In March of 1985, heavyweight champion Larry Holmes scored a tenth round stoppage of undefeated contender David Bey and then immediately announced that he was done. As in, finished. Retired.
“That’s it,” he said after adding consecutive win number 47 to his flawless record. It was his 19th straight championship victory since taking the WBC belt from Ken Norton back in 1978, adding to the longest uninterrupted streak of title wins for a heavyweight champion since Joe Louis. But Louis was not the legendary figure from the past fight fans were thinking about at the time. Instead, 47-0 had people thinking about 49-0. And the late, great Rocky Marciano.
Meanwhile, one didn’t need to be a scholar of boxing history to know that Larry’s trainer, the venerable Eddie Futch, likely had Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali on his mind when he said, “My fear now is that Larry will go home and watch the tapes and see how great he looked. I’d like to see him [retire] now after looking so good, rather than like some of our other most recent champions.”
But few expected that to happen. Despite Larry’s insistence that he was ready to walk away, it was obvious he had his eye on Marciano’s record, which made his statements about retirement impossible to take seriously. One minute he was declaring the Bey fight was his last, the next minute he was leaving the door open, indicating that for enough cash, maybe another fight or two was in the cards.
“I want a lot of money and no more of those big hitters like Tim Witherspoon and Mike Weaver,” he told Pat Putnam of Sports Illustrated. “I’ve paid my dues and if they want me back, they’ve got to give me little people I can beat on without getting hurt.”
Little people? Interesting. Did the champion have someone in mind who fit that description? Well, yes, as a matter of fact, he did, and he went on to negotiate through the media, noting that $3 million dollars was his asking price to defend against undefeated light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks.
As it turned out, $2.3 million was Larry’s price to first battle Carl “The Truth” Williams on prime-time television the following May and almost lose his status as the heavyweight champion of the world. Williams surprised everyone, including Larry, with his skill and determination and the 35-year-old champion was fortunate to escape with the decision and notch win number 48. Afterwards, the boxing media was naturally curious as to whether Larry intended to keep going and attempt to tie Marciano’s record, but a banged-up Holmes refused to commit himself, saying now was the time “for a long rest.”
But the champion, who clearly was nearing the end, had put the $3 million number out there and Michael Spinks wanted his shot. Spinks had taken the WBA light heavyweight championship from Eddie Mustafa Muhammad back in 1981 and had since won ten straight and unified the title. A former Olympic gold medallist and younger brother of former heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, he was considered, pound-for-pound, one of the best in the game, though few gave him much of a chance to dethrone “The Easton Assassin.”
After all, no light heavyweight world champion had ever succeeded in taking the heavyweight title. Such Hall of Fame pugilists as Billy Conn, Archie Moore and Bob Foster had all tried and failed and no one was yet talking about Spinks in the same breath as those former greats of the 175 pound division. Moore himself compared Holmes vs Spinks to a smash ’em up derby between an 18 wheeler and a Volkswagen.
Knowing that Holmes would likely enjoy a huge weight advantage, and that 15 rounds was a long time to try and avoid his powerful straight right, the Vegas bookies tabbed Spinks a 6-to-1 underdog. The pundits and boxing historians talked up the Marciano and Holmes comparisons and Don King titled the card “History.” The champion had his $3 million dollar cheque, while Spinks was guaranteed just under $1 million, and everyone waited to see if Holmes could reach the hallowed 49-0 mark. (Meanwhile, Eddie Futch, who happened to train both champions, stayed out of it and worked neither corner.)
But while the match was indeed historic, it was far from memorable. The challenger had bulked up from 175 to a muscular and solid 199 pounds and his quickness, off-rhythm movement and ability to throw punches from unexpected angles gave the champion all kinds of trouble. As a result, Holmes simply couldn’t get his punches off and fight fans got 15 rounds of cat and mouse. Some gave the veteran points for being the aggressor as, round after round, he tried in vain to walk Spinks down, but others, including all three judges, gave the challenger credit for avoiding Larry’s shots while landing the cleaner blows. And just like that Larry Holmes’ undefeated record, his heavyweight title, and his ambitions to break Rocky Marciano’s record were up in smoke.
But if Holmes vs Spinks didn’t provide much in the action and excitement department, the now former champion made up for it with some fireworks at his post-fight press conference. Rarely has any champion been more candid or more caustic as Holmes was when he unleashed a tirade of pent-up bitterness at both the press and at Marciano’s family. It was an extraordinary display as Holmes held nothing back, his words having far greater impact that night than his fists.
“The last days before the fight I was kind of upset because of things I was hearing from the Marciano family, especially his brother,” sneered Larry behind dark glasses. “And I think his family owes me a great deal for bringing [Rocky] back to life the way I did. I’m not trying to put him down. Though … it would be so easy for me to do it. I’m 35-years-old fighting young men and he was 25-years-old fighting old men. I can easily [put him down]. I mean, if you really want to get technical about the whole thing, Rocky couldn’t carry my jockstrap.”
But Larry wasn’t finished. “If I hurt you back there, Peter [Marciano], so fucking what. Hold it! This is my show! And you have been invited by Caesars Palace and you are freeloading off your brother even after he’s dead. Now, if it wasn’t for me, you would never have been invited to Caesars Palace where all your expenses are paid. That’s the truth.”
Classy stuff. The ugliness of the scene seemed to dawn on Holmes as he was speaking and seconds later he stated that Marciano was “one of the greatest fighters of all-time,” that he would have “loved to have met him,” and that he was “very sorry” if he hurt anyone’s feelings. But the damage was done. The harshness of Larry’s words have echoed through the years since; his statements about Marciano’s greatness have not.
Yet again Holmes stated that he was finished, done, retired, and that despite everything, he was leaving boxing with his head held high. But, like all the other times, it didn’t stick and six months later a Holmes vs Spinks rematch was announced. And in the build-up to the return, the former champion, who prided himself on always “telling it like it is,” once again let his mouth utter the kind of public comments that could only lead to bad karma, stating that the judges who scored the first match “must have been drunk.” Thus no one, including Larry, was shocked when another close decision went against him and Spinks retained his title, despite the fact that this time most thought Holmes deserved better.
In the post-fight interview the ex-champion memorably stated, “All I got to say to the judges, the referees, [and] the promoters is to kiss me where the sun don’t shine. And since we’re on HBO, that’s my big, black behind.”
For those who had admired the skill, courage and determination of “The Easton Assassin,” and who remembered the long, difficult journey he had undertaken to go from being a sparring partner of Ali and Frazier to establishing himself as one of the best heavyweights in the history of the sport, it was a sad ending to an otherwise impressive career. The proud and gifted boxer who had vanquished such dangerous battlers as Earnie Shavers, Ken Norton, Mike Weaver, Gerry Cooney and Tim Witherspoon, was exiting boxing on a sour note, his crass comments about Rocky Marciano still echoing behind him.
But of course, it was not the end. Though absolutely no one would have believed you at the time if you had told them that Larry Holmes was far from finished, that he would in fact answer the bell 25 more times, and that fans would see him battle Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Oliver McCall, and, yes, Butterbean, before all was said and done. Meanwhile, Spinks, unlike Holmes, believed in making a decision and sticking to it. He retired a single time, after Tyson annihilated him in 91 seconds in 1988 to become the undisputed champion of the world, and he never fought again. — Michael Carbert