He sits with his back to the view. He used to sit with his back to a better view, but he gave up the top floor of his building—gave it up pronto—when he found a tenant willing to pay the penthouse price. Of course, Easton, Pa., being what it is these days, the tenant left just about as pronto. The top floor became empty, and the lost income so far amounts to more than $1 million. To remind him of it invites a terrible petulance. He hates Easton. He won't so much as swivel to take in the scenery beyond his executive suite. It's pleasant scenery, too. Some men in row-boats are bobbing about in the Delaware River, competing in the 10th annual Forks of the Delaware Shad Fishing Tournament. He fished there as a kid, but that was a longtime ago.
"It's the best building in Easton," Larry Holmes says. "If you owned it, all 48,000 square feet would be occupied." Seriously? The L&D Holmes Plaza (for Larry and his wife, Diane) has prime tenants—the Lehigh Valley Bank and the Federal Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (including three jail cells)—and 40% unoccupied or not, it appears to be the most prosperous piece of commercial real estate in Easton's largely shuttered downtown area. Holmes thinks people are choosing dilapidated rentals over his? Because he's Larry Holmes, because he lost his heavyweight title seven years ago? He doesn't push the premise too far. "That could just be me talking," he finally admits. Sometimes his petulance amuses even him.
The phone rings from time to time, but no call is sufficiently promising to engage his attention. One headache after another, actually. There seemed to be a point to all this at one time: Holmes, a seventh-grade dropout, is now the town's most successful landowner and entrepreneur, with $13 million in real estate holdings. He owns the 130-room Commodore Inn, the John Henry restaurant, the Round One nightclub, apartment buildings, a parking lot and, of course, the five-story L&D Holmes Plaza. "Not bad for a seventh-grade dropout," he says again. He has said that a million times. Now he would like to get out from under everything but this building, the one on Larry Holmes Drive. Nothing but headaches.
His wife's on the phone. It's her birthday, her 35th, or "whatever one she wants it to be," he says. But at the moment he is without good wishes. "Now don't be asking me all these questions," he barks at her. The next pressing business is his mother, Flossie, for whom the Commodore Inn's restaurant is named. Flossie raised 12 children by herself. Even as a teenager Holmes was mindful of her sacrifice. If he saw that his mother was short a few dollars, he would reach into the flowerpot on the kitchen windowsill and withdraw his secret stash. But today she's pestering him for the whereabouts of his driver, and enough is enough. "Now don't be asking where Ben is," he barks. "Now don't be calling up and drilling me."
June 7, 1992
He sinks into his executive chair, his back to Easton, and glances through a program that's being produced for his fight with heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield on June 19. The bout will be the seventh, the most amazing and, some say, the most ridiculous in the 42-year-old Holmes's comeback, but the event, and the $7.5 million payday, still seem distant to him. He says he may use the money to build a city hall for his hated hometown—the tax advantages to the leaseback are otherworldly—and, then again, he may not. Easton is asking him to do it. But it's a long way off. He tosses the program aside, sinks deeper into his chair. His head slumps onto his chest, the bill of his cap hides his face, and time passes.
"I'm bored," he says.
What's it like to be heavyweight champion? The advantages are otherworldly. You are surrounded by supplicants, even if they are your brothers, you are paid tremendous amounts of money, even after Don King takes his cut, and you are given respect and attention and opportunity well beyond what any seventh-grade dropout could expect. And Holmes was heavyweight champion for more than seven years.
Looking back, we may not remember it as the happiest of spans. There was petulance aplenty—some of it justified, probably. It was not Holmes's fault that he came after Muhammad Ali and lacked Ali's charisma. "Everything I did," Holmes once said, "was not enough." In comparison with Ali, Holmes was merely workmanlike. Beginning with his fight against Rodell Dupree, which produced a purse of $63 back in 1973, Holmes made boxing seem strictly an act of commerce. Toward the end of his reign, when he neared Rocky Marciano's career record of 49 victories without a loss, Holmes said, "It's the money I want. I ain't in it for the record." That was never popular among fans accustomed to Ali's showmanship.
Perhaps in time his work ethic will be appreciated. These days contenders are invented, sprung upon us by the Olympics, by cable TV or even, as in the case of Mike Tyson, by video-cassette. But for five years Holmes was merely a sparring partner, somebody Eddie Futch might call upon to drive down to Philadelphia and work with Joe Frazier. During this overlong apprenticeship Holmes took fights in Scranton, trying to size up his sudden opponents by looking them up in old Ring magazines, and generally just scrabbled along. Can you imagine a heavyweight of today with a 21-0 record who is not aggressively promoted as a contender? Holmes was 21-0 in 1976 and could not afford to pay sparring partners. He was just there.
His promoter, King, was not aggrieved by Holmes's stagnation. On the eve of Holmes's first light with Earnie Shavers, in 1978, King told Holmes not to worry—if he lost he could still work as Shavers's sparring partner. Holmes didn't feel slighted. "I didn't care about making it," he says. "I just wanted to make a living. The reason I boxed was not to become heavyweight champion but to have something so I could survive, to live comfortably. Don't you know that's why marriages don't work—when-people don't have anything? Money's what causes problems. I just wanted to make a living."
In 1978, after he survived Shavers's murderous right hand, Holmes beat a favored Ken Norton to win the title. Holmes got the title shot because he had simply been available. And he finally began making a living.
Can you possibly understand what it was like for Holmes to be heavyweight champion? The day he walked out of Easton's Shull Junior High, just 13 years old, he began to work at the Jet car wash. A dollar an hour was all the money in the world for a kid who had been making 15 cents per shoeshine, his tip a pat on the head. Later he got jobs in the steel mill. He made good money, $200 to $300 a week. All the while he boxed, of course. He and his brother Lee and buddies like Pooch Pratt and Butch Andrews would show up in the bars Saturday nights and fight each other to a draw, always a draw, and be allowed to go back to the kitchen and consume their "purses" of hot dogs.
So can you understand what it was like for Holmes to make $1.5 million every four months, or even $10 million against Gerry Cooney, simply by standing up and demonstrating his earned skills in front of the world? Well, it was never boring.
At the mention of that word, boring, things begin to happen. There is suddenly a spontaneous quality to events. The driver, Ben Sampson, materializes in Holmes's doorway. He's a slight man with a gold tooth, a feathered fedora and the puzzled expression of someone who has just made a quantum leap. Why is it, he seems to ask, that he's here? Right behind him comes the white part of Holmes's rainbow coalition, rumpled Charlie Con-over. He's scratching his head. Last and least suspecting is Diane Holmes, who wanders into the office at almost the exact same time. "Ben," says Larry, examining the group, happy for the first time that day, "get the limo. We're going fishing." Diane affects the same poleaxed look her husband wore when Shavers hit him with a ring post. "Happy birthday, Diane," somebody says, laughing.
This is what it's like to be retired. You can fish whenever you want. Once he caught the fever, Diane says, her husband fished every day until last year, when he began his comeback, and then the fishing slowed to almost every day. He started in the river behind his executive suite, noodling about in a 17-footer with Dick Lovell, his publicist/man-about-office. "We weren't too good," Lovell admits. "That first time the boat just started sinking on us. Luckily Charlie was standing by." Now Holmes has two identical 33-foot boats—one in a New Jersey marina off the Hudson River, the other at his second home, in Jacksonville—both called The Easton Assassin. Each is rigged for fishing and is surprisingly easy to get to. Lovell has a stack of boarding passes on his desk, from Holmes's day trips to Jacksonville during the winter. He would wake up, feel the cold, ring the driver, and off they would go. Jacksonville is just a couple of hours and "20 degrees" away, Holmes says. But it's easier to assemble the gang for the boat in New Jersey.
The white stretch limo wheels through Easton, stopping at Joe's Steak Shop on the way to 1-78. In his comeback Holmes has not been spartan; he expects to weigh about 230 on June 19, a bit less than he weighed in March for his stunning victory over '88 Olympic hero Ray Mercer—the one and only fight that has lent credibility to his campaign—but it's clear that Holmes intends to wait for that final month of work in Jacksonville before going on any liquid diet. "Don't you think I know how and when to train after all this time?" he says. "It's not a beauty contest." Indeed, Holmes in his prime was nobody's picture of a heavyweight champion. He was pear-shaped, with spindly legs. In his comeback, he is...pear-shaped, with spindly legs. But could Mercer, one of the so-called young lions, take advantage of all that ripeness? Holmes lured him into a corner, stood against the ring post to rest his aging legs and proceeded to steal the fight. "I'd like to fight him again," said Mercer, "after I learn how to box." Steak sandwiches all around.
Driver Ben steers the white beast, purchased for $57,000, onto the interstate and suffers a barrage of directions from the boss: "Left lane, Ben. Left lane, Ben!" Holmes tells Ben not to drive like a limo driver. Then, "Don't be getting any speeding tickets, Ben." Ben, newly released from entourage exile (he had been out of Holmes's employ for 581 about a year after telling Holmes he didn't know anything about boxing), mutters to himself the entire 45-minute drive. "What's he saying?" Holmes keeps asking. "What'd he just say?"
It is interesting to see the authority that Holmes now exercises, and not just with driver Ben. Emancipated from King, who controlled his career for more than a decade, Holmes is independent and confident. He gives everybody orders. "I'll never forget watching Larry on TV," remembers Seth Abraham, president of Time Warner Sports and TVKO, "and seeing Don whisper into his ear the words that would come out of Larry's mouth. Don told him what to say, what to do, what to think. But now Larry's a grown man. He's nobody's puppet."
Holmes has orchestrated his comeback entirely by himself. Former boxing promoter Harold Smith, who did five years for bank fraud, is at Holmes's side as a consultant. And Bob Arum, King's longtime adversary, is doing the actual promotion of the pay-per-view Holyfield bout. But there is no manager. Out of King's shadow, in fact, Holmes is newly recognized as a shrewd and able operator. "Very few guys know as much about boxing as Larry," says Arum, who for years was a bitter enemy of Holmes because of his association with King. "These last few years, when I make a fight in the heavyweight division, I always call Larry. An example: One of the guys I want to develop, big marquee potential, is Tommy Morrison, and before I make a Morrison fight, I check with Larry."
Holmes admits he was intimidated by King all those years. "But I was insecure. Here I was, a seventh-grade...." Mamas, don't let your sons grow up to be seventh-grade dropouts.
Holmes loves tooling about in the limo. He once owned 17 vehicles, five of them Rolls-Royces. But the limo is the way to go. Of course, riding in a limo is work, too. "Turn at the second gate, Ben," Holmes hectors. "Second gate, Ben!" Driver Ben made this exact run the day before. He's boiling. It's apparently all he can do to keep from turning around and telling the boss he knows nothing about chauffeuring, either.
Why do fighters come back, all of them? It doesn't have to be one thing. It usually is one thing, but not every time. Not this time. When Holmes says he needs the money—and he has told people that—he means it in the way that a Rockefeller might mean it. That is, after all, how you remain wealthy: You have a need for money. Holmes, ever since he discovered that boxing was a kind of ready teller, has needed money.
Admittedly it was a surprise to him in his retirement to realize that his income would henceforth come in the form of a monthly check. The check might be $50,000 from municipal bonds or $60,000 in real estate income. But there would be no $1.5 million payday to be scheduled because a tax bill was due or his hotel required an improvement or a construction project struck his fancy. Retirement income was just a boring stream of money. Still, Holmes says, "I adjusted."
He did the usual heavyweight champion things—bought the cars, the half-million-dollar house with the indoor swimming pool shaped like a boxing glove (whose resale value is limited by the dwindling number of boxing champions in Easton)—but he recovered his senses before his big earning days were over. No recent champion has had the luxury of seven years to learn from his mistakes. Holmes came out more or less intact from a time when he maintained "feel-good" cars and "be-noticed" cars, which were rolled out depending upon his mood.
His attorney, Charles Spaziani, would like to see Holmes unload everything but his monument, the L&D Holmes Plaza, and return to clipping coupons. This notion agrees more and more with the ultra-conservative Holmes, a man who, except for real estate, has never invested in any scheme hairier than a municipal bond. The Commodore Inn, which he bought for $1.2 million, is in the process of being sold for $3.2 million. His downtown bar and restaurant were recently put up for auction; there was no sale, but renovations are under way to make the establishments more marketable. "He just wants to divest himself of headaches," Spaziani contends. "He really shouldn't have to pay attention to whether someone's serving a minor at his disco."
Amazingly, despite Easton's prolonged industrial slump, Holmes is far from being destitute. Rents can go down to zero, and he will not go under. He carries virtually no debt on his properties, except for "a little bitty note for repairs here and there," he says. He has paid cash for boats, limos, cars, even his $500,000 private compound in Easton. He did get a mortgage on his second home, in Jacksonville, but only because he was between transactions there. He had bought one house for $250,000 (cash) but shortly afterward found one on the water that he liked better, and that cost $400,000. The second will be paid off as soon as the sale of the first is settled.
Holmes claims that his businesses are breaking even and that his only income is from interest. But Spaziani says the L&D Holmes Plaza's two prime tenants alone have put Holmes in the black, and the prospect of a third tenant, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which might occupy that bothersome top floor, makes the building a potential money machine. In any event Holmes does not seem a desperate man.
Certainly his first comeback was about money. Twenty-one months after losing a rematch with Michael Spinks in 1986, Holmes was lured back to fight Tyson. Holmes had no illusions about that fight. "That was business," he says. "I thought I might have a chance to beat him, but I didn't know I'd beat him. Not on two months' notice. But the money was there. I was building this building at the time, and I made a business decision." Tyson chopped Holmes down in four rounds. It was grim stuff. But that might be just the kind of thing you do for $3 million when you're building your monument.
This second comeback seems different. Neither money nor the boredom of retirement explains it entirely. There is pride. Those two losses to Spinks haunted him in retirement more than anybody thought. "I never wanted to get out of the game the way I did," Holmes explains. "I'm telling you. I thought I beat Michael Spinks." Today Holmes admits that the first fight with Spinks, in 1985, when Holmes was gunning for Marciano's record, might have been a draw. The second Spinks fight Holmes thought he won easily. In the years since, those defeats, along with his lingering image as a sore loser, have nagged at him. And there was only one thing to do.
"It's like Larry can't sleep," says Butch Lewis, Spinks's promoter. "Thinking about being on the threshold of history and then having this...nightmare happen to him. I'm convinced the whole point of this comeback was to fight Michael. I'm telling you, the calls I've gotten, let's just say he's been persistent." Lewis says Holmes even sent Smith to Lewis's office to try to develop Spinks-Holmes III. But Spinks was firmly retired. By the time Holmes finally got that message, his comeback was under way.
By all accounts, the idea of regaining the heavyweight title was just not there at first. But with Spinks unavailable and Tyson in prison. Holmes became ambitious. After all, look what George Foreman, several tons past his glory years, had done in his comeback. Why not a title fight?
Arum proclaimed the whole idea a "joke." Then he noticed the ratings Holmes was getting on cable's USA Network. Holmes was laboring through decisions against stiffs, and still the people tuned in. USA had done just as well with the early fights of Foreman's comeback. It was no secret what was going on. "It's simple," says Rob Correa, USA's vice-president of sports programming. "People recognize him. It's like when you dovetail a theatrical movie into a TV series. Holmes is presold."
Arum stopped laughing and signed Holmes to fight the winner of the Morrison-Mercer fight. Arum didn't have to believe all that much in Holmes to sleep well at night. "Let's face it," he says. "I was in a win-win situation. I promote them all." Either of Arum's two young prospects would only increase his drawing power with a victory over Holmes. And if Holmes did, through some miracle, happen to win...there was Holyfield, there was Foreman. "The third fight for Larry is Morrison," says Arum. The last time Holmes fought a white hope, the accountants could barely count all the money, and that was before pay-per-view. "Then we all retire," Arum says. "For good."
Anyone who decries Holmes's comeback as a risk to his personal safety ought to take a ride with him on his boat. He can't possibly be more at risk in the ring than at sea. As Holmes skippers the boat through the Verrazano Narrows, between Brooklyn and Staten Island, and into open sea, there are tremendous concussions of craft against ocean. Holmes, crashing into waves at 35 mph, never throttles back. There is a sudden whine of the engine as the screws lift free of the water, a sickening "uh-oh" from someone who realizes the depth of the trough the boat is about to descend, and then a terrific slamming of boat into water. People are hanging on to rails with both hands and still buckling on impact. Only the Holmeses remain unperturbed. Cap'n Larry stares out to a point some 17 miles distant that certainly harbors fish, while Diane curls up next to him and sleeps. Occasionally she lifts entirely free of the chair as the boat crests a wave and drops.
"Isn't this relaxing?" Holmes asks. He has always enjoyed going fast. When he turned 16, he dipped into that flowerpot and bought a brand-new Plymouth Road Runner and tricked it out for the local drag strips. "It was street legal," he says, "but I could drop my headers in a couple of seconds. I won a lot of races, got that thing up to 110 miles per hour in no time at all." What could be more relaxing than that? However, maintaining the car could be tense. Apparently, in the same way that there is believed to be one fruitcake that recirculates in the mails every holiday season, there was in Easton just one high-performance carburetor. "I could rip one off in 30 seconds," Holmes says, "and I'm in business. Then the next day someone rips it off of me."
These days the point is not to go fast but to get somewhere. Holmes digs a black logbook out of the cabin and consults his notes. He has written down the exact coordinates of shipwrecks, places where he believes schools of fish feed. "I get seasick," he says, "so I'm not out here for a cruise. This is all about fishing." Every once in a while he slows the boat, punches some buttons on his loran to get his latitude and longitude and then examines his depth finder to locate his prey. There is none. Everybody but Holmes is relieved. The prospect of wallowing in six-foot waves while Holmes trolls for bottom fish does not please everyone aboard. Driver Ben, for one, is the color of his pale-yellow fedora. Holmes suddenly wheels the boat around and begins his high-speed pursuit of shore. "I just remembered," he says. "I'm almost out of gas." The boat slaps its way back to New Jersey, 35 mph in rough water, and his passengers grip anything chrome.
Get this man into the ring.
In his comeback Holmes has become the one thing he never figured to be: beloved. At the end of the Mercer fight there were shouts of "Lar—ree! Lar—ree!" It was a surprise. He was never popular before. In his prime he revealed his charms privately. He was a favorite of the fight writers who would visit him in Easton between title defenses or spend time in his room the night before a big fight. But they were inevitably compelled to betray him to the public when he said something stupid. The writers cringed when he slammed Marciano ("Marciano couldn't carry my jockstrap," Holmes said after the first Spinks fight) but were obliged to fashion headlines from it. And they knew Holmes wasn't doing himself any good with the public by conducting himself as a self-styled "boxing executive." The way he reduced the game to capitalism—the Tex Cobb fight was significant to Holmes only in that the $1.5 million purse bought him his hotel—rubbed people wrong.
But now if he is no less mercenary, he is at least comfortable with everybody. "He's at peace with himself," says Abraham, who once watched Holmes on HBO tell fight fans to "kiss me where the sun don't shine." Abraham was surprised to see Holmes rigged out in a cap and gown (Dr. Holmes) for a recent press conference to promote the Holyfield fight. Fourteen months into his comeback, Holmes was enjoying himself. "He's finally comfortable with his role in boxing history," says Abraham.
The only problem with Holmes's comeback is that many in boxing believe that history is exactly where he belongs. Rock Newman, who manages Riddick Bowe, has seen his fighter sidestepped twice by Holyfield so that Holyfield could earn huge dollars against 42-year-old heavyweights. Newman is, of course, disappointed to see Holmes taken seriously. "He was washed up six years ago," Newman says. "He's slow as molasses, his jab is not what it used to be, and he packs little if any power at this point. That he beat Ray Mercer is not a great victory but an exposure of how awful a fighter Ray Mercer is. This is an illegitimate challenge if ever there was one. I would not be surprised to hear that, following Holmes, Holyfield will be holding strong negotiations with Floyd Patterson and Jersey Joe Walcott."
Futch, Bowe's trainer now and Holmes's trainer then, is somewhat less disgusted. But on the main point he agrees. "This doesn't do boxing any good," Futch says. "I can't blame Larry. He'll get almost as much money for this fight as he did for Cooney, and he'll get to-keep it. But I would say he'll earn it as a result of fortuitous circumstances."
Futch predicts that Holmes will be overwhelmed by Holyfield in the fifth or sixth round. "After Larry fades, it will become pretty rugged," Futch says. Holmes may even feel underpaid for his troubles.
Perhaps then the public's appetite for middle-aged contenders will abate, and boxing will go about its business. By then Foreman and Holmes will have banked their huge payouts, had their fun and retooled their public personas to advantage. Two of the crankiest champions ever will have been rehabilitated (and enriched) as two fun guys. So neither of them has to beat Holyfield to bring dignity to his comeback. "You have to understand," says Holmes, the seventh-grade dropout who has outsmarted everybody in boxing. "I already had my title fight when I beat Mercer."
Diane's birthday celebration, we're happy to tell you, is not limited to the little ocean voyage. Holmes, after all these years, is too smart for that. The day that began with intractable boredom ends with a party at a restaurant in Bethlehem, Pa., near Easton. Holmes is plainly pleased to have organized this—although he left the details to a sister-in-law—and he is pleased at Diane's surprise. She expected a family dinner but instead walked into a banquet room at the Minsi Trail Inn and saw a congregation of 38 friends and relatives. Score it Holmes, KO 1.
Holmes seems happiest when his family is assembled. The pleasure and pride he takes in Diane is obvious. His arm is always draped around her. He brags of her involvement in a loose-knit women's group that does charity work. And his children—two grown daughters. Misty and Lisa, from a long-ago relationship and Kandy, 12, and Larry Jr., 9, from his marriage to Diane—seem more important than his boxing. In his vast office there are fewer fight artifacts than there are Father's Day cards and karate trophies won by Larry Jr. But at the same time there is a determination in Holmes's devotion to family life. Perhaps it's the same with anybody who grew up in domestic turmoil. Holmes means to enforce his family's normality.
This is hard and confusing work for Holmes. He appears to have solved problems in his immediate family by the usual means: discipline and attention. The rest of Holmes's scattered relations confound him, though. Brother Jake, Larry's "bodyguard" during the championship years, is doing three to seven on a drug-related charge. Brother Mark, a promising middleweight who was provided carefully chosen fights on Larry's championship cards and was later given charge of a nightclub owned by Larry, is also serving time on a drug conviction.
"I helped them out," Holmes says of his brothers, "but it might not have been enough. Maybe they wanted to stand on their own. They have pride. Of course I'm disappointed. I wanted my brothers to be well educated, to be businesspeople, to be loved by their neighbors. But what can I do? I know some of my brothers are asses. Aren't everybody's brothers? It's something that's wrong with me; I just want to have the perfect family."
Holmes, for all his ferocity in the streets of Easton (at one point, a knockout every weekend for 40 weeks in loosely organized fights), must have been a wistful child. He saw the want in his family, watched his brothers and sisters examining an empty icebox late at night and reassuring each other that Mom had merely forgotten to shop, and imagined that that was what caused their troubles. "Do you remember that TV show The Millionaire?" he asks. "I kept waiting for Michael Anthony to come to our door, give my mom a million dollars."
In time he became the Millionaire, and though he doesn't believe in throwing money at problems (he's kind of tight), he will not suffer a problem that can be solved by money. He bought his mother a house, employed his brothers, gave one brother a gift of land that was resold for $380,000. "Ask my wife how much money is in her checking account," Holmes says. "Ask her." She won't say. He whispers, "Two hundred, $250,000." He promised himself a long time ago that he and Diane would never disagree over money.
At his wife's dinner Holmes is almost smug in his happiness. In the beginning he thought he might make enough money in boxing to open his own nightclub, a place in Easton where he could come and go, drink if he wanted, tend bar, talk to his buddies. He wanted a wife like Diane and a family that would be something like the nuclear units he saw on TV. It was such fantasy—for this seventh-grade dropout, this son of a sharecropper—that he wouldn't permit himself to share it with anyone. Now he sits at the head of the table with his wife, his arm draped around her. He actually says. "I'm already living happily ever alter."
On his way out of the restaurant he stops at the bar to watch an ESPN fight, the once-beaten Morrison trying to rebuild his box-office potential. Holmes pauses long enough to see Morrison score a knockout. Holmes-Holyfield, then Holmes-Foreman, then Holmes-Morrison. It could happen.
The next day he will leave for Jacksonville, where he'll train "serious-serious" (and maybe fish a bit from his own dock). Seeing Morrison fight, he feels that his own fight is almost upon him. Maybe he will build a city hall. His morning funk is long gone. Driver Ben packs the Holmes family into the long white limousine, and together they sail off into the night. Holmes gives directions into Easton.