As announcer Chuck Hull read off the first judge's score—it had the champion, Michael Spinks, winning last Saturday's IBF heavyweight title fight at Las Vegas—Larry Holmes turned to his trainer, Richie Giachetti, and moaned, "Oh, no, I've got a big mouth." This was the same Holmes who had publicly questioned the sobriety and integrity of Nevada boxing judges and then had apologized. Sort of. "When I said they drank before fights and accepted payoffs," Holmes had said, "I didn't mean to offend anyone."
Holmes would have been better off asking for a change of venue. If this fight had been staged in a saloon, where the only judges are a man's fists, Holmes surely would have regained the title he lost by decision to Spinks last September. Unfortunately for the 36-year-old ex-champion, while the judges in the Hilton Center presumably were sober and honest, two were more impressed by Spinks's popguns than by Holmes's cannons—and they gave the 15-round fight to Spinks on a split decision.
Fighting with a broken right thumb from the third round on, Holmes hurt Spinks with solid rights in the fifth and ninth rounds, had him wandering around the ring on rubbery legs in the 14th and landed a devastating right in the final round. If judges Frank Brunette (144-141, Spinks) and Jerry Roth (144-142) were giving the champion bonus points for a stout heart and a strong chin, then one would find it hard to quarrel with their verdicts.
Taking the minority view, judge Joe Cortez thought Holmes won handily, 144-141. To judge by the jeers that greeted the result, so did the vast majority of the 8,328 spectators.
After the fight, Holmes was taken to Valley Hospital, where his thumb was put in a metal splint. But before departing, Holmes tarried long enough to tell an HBO audience: "I can say a lot of things but I'd probably say the wrong thing, then end up apologizing." After which he proceeded to say a lot of things, including this: "The judges, referees and promoters can kiss me where the sun don't shine—and because we're on HBO, that's my big black behind."
By the time he returned from the hospital to his suite on the 27th floor of the Hilton's north tower, Holmes's anger had apparently ebbed. "I'm not bitter, but I am retiring," he said quietly. "I don't need the aggravation. I'm gone. I got a big mouth and they slapped me on the hand. They hurt me. For the first time in my life I cried. I didn't even cry after I won the title. I don't regret what I've done, only the things that I've said. I never wanted to hurt anybody. I just wish I could have gone out clean."
"Clean" would have been 49-0, matching Rocky Marciano's career mark, the best ever by an undefeated heavyweight champion. Holmes was 48-0 when Spinks upset him to become the first light heavyweight champion to win a heavyweight title. "Clean" would have been 48-1, but Holmes sullied that when, after losing to Spinks, a 6-to-1 underdog, he snapped at members of the Marciano family at the postfight press conference that "Marciano couldn't have carried my jockstrap."
"Big mouth," Holmes kept repeating after Saturday's loss to Spinks. "Marciano was a great fighter. I regret what I said. I hurt a lot of people with that. I just didn't want to put myself down. And this fight, I wanted to change my image."
Before the rematch with Spinks, Holmes had tried to put his mouth on hold. He stopped talking to the media. If he stayed out of verbal dark alleys, he reasoned, he wouldn't get mugged.
"I'm just going to try and stay away from the critics," he had said. "I'm going to stay away from the postfight press conferences because I take my anger into press conferences and say things I don't want to say."
But Holmes also wanted it known that he was getting old. Age was eroding his good intentions. He had decided that compassion would no longer be his companion in the ring. "I don't have any good intentions about letting a person survive in a fight, because nobody wants me to survive. The last time I fought Spinks I was confused, scared. I had that pinched nerve in my neck and I was afraid to get hit. Not this time. The last time I wanted to win this bad was when I won the title from Kenny Norton on June 9, 1978.I want blood pouring down my face, like in Rocky, and blood pouring down his face. I want my eyes closed. I want his eyes closed. I want to fight, man. I want to get hit in the mouth and get all my teeth knocked out. And I want to do the same thing to his ass."
"Is that the way you fought Norton?" a visitor asked.
Holmes considered the question, then laughed. "No. I didn't want to get my teeth knocked out. I just wanted to fight."
To toughen up, Holmes, who earned $1,125 million for this fight, took to soaking his face in brine. To prepare for his $2 million payday, Spinks, 29, returned to New Orleans to work with Mackie Shilstone, the nutritionist-conditioning coach who added 25 pounds of muscle to Spinks's 6'2½" frame before the first fight. Now Shilstone modified the regimen with a series of 1,320-, 880- and 440-yard runs, with one-minute breaks to simulate the rhythms of a fight; for the first fight, the runs were shorter. Shilstone also had Spinks leaping on and off plywood boxes and hurling a medicine ball at a circle of four people—exercises intended to improve his ability to throw punches from unexpected angles.
"The last time, I worked on becoming a heavyweight," said Spinks, who would come in five pounds heavier, at 205. "For this fight I started as a heavyweight and just worked on improving what beat Larry the last time. This time I should be much stronger. I have to be. I expect Larry to be a little more angry, a little more vicious. I wouldn't be surprised if he kicks me, tackles me."
There was no meanness in Spinks's soft voice. He seemed amused by it all. He fights only because that is what he does best. If he could find another way to make as lucrative a living, he would be gone. At his home in Wilmington, Del. there is nothing to indicate that he hits people for pay. His four title belts (IBF heavyweight and IBF, WBC and WBA light heavyweight) are stowed in a closet.
"I never felt like the light heavyweight champion," said the man who had watched older brother Leon win the heavyweight title from Ali in 1978 at the same Hilton hotel. "I don't feel like the heavyweight champion now. I haven't lost a fight for a long time, and I guess what I feel like is a winner."
It is a role that fits him as comfortably as his cowboy hat. "It's like I've tried to tell Larry," he said. "Let's make this a class act. It's bad enough that we have got to fight each other."
As Spinks expected, Holmes, who at 223 was just slightly heavier than for the first fight, was anything but a class act when the bell sounded. Eyes smoking, Holmes came out, fired a vicious right and then hurled Spinks to the canvas. "Get up," Holmes snarled. "It's O.K., Larry," Spinks said mildly. "It's O.K."
Under savage attack by Holmes, Spinks spent the first five rounds in strategic and nonbelligerent retreat. "I was just letting him have his fun," he said later. "I wanted to break his morale by staying cool and calm. I knew I could catch and then surpass him. I didn't start fighting until the sixth round." (Apparently, judges Burnette and Roth didn't agree—they both gave Spinks the fifth round.)
Spinks joined the fight in the sixth, and won the round, thanks in part to a pawing jab he habitually threw off his front foot, the only one on the floor, as he was falling back. At times his body seemed to be going at once forward and backward. "You can hit him once," Holmes said afterward, "but it's impossible to hit him a second time."
That fact saved Spinks in the 14th. In the last minute of the round, Holmes staggered the champion with a solid right to the head. Spinks, with his arms dangling and his eyes staring out into the crowd, staggered away. "I was in limbo," Spinks said later. "He stunned me. My mind said, 'You've been in the same place too long. You're dazed. Get out of there.' And I got."
By the time Holmes caught up with him, Spinks was recovering, and at the bell he was fighting back. Again in the last round the champion was tagged hard, but not until the final 15 seconds, which was too late for Holmes.
Then came the decision. Not everyone agreed with it.