'I Had to Come Back'

Larry Holmes is taking on Mike Tyson to regain a heavyweight title that he considers rightfully his
January 18, 1988

Surely the interior decorator of Larry Holmes's new gym in Easton, Pa., is a creature of dark and mischievous humor. On the wall of a tiny office by the front door, arranged within a single frame, are seven photographs of the former heavyweight champion. Beneath the photos, in block letters, is the caption THIS MAN is CRAZY. And just to the right, above a poster from the Lafayette Trust Bank picturing Holmes and imploring him to do it "one more time," is yet another photo of Holmes, this one showing him with arms raised in victory as he bounds away from the corner of a soundly whipped and dejected 38-year-old Muhammad Ali.

The photo of Holmes and Ali was taken Oct. 2, 1980; now it is January 1988 and it is Holmes who is 38 and training to fight Mike Tyson this month at the Convention Center in Atlantic City. This time it is Tyson who is the young (21) and undefeated heavyweight champion. And, yes, there are those who see the parallel and who suggest that this man, who hasn't fought in 21 months, well, this man is crazy.

Holmes refuses to read any significance into the grouping of the photographs in his $450,000 training facility. Several weeks before the fight, the ex-champion (though he refuses to acknowledge the "ex-") is sitting in his business headquarters in his $1.5 million office building. Evidence of his wealth is everywhere. Downstairs is his Round One nightclub, which is next door to his John Henry's Restaurant and Lounge and just across the street from his parking lot.

On a table in an adjoining office is an architect's model of his $10 million luxury apartment building and office complex, which are under construction on a 3.2-acre plot on nearby Larry Holmes Drive. Four miles to the east, just over the state line, in Phillipsburg, N.J., is his $10 million, 130-room hotel, and three miles to the west is his $1.5 million home and the garages that house $1 million worth of automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles. Only his millions of dollars in municipal bonds and certificates of deposit are not in public view.

"Ali was an old 38 with a body that was beaten up from too many wars—three with Joe Frazier, three with Ken Norton, two with Leon Spinks, one with George Foreman," Holmes is saying. "And he let his sparring partners beat him to death. All that rope-a-dope stuff. I had some hard fights, but no wars, not like Ali. I look in the mirror and say, Hey, you're a 38-year-old grandfather. Then I smile because I see a 22-year-old Larry Holmes looking back at me. Nobody has ever beat up on me and nobody is going to, especially Tyson-unless maybe somebody teaches that boy how to fight in the next couple of months."

Then Holmes's head drops, and he yawns. "But right now I'm tired," he says softly. "I'm worn out. I never like running. I never like hitting the heavy bag. I don't like jumping rope. I'd rather box than do all that stuff."

Then why is a 38-year-old grandfather who has more money than he can spend in 10 lifetimes going through all this agony just so he can fight Mike Tyson?

For more than seven years, from June 9, 1978, when he won a 15-round decision over Ken Norton, until Sept. 22,1985, when he lost a unanimous decision to Michael Spinks, Holmes ruled the heavyweight division. He fought for money, certainly. But for Holmes, boxing was also his means of self-expression; the ring was his canvas, and he painted brilliantly. Yet he suffered from the barbs of his detractors, who regarded him as an unworthy successor to the giants, Ali and Frazier.

Holmes divides the world into two camps: one, about the size, say, of Rhode Island, houses his adulators; and a second, which takes in the rest of the planet, is populated by those who make spiteful assaults on his dignity. When Holmes lost his rematch with Spinks on April 19, 1986, in Las Vegas-a split decision that many observers felt should have gone the other way-it heightened his conviction that the world had conspired to conceal his greatness.

After the Spinks fight, Holmes announced his retirement. Bitter, he went back to Easton to brood and to run his small empire, Larry Holmes Enterprises, Inc., of which he is the president and chief executive officer. Holmes says he was offered $4 million to fight in South Africa. He considered it—"To hell with what Jesse Jackson says," he said at the time—and then wisely rejected it.

He thought about fighting both Spinks and Gerry Cooney again, but dropped that idea when those two signed for their fight. He saw only one way to go. Holmes had already been talking informally with Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton, Tyson's comanagers, for about a year, and in the spring negotiations began in earnest.

"We negotiated and made a deal," says Jacobs. "Then a few days later Larry called and said he wanted more money. We did this several times. He always wanted $100,000 more. It was always friendly. We just couldn't get that final commitment."

Promoter Don King went to Easton. His sessions with Holmes were stormy. According to Holmes, King demanded a flat $300,000 as a consultant's fee, to be taken off the top of Holmes's purse. Holmes signed with King, but he has complained about the terms and at one point threatened to pull out of the fight, something nobody believed for a moment. "I want $3.1 million, but King is keeping $300,000 of my money," Holmes still says. "And he wants me to pay the sanction fees. I'm not going to pay any sanction fees." King says his arrangement with Holmes is a long-standing one. "I have a personal-services contract signed by Larry Holmes," says the promoter, "whereby I get 10 percent as his consultant. What's his problem?"

"I don't have to fight," counters Holmes. "I don't need their three million dollars. King can fight Tyson. I can stay in Easton and be happy for the rest of my life."

But, of course, Holmes is not happy. "They stole my title, and I had to come back," he says. Where hunger once served him at the dawning of his career, anger now motivates him in the twilight. Before he became heavyweight champion, Holmes was a quiet, uncomplicated, good-natured giant. Over the years he has become more complex, in turn brooding and cheerful, arrogant and humble, nasty and charming, aloof and friendly, good humored and grim. His pride, and the chance to jackhammer his critics, is what is putting him in the ring against Tyson.

It annoys Holmes immensely that Tyson, after only 32 fights—most of them against men of ordinary skill—and but five title bouts, has been called, by some, one of the greats. "He ain't no Superman," growls Holmes, whose own lifetime record is 48-2. "If he fought all those guys that were around when I was coming up—Earnie Shavers, Kenny Norton, Roy Williams, Ali, Frazier—they'd have kicked the crap out of him. He was made for those guys. He's a face-fighter. He's made for me. My left jab will be in his face all night long."

With his 38-year-old body facing 36 minutes of intense combat, Holmes is almost certain to do his fighting in brief spurts. He must try to keep Tyson off-balance with a stiff jab, and cross the right when he can; and he has to disarm his opponent with great hugs when all else fails. Tyson is a two-step fighter, and when he is tagged by a hard jab during his advance, he always falls back to regroup.

The champion is a very uncomplicated fighting machine: one step in, one step closer and splat! Then deadly, fierce combinations. Tyson's theory is that you pound a man's body, and while he is looking around to see who brutalized him with a baseball bat, you bang him to the head.

For Holmes, the first four or five rounds, before Tyson's great strength begins to spend itself, are the most critical. That is when his jab will have to be at its sharpest. Pinklon Thomas, Tyrell Biggs (well, for the first two minutes) and Trevor Berbick proved how effective a straight left hand can be in stopping Tyson's single-minded assaults.

"I've got to take away his strength, which is probably greater than mine, so we will be equal," says Holmes. "Do that with the jab. Do that with uppercuts [the textbook weapon against shorter folks]. Tyson is not a good boxer. But he's a good strong fighter. He doesn't know anything but to keep coming. They say he hits hard. I don't know how hard he hits because he never hit anybody."

Those who have made Holmes a 7½-to-1 underdog have spent too much time in the history books. True, no 38-year-old heavyweight contender has ever won a championship. Twice Archie Moore fought for the title, and lost, while in his 40's. Jersey Joe Walcott and Ali, both at 38, tried and lost. Still, Walcott was 37 when he took the crown from Ezzard Charles, and Ali was 36 when he regained the title from Leon Spinks. The naysayers also correctly point out that Holmes has not fought well since he knocked out Cooney in 13 rounds. And that was nearly six years ago. After that, motivated in good part by the desire to amass wealth, he appeared almost bored in dominating the likes of Randall (Tex) Cobb, Scott Frank and David Bey, none of whom was more than an available warm body. Even in his two fights with Spinks, Holmes's mind seemed to be more on those he suspected of plotting to steal his title, and not half enough on the man he was fighting.

"He wants Tyson now the way he once wanted people like Norton and Shavers and Cooney," says trainer Richie Giachetti. "This is the old Holmes, the one with snap and fire, the guy who won 21 title fights before those blind men robbed him in Vegas. His legs are very strong. His movement and mobility are strong. The power is still there. But the most important thing is the mind, and his mind was never right for Spinks. This one isn't about money, it's about pride."

En route to his gym, Holmes's thoughts turn to Drew (Bundini) Brown, Ali's celebrated cornerman and confidant, who died last September. "You know, it was very strange," Holmes says. "I called him the night before he died. I guess he was drunk, because he started cussing me out: 'You pinhead mother, you got to beat that bleeping midget. You black bleep, we need you, even if you are a bleeping pinhead. You got to beat him, Big Jack. We need you. You got to knock him out.' He cussed so much I hung up on him. The next day he died. That's when I first thought, My god, how did he know I wanted to fight Tyson? No one knew then. That really got to me."

The day Brown died Holmes's mother, Flossie, was taken seriously ill while on vacation in Cuthbert, Ga. Suffering from an aneurysm, she was rushed to a hospital in Atlanta, where a bypass was performed on her leg. Holmes was there when his mother awakened in her room.

"She looked at me and said, 'You want to fight again, don't you?' She told me I could win if I trained hard, didn't drink and didn't mess around. But how did she know I wanted to fight? That scared me, too. Really scared me. But later, thinking about what my mother said and what Bundini had said the day before, that just made me want to fight Tyson more."

At the gym Holmes walks into his private dressing room and dons red sweatpants and a white T-shirt. Seated on a gray aluminum folding chair, he slowly wraps his hands and slips a protector over the right thumb broken long ago. Then he slumps forward, head bowed, arms resting on powerful thighs. He stays in that position for five minutes.

At last Holmes stands, stretches briefly to loosen his muscles, yawns and, sighing, walks slowly out into the gym, where he permits former WBC cruiser-weight champion Bernard Benton, a Tyson-like 5'10", 196-pound sparring partner with a 19-5 record, to bang at him almost without answer. He works on his lateral movement—a must against Tyson—and his defense. Only during the last 45 seconds of a three-round session does he display the swift, hard jab that is his trademark.

"He knows what he's doing," says Benton. "He holds you off, pushes you, confuses you and then whacks you with those right hands. But that's Larry Holmes."

An hour later, after pausing to say hello to his three-month-old grandson, Jeffrey, and then taking a massage that lasts longer than his workout, Holmes retires to the Round One, where he permits himself one glass of light beer. Last summer his weight ballooned to 250 pounds, which annoyed him and had him in the gym even before he signed to fight Tyson. After his workout, he weighs 234; he expects to be at 225 or less by fight time.

At the bar, which is just beginning to fill with an early evening crowd, he turns his thoughts to the future. "Everybody around me tells me to look beyond Tyson," he says. "They want me to keep going once I beat this guy. But, I'm no bread-and-butter fighter, and I'm nobody's punching bag. They are not going to keep me in this game until I'm walking on my damn heels. The day anybody sees me walking on my heels it will be because of too many bottles of beer or whatever. But not from somebody banging on my head."

Holmes's gaze shifts and he smiles bleakly at Giachetti, a short, burly man with the look of a tough street fighter, which he was. Giachetti is watching Wheel of Fortune on one of the bar's two banks of TV sets, and he loudly claims to be having trouble even with the three-letter words. Giving up the game, Giachetti talks about Tyson.

"The way you beat Tyson is to take his heart away from him," Giachetti says. "You take it right out of his chest. Just take the fight away from him. He's never had anybody do that. He's always been the superboy, the intimidator. He'll come out for the first round and when he goes back to the corner he's going to think Larry's jab is part of his face. And that's before Larry even warms up. And if he starts that dirty stuff with Larry, Larry will take him right into the trenches. It will be open warfare, World War III, baby. Nobody is going to get away with that stuff with Larry."

Giachetti turns back to the TV. "Look at that puzzle. I think I got it. What's a three-letter word that starts with T?"

"The," somebody suggests.

"Too long," Giachetti growls.

Holmes laughs and stands up. "Thank god we're not training for a spelling contest. I've got to go home. Lord, I'm tired."

As Holmes leaves, Giachetti winks. "I like to keep him loose," he says. "I knew that word."

PHOTOJAMES DRAKE PHOTOJAMES DRAKEHolmes has worked hard with Giachetti in the gym in fighting the battle of the bulge. PHOTOMANNY MILLANHolmes felt he won the rematch with Spinks, but two of the three judges held otherwise. PHOTOTONY TRIOLOTyson owns three belts, but Holmes says the champ still has much to learn about boxing. TWO PHOTOSJAMES DRAKEEaston's most famous entrepreneur is adding another building (above) to his holdings.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)