series between the two began in 1973.
Rod Higgins has spent this season on a whirlwind tour of the NBA. The 6'7" forward's odyssey began after he was cut by the Chicago Bulls during the preseason. He soon caught on with Seattle and played 12 games for the Sonics in November and December. Then he was cut and signed with San Antonio, where he played 11 games. The Spurs waived him and Higgins played two games for New Jersey in February. Dropped once more, Higgins—he doesn't take these things personally—again signed with the Bulls on March 14 and played five games, thus becoming the first NBA player to play for four clubs in a season. That record may yet fall: Cut again last Thursday, the forever free agent is looking for a new team.
STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND
It was an alien invasion by 8,000 mostly clean-living, outdoorsy folks. They were in Las Vegas, riding bikes in the desert and jogging through the streets even as bleary-eyed bettors made their way home at dawn. For the 15th straight year, Vegas was hosting the week-long Ski Industries America convention, a gathering of ski-shop owners and outdoor-equipment manufacturers that seemed strikingly out of place amid all that neon.
"I don't really know why we come here," said Mary Scott, promotion director for North Face equipment. "We just always have. It's a nice switch for us. It's like a vacation from being healthy." Scott succumbed to Vegas's famous temptations only once. "I put a quarter in a slot machine and lost. But it was fun."
One highlight of the convention was the "polyester party" at the El Rancho bowling alley. People who never wear anything but cotton turtlenecks and wool sweaters raided the Vegas boutiques for synthetic shirts and shorts, and prizes were awarded for the flashiest getups. But there was fresh-air relief from such hilarity when North Face joined with Bushnell, the binocular company, in sponsoring an overnight campout 30 miles from Las Vegas. "It was beautiful," said Scott. "It snowed lightly that night. The next morning we had a big cowboy breakfast with eggs, potatoes and real strong coffee." One convention-goer, Jennifer Kimball, an account executive for a Manhattan p.r. firm, reported, "After nearly a week in Vegas, you forget just how beautiful it is outdoors."
A LESSON NOT YET LEARNED
In the wake of the fan violence that left 38 people dead at last year's European Cup soccer final in Brussels (SI, June 10), the European soccer association (UEFA) adopted strict new crowd-security measures for Cup matches, including tighter police controls, limits on ticket sales to visiting teams and a ban on alcohol sales at stadiums. UEFA also indefinitely banned English teams from European competition and ousted Liverpool, whose supporters had been responsible for the Brussels riot, from all European competition for at least three years.
Sadly, some Britons have learned nothing from the experience. In early February, fans in Highbury smashed the windows of a bus carrying the Aston Villa team. A week later in Liverpool, players from archrival Manchester United were sprayed with a substance thought by police to be ammonia. In light of the continuing violence, the English Football Association announced two weeks ago that it would try to deter known hooligans from attending this summer's World Cup matches in Mexico City. "We have had complete cooperation from all the travel companies," said EFA secretary Ted Croker.
A recent British government inquiry concluded that there is no complete cure for fan violence but called for tighter security measures similar to those imposed by the European association. As for any hopes England might have of returning to European play, a UEFA offical says that the matter "is not on the agenda for any meeting in the near future."
SORRY SCENE IN FLORIDA
On this side of the Atlantic, another sad soccer story: parents of players in a youth soccer league verbally abusing a referee, chasing him, kicking him. It happened recently at an under-14 game in Boca Raton, Fla. when supporters of the Miami Shores team constantly harassed a veteran referee, Dr. Joseph Meeroff, for what they saw as favoritism toward the team from Jupiter.
With the score tied 1-1 after two overtimes, the game moved into a shootout. At one point in the shootout, Meeroff ruled that the Miami Shores goalie had moved prematurely on a failed kick and awarded the Jupiter player another attempt. The Miami Shores fans attacked Meeroff, leaving him bruised on the right shoulder and both legs, and drove him behind the Jupiter bench. Meeroff stopped the game. The next week the Florida Youth Soccer Association suspended the Miami Shores program, saying it would not offer reinstatement until someone from Miami Shores stepped forward to identify the assailants. So far, no one has—and 60 youngsters remain sidelined.
A STROKE OF MISFORTUNE
Charlie Sifford had mixed feelings about the hole in one he scored last week in a senior tournament in Los Angeles. Earlier, the promoters had announced a hole-in-one contest: Anyone firing an ace on the 187-yard 15th hole at the Mountain-Gate Country Club wins $100,000 and a Buick Riviera. But the sponsors' efforts to insure the jackpot fell through, and during Friday's first round a sign announcing the bonus was taken down. A half hour later Sifford aced that very hole with a five-iron. Sifford won no cash, but Buick, feeling sorry for him, said he could have the car.
THE LIFE AND HARD TIMES OF A PHENOM
A year ago Chris Pittaro was a certified phenom. Tiger manager Sparky Anderson, a quick one with the superlatives, called him "the best infield prospect I've had come through camp in 15 years."
Pittaro certainly looked good enough in spring training, hitting .314. On Opening Day he was the Tigers' starting third baseman, and he went 3 for 4 against Cleveland, driving in the tying run as Detroit rallied to win 5-4. After the first week of the season he was hitting .353. But Pittaro says that, with all eyes on him, he felt tremendous pressure. It didn't help that Pittaro was a natural second baseman who was waving at balls that major league third basemen are supposed to stop. Pretty soon his hitting trailed off sharply. "I just didn't get comfortable at third," he remembers. "That affects your whole mental outlook. I became tentative at the plate."
In mid-June, hitting .242 and fielding below .900, Pittaro was sent to Triple A Nashville. He took the pressures with him. "I wanted to do so well that Detroit would have to bring me back up," he says. "But I hadn't played in six weeks, and I came out trying to do a little too much." He batted .194 at Nashville, and during the off-season Detroit traded him to Minnesota.
This spring Pittaro is comfortable being the Twins' largely anonymous second-string second baseman. "I'd like to put last year behind me," he says. "I just want to be myself." If Pittaro's trying to change, Anderson seems very much the same. His phenom for '86 is newcomer Doug Baker, whom he un-blushingly calls "the best fielding shortstop I've seen since Pee Wee Reese."
THEY SAID IT
•Senator Bill Bradley, former New York Knick: "My staffers joke that if I ever go to Russia and meet with Gorbachev, the news stories will start with, 'Bill Bradley, former New York Knick....' "
•Frank Layden, Utah Jazz basketball coach, reminiscing about his rough-and-tumble high school days in Brooklyn: "We had a lot of nicknames—Scarface, Blackie, Toothless—and those were just the cheerleaders."