In May of 1981, undefeated fair-skinned heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney galvanized the attention of fair-skinned American sports fans by demolishing respected veteran Ken Norton in a mere 54 seconds. “Gentleman Gerry’s” astonishingly destructive performance meant that there was now just one boxing match that mattered: Cooney vs Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world.
And yet one of the biggest and richest fights in the history of boxing didn’t happen for another fourteen months. There were several reasons for the delay, not least of which being Cooney’s managers holding out for an unprecedentedly huge share of the prize money for a largely untested challenger. But while everyone waited for the match to be made, Holmes didn’t. Wait, that is. Instead he kept busy, knocking out Leon Spinks in three rounds in June, and then taking on Renaldo Snipes in November at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.
Unlike Spinks, Snipes was viewed as being no threat at all to take Larry’s title or derail the big money superfight to come; the oddsmakers in Vegas didn’t even offer a betting line on the fight. The bout had one purpose: to keep Holmes active and sharp while he waited for his defense against Cooney to finally happen. It also gave Holmes a rare opportunity to compete outside of Las Vegas and in his home state of Pennsylvania.
Snipes had really done nothing to deserve his title shot. His last outing had been a ten round win over South African Gerrie Coetzee in a decision universally declared the worst anyone had seen in years. Before that he had out-pointed Eddie Mustafa Muhammad who wasn’t even a legitimate heavyweight. No one could recall the last time Snipes had impressed anyone; most couldn’t recall who he was. This would soon change.
Reflecting the popularity of boxing at the time, Holmes vs Snipes was broadcast live on prime-time television with the singular voice of Howard Cosell narrating the action. And Cosell did not sugar-coat the quality of the match-up. Snipes, in Cosell’s words, was not “in the same class” as the champion and had virtually “no chance” of winning. And it appeared Holmes had the same opinion as he started fast, taking the fight to the challenger from the opening bell, dominating and scoring heavily, looking for the early knockout.
But in the third round the first surprise of the evening occurred when a truly competitive and exciting boxing match broke out. While Holmes continued to set a fierce pace and batter the underdog with volleys of sharp punches, Snipes started to answer back with solid shots of his own and then near round’s end, as if to let Larry know he was in for a difficult night, he smacked the champion with a right hand on the break. The blatant foul incensed Holmes who responded by landing a series of hard left hooks and uppercuts to both body and head, but Snipes stood his ground and fired back, impressing Cosell enough to label him “a gutsy kid.”
And indeed the surprises kept coming as Snipes, charging forward with increasing confidence and landing hard shots to the body, clearly won the fourth. “The kid’s fighting aggressively in this round,” marveled Cosell, as Snipes responded to a solid right from Holmes with two clubbing rights of his own and more solid blows to Larry’s ribs.
As the fifth began, and Cosell remarked on how the contest had “gone longer than anyone expected,” Holmes sought to reassert himself by sticking and moving and catching Snipes coming in, but the “no chance” challenger was undeterred, chasing Holmes, smiling when tagged, and launching one big right hand after another. “Yes, the kid has the guts,” drawled Cosell, “but the skills belong to Holmes.”
And with thirty seconds left in the round, the skillful champion unloaded with a heavy right which opened an angry cut over Snipes’ left eye and forced him to retreat. The hurt challenger absorbed a beating as the round drew to a close but instead of caving in, he caught Holmes with a left hook at the bell.
The sixth was a toe-to-toe brawl. Holmes again tried to end it, but Snipes refused to buckle, responding to Holmes’ flurries with hard rights and a brutal body attack as Cosell spoke of his “tremendous courage.” Towards the end of the round Snipes appeared stunned by a right, but he answered with his own right and just kept coming forward, using his huge, muscular, upper body to push Larry around the ring and gain leverage for his shots. “Look at the kid fight back,” exclaimed Cosell.
Still, it was another round for the champion and there was, as yet, no sense of a potential upset. But at the same time no one could dispute that Snipes was vastly exceeding all expectations, or that sports fans across the nation were enjoying an entertaining heavyweight slugfest on free, prime-time television.
Then came round seven, and just twenty-two seconds in what had threatened to occur since Snipes began to get brave in round three, finally happened. A perfectly timed overhand right connected cleanly with Holmes’ chin and caused the champion’s legs to fold up like a defective lawn chair collapsing under an unsuspecting party guest. With the shocked crowd roaring, a dazed Holmes quickly rolled over and scrambled to his feet, falling face-first into the turnbuckle as he did, before righting himself.
For a few seconds at least, Holmes had no idea where he was. He wandered along one side of the ring as the referee gave him the eight count, staring blankly into the shrieking tumult of the crowd, before Snipes was waved back in and the challenger almost bowled Holmes over in his hurry to apply the coup de grâce. Only Larry’s long arms, extended to hold off the attacking Snipes, saved him by inches from a final, finishing punch. “This could be one of the biggest upsets in boxing,” shouted Cosell over the noise of the frenzied throng as Snipes pursued his wounded quarry and Holmes lurched about, trying to clear his head, the bell more than two minutes away. “What a turn of events, ladies and gentlemen!” cried Cosell.
Perhaps the greatest irony of Larry Holmes’ career is that early on he had been labelled a “dog,” meaning he would quit when hurt or pressured. And yet what boxer ever showed more grit than this perennially underestimated battler? Against Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Mike Weaver, now Snipes, and later against Tim Witherspoon, Holmes repeatedly demonstrated his ability to struggle through pain and adversity, to fire back when under fire, and to win after skirting so close to the brink of defeat.
Thirty seconds after the knockdown, with his legs barely under him, Holmes steeled himself, pushed Snipes off, and began to battle back, stunning the challenger with a hard one-two, then a right, then another right, and Snipes smiled as he retreated. The rest of the seventh was a thrilling war, both heavyweights landing big shots at close quarters, both men staggered and stunned before round’s end.
“And now,” pointed out Cosell, “[Holmes] is aware that this kid could end his dream of huge dollars against Gerry Cooney!” And on cue, as if finally grasping the urgency of the situation, in round eight Holmes boxed conservatively, asserting his greater skill and experience as he moved and danced, snapping out the left jab and keeping Snipes at bay. In the ninth the determined challenger bore in aggressively behind a volley of jabs, but Holmes took the round with the harder, heavier shots and the tenth was also Larry’s, as Snipes’ porous defense allowed the champion to score with precise counters and sharp one-two’s. Still, Snipes remained the unlikely aggressor, stalking and looking to land again the jackpot shot, to again put Holmes down. “Right now, Larry will settle for a decision,” declared Cosell.
But Howard had it wrong. Holmes, seemingly refreshed, came out hard in the eleventh, punishing with the jab and finally, at long last, seriously hurting Snipes with a powerful right hand, the challenger for the first time not just stunned, but profoundly rocked, his hands down, his eyes momentarily gazing into the void as Holmes then pinned him in his own corner to finish him. Six loaded right hands connected flush before the referee jumped between the fighters, many at ringside shouting with disbelief and dismay over the quick stoppage.
The crowd, which had come to see Holmes dominate and win, now booed lustily as Cosell lectured the television audience that no one was in a position to judge the referee’s decision. “How many hammering blows can the head take?” asked Cosell. As if in response, the crowd, aware they were part of a live television broadcast, began to chant: Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!
Cosell’s customary post-bout interview only added to the unhinged atmosphere of the event. After being congratulated by Cosell for his valiant effort, Snipes proceeded to throw a temper tantrum on national television, repeatedly shouting, “It’s not right! It’s not right!” like a four-year-old protesting the scarcity of ice-cream in his bowl. Cosell turned to Holmes for his take, but the conversation was cut short by Snipes attempting to attack the champion. In the ensuing melee, Cosell huddled near the ring before the police intervened and hustled the bitter challenger away.
It had been an action-packed and dramatic fight, a fact overshadowed by the controversial ending and the on-air scuffle. No question, referee Rudy Ortega’s stoppage was hasty, but the simple fact is Snipes, far behind on points, had little chance of surviving that eleventh round, let alone winning.
Holmes would face Gerry Cooney the following spring, and his less-than-impressive showing against Snipes spurred numerous fair-skinned pundits to follow their hearts instead of their heads and give the untested Cooney a serious chance of unseating the champion. It would prove the richest prizefight in history up to that point, one of the biggest bouts ever, arguably made bigger by that wild night in Pittsburgh.
Snipes remained a serious contender for a few years before fading away, his exciting challenge of Holmes proving to be the highlight of his career. Indeed, no one who witnessed the broadcast soon forgot that lightning moment in the seventh, when the champion went down hard and one of the biggest upsets in boxing history almost happened. And one of the richest fights in boxing history almost did not.
— Michael Carbert