May 20, 1985: Holmes vs Williams

Thirty-five years ago today a crime occurred. It went largely unnoticed outside the world of boxing, but that doesn’t change the fact that it happened. Or that nothing has ever been done about it. Of course there’s nothing extraordinary about this. Anyone who has followed the fight game for any length of time learns early on that the boxing ring is as much a place of heartbreak, disgrace and injustice as it is where glory and victory happen. Not that one ever really gets used to it.

Carl Williams is dead. Stricken with esophageal cancer, he died in 2013 in Valhalla, New York, sad news to fight fans who still recall the 1980’s and a heavyweight division that was largely ridiculed at the time but now looks like Murderers’ Row compared to the big men we have today. By just about any standard 53 is young to come to the end of one’s time on this planet, but this was not the only reason to feel regret at the news of the death of Carl “The Truth” Williams when it occurred.

Against Holmes, Williams (right) deserved much better.
Against Holmes, Williams (right) deserved much better.

For those old enough to recall his time near the top of the heavyweight division in the 80s and early 90s, Williams’ death brought to mind not merely memories of a game battler mixing it up with the likes of Tim Witherspoon, Mike Weaver and Bert Cooper, but also the bitterness that accompanies a remembered wrong that was never righted. But then, robberies in the boxing ring almost never are.

In 1985, Williams challenged an aging Larry Holmes for the heavyweight title. By this time Holmes had been on his own personal “Bum of the Month” trail for more than two years, avoiding the more dangerous contenders (ie. Greg Page) and facing strictly hand-picked opponents, proverbial tomato cans, whose lack of talent or experience made them easy prey for a gifted champion now in his twilight years.

The Williams jab gave Holmes all kinds of trouble.

With the exception of his life-and-death struggle against Witherspoon two years before, the plan had worked beautifully. Holmes, a former sparring partner of Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, still had loads of ring smarts and tenacity, plus one of the best jabs in boxing history, more than enough to handle guys like Marvis Frazier, Scott Frank and David Bey. And, despite his greater height and reach, Williams figured to fit in nicely with the rest of the no-hopers. How could a guy with only sixteen fights on his record compete with one of the great heavyweights in boxing history?

Carl Williams: 1959-2013

But in front of a prime-time national television audience, Holmes, heavyweight champ since 1978, found himself not in another routine title defense, but instead on the wrong end of a boxing lesson. To everyone’s surprise, the irrepressible Williams out-jabbed the jabber, utilizing his height, reach and youth to take round after round from the champion. The bout was so obviously going the challenger’s way that, with a few rounds still left to go, broadcaster NBC displayed a series of photos from past momentous upsets in ring history such as Braddock vs Baer and Spinks vs Ali.

But then the decision was announced and while the television commentators expressed astonishment, long-time watchers of the fight game were anything but surprised. Williams was supposed to lose; Holmes was supposed to win. And the judges followed the script. We’d seen it many times before and we’ve seen it many times since.

The eighties were arguably the high water mark for boxing in terms of mainstream popularity, certainly the best decade since the 1920’s. Championship fights were regular television fare and that same weekend there was another outrageous decision on the same network when Wilfredo Gomez somehow got the nod after being dominated by Rocky Lockridge. Two suspicious verdicts within 24 hours had boxing fans in an uproar, demanding investigations and inquiries. Sound familiar?

Nothing of substance was done then and nothing has been done in the decades which followed. Bad decisions are now, if anything, even more common and have done incalculable damage to the sport’s image. One of the cynical amusements of following boxing on twitter is counting how many people write variations of the same sentiment between the final bell of a competitive bout and the announcement of the scorecards: “Please, god, let the judges get it right.”

The point here is not to decry yet again the absurdity of a sport incapable of consistently separating winners from losers, but instead to focus for a moment on the human cost of these bad decisions. When the judges get it wrong, they don’t pay a price, but the victimized boxer does. Sometimes it’s crushingly steep. Imagine how different Carl Williams’ career and life would have been had his hand been raised that night in Reno. At the very least he would have been able to cash in on a million dollar rematch with Holmes. That might have helped him avoid the financial difficulties he faced after his time as a fighter ended and he then started up a second career as a security guard.

But more likely is that being the first man to defeat Holmes, by that time an acknowledged heavyweight great, would have led to a string of title bouts, with Williams earning big money. Instead he was conveniently pushed aside after the Holmes match, and while he went on to defeat guys like Jesse Ferguson and Trevor Berbick and eventually received another title shot against Tyson in 1989, he entered those fights not as the man who had schooled “The Easton Assassin,” but instead as the guy with the bad luck to lose a disputed decision to him. Big difference.

Williams years after his boxing career ended.
Williams years after his boxing career ended.

The simple fact is Williams’ whole life would have been different had the correct verdict been rendered and he became heavyweight champion of the world. And this is what we should think about each and every time the judges get it wrong. Not just about how the fans get cheated by bogus decisions or how these incidents damage the integrity of the sport. We should also reflect on how these injustices impact human lives.

Few remember Dave Tiberi but in 1992 he soundly defeated middleweight champ James Toney on national television. The verdict went to Toney. Commentator Alex Wallau called it “the most disgusting decision I’ve ever seen.”  Tiberi never fought again. Or consider how different Axel Schulz’s life would be today had he been given the verdict he deserved over heavyweight champion George Foreman in 1995. More recently, Erislandy Lara, Gabriel Campillo, Steve Cunningham, Tyson Cave and Mauricio Herrera would all have higher profiles and fatter wallets had the judges done their jobs.  And consider all those Olympic boxing hopefuls whose hearts and dreams were broken by either incompetence or corruption. This has got to stop. But it almost certainly won’t.

Dave Tiberi

For all I know, Carl Williams had a satisfying and fulfilling life after his boxing career ended; I know next to nothing of his personal circumstances. But in his New York Times obituary his sister is quoted as saying that he “never really got over losing that fight to Holmes.”

That’s because he didn’t lose it. He won it. But then he was robbed. And there still exists no mechanism by which to right such wrongs.

There is no greater shame in the sport of boxing than this: men and women sacrifice themselves, work and train and develop their skill, perform to the best of their abilities and actually risk their lives in the process. And then the rest of us can’t even be bothered to ensure that their contests are properly officiated and fairly judged. We should never forget the injustice that occurred to Carl Williams. And we should find a way to finally put an end to what happened to him.

— Michael Carbert

29 thoughts on “May 20, 1985: Holmes vs Williams

  • May 20, 2015 at 2:08 pm
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    Very interesting article about a forgotten man.
    Enjoyed reading it.

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    • May 20, 2015 at 11:49 pm
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      Thanks for the read and the comment, Matt. Appreciate it.

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    • December 13, 2021 at 1:25 pm
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      The article is on point. It should be instructive to anyone interested in the talent and career of Carl “The Truth” Williams, to see the ringside comments and also the Compubox scores from both his fight with Larry Holmes, when he allegedly “lost” his fight for the IBF heavyweight title by an incredibly wide margin on 2 of 3 scorecards, and also his split decision “loss” to Tim Witherspoon of his USBA Heavyweight championship. In my opinion, Carl not only won both fights but truly “beat up” both Larry and Tim, both great heavyweights.

      Given his untimely and unfortunate passing at the young age of 53 after a long fight with esophageal cancer, and the loss of one of his daughters from cancer at age 12, one can only imagine how much happier his life might have been if the decision had gone the right way in his fight with Larry. And instead of making $150,000 (vs. Homes’ $2.3 million) for the 1985 fight, Williams would have made much more in later fights and avoided the financial hardship that befell him. It is worth noting, however, that thanks to Heavyweight contender, Gerry Cooney, Carl did get hired by Gerry’s security firm and thus got into the security field, in which he stayed for the rest of his working life.

      And if he had, we might have had the pleasure of listening to boxing commentary by Carl, since he was a gifted speaker.

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  • August 26, 2016 at 2:08 pm
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    It’s really quite amazing. Here I am today thinking about old fights and watching some on YouTube when I decide to Google “Carl The Truth Williams was robbed” and here is your article front and center. I was only 12 but remember watching this fight with my Dad and knowing even then how that fight decision was a travesty. I enjoyed your article and am glad to know the sentiment of injustice is not mine only and that history reflects as much. I had no idea he had passed and am sorry to hear it.

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  • April 3, 2017 at 10:07 am
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    Actually i don’t think it was a robbery. I had Carl winning 7-5 after 12, but he decided to coast in the last 3 rounds, therefore my unofficial score is 8-7 Holmes. Great performance though by Carl, and I think his jab that night was better than Pinklon Thomas, and 1985 Larry Holmes.

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    • May 19, 2019 at 3:43 am
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      I had Holmes winning 6-5-1, but it really was a close fight. I felt Larry did just enough to retain the championship; Carl kind of wilted after the 10th round imo. Still, had Carl been given the decision it wouldn’t have surprised me.

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      • October 4, 2019 at 1:50 pm
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        It was a 15-round fight. Your 6-5-1 scorecard only adds up to 12.

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    • May 24, 2020 at 9:52 am
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      Larry Holmes was a great champion but this was the night you could see it was time to step away. This was probably a draw or maybe a slight advantage to Williams. But two judges having it 146-139 Holmes? That looks dirty. On that account, Williams was cheated. Roth had him winning by one point. Perhaps that is more accurate. Williams finished without a flourish and it cost him.

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  • May 24, 2017 at 5:10 pm
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    I was 14 years old when I watched this fight live. I was horrified by the decision, and it permanently changed the way I looked at boxing. The only solace I got was when Holmes was robbed losng his second fight to Michael Spinks. Maybe there is such a thing as karma.

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  • February 6, 2018 at 8:38 pm
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    Carl Williams soundly defeated Holmes. It was obvious. At the end of the fight Holmes looked like someone had tied him to a chair and beat him with a broomstick for an hour. Carl Williams was robbed in front of millions of people.

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  • December 1, 2018 at 7:33 pm
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    Saw the fight live years ago with my father. We were both disgusted by the result. Watch Holmes during and after the fight. HE KNEW HE WAS LOSING AND HE KNEW HE LOST. Any time that Larry feels that he wasn’t given enough respect he should rewatch this fight. I’ll always respect Holmes as one of the greats with an awesome left jab but there’s no doubt about it, Williams should have been crowned the new champion.

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  • January 8, 2019 at 11:19 pm
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    Close fight but Holmes won. Williams wasn’t expected to do much so he gets more credit.

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    • May 15, 2020 at 2:37 am
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      You’re INSANE, dude! Carl won 6 of the first 8! No way Larry won 5(if one was even) or 6 of the last 7! No way, because Carl did too good in some of those rounds! Larry’d have to do that to win by a single point! Also, 2 judges had Larry winning by 7 and 3 points in a fight where there were no 2 point rounds! As such, they are saying that Larry won by 7 and 3 rounds! Williams dominated that fight: it wasn’t just a jabbing fest–though his jabs were HARD–but he was landing traditional hard punches, too!

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      • November 5, 2021 at 4:03 am
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        Well it was a fifteen round fight so Holmes could have been judged the winner by seven points at 146-139 (11-4), or by three rounds at 144-141 (9-6). That said, I had Williams the winner by five points at 145-140, ten rounds to five.

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  • May 29, 2019 at 3:38 am
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    Great article. They robbed Carl “The Truth” Williams.

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  • October 6, 2019 at 4:57 pm
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    Michael Carbert: Thanks for putting the human side into the mix. Loved Holmes, a great underappreciated champion who often didn’t help himself with his surly attitude and that classless exchange with Rocky Marciano’s family. But he won the championship in the bruising Norton fight by a single point, which surprisingly didn’t fall in Norton’s favor given he was the better known fighter. Why is it some fighters get that extra bump and others don’t, and only in some fights? Ali lost close decisions to Spinks and Norton — why didn’t he get the champion’s nod? Is there more pressure on some fights than others?Or is it as much incompetence as corruption?I agree Williams won this fight but he did appear to take it easy at times and his cockiness was not true confidence, it was more like an annoying little 6th grader trying to impress the 8th graders. RIP The Truth and his passing was too soon, and if money would have gotten him better treatment, that’s the real crime of this fight.

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    • October 20, 2019 at 4:28 am
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      Thanks for reading, Donn!

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  • October 7, 2019 at 6:43 am
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    Seems like a very biased article: I personally didn’t think Carl did enough to win the title, and had Larry ahead by two points. I’m first to admit Carl looked great in the rounds he did win, but he didn’t take the fight to Holmes enough, and Larry won his rounds pretty clearly imo.

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  • October 25, 2019 at 8:23 pm
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    My first time ever watching the fight. Oct, 25, 2019. Carl soundly defeated Holmes. Carl won 11 rounds to 4.

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  • December 19, 2019 at 11:29 am
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    Nah. No robbery. Close, but Holmes won. And Williams getting starched by Mike Weaver in 1986 is what derailed him.

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  • March 21, 2020 at 7:18 pm
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    When you watch this fight, just looking at it and not trying to score it, you would think Carl Williams won easily cause he did a number on Larry that night with his jab. However when I score the fight, I have Holmes winning 8-7 in rounds, and I watched it again and I had Holmes winning 7-6-2. The rounds Carl won were really clear while some of the rounds Holmes won were more closely contested. But Holmes also landed the heavier power punches with his right hand. So it wasn’t pretty, and if Carl would have got the decision I would have been okay with that, but you have to count every round, even the ones where there isn’t as much action cause those rounds count too and the fact is Carl faded in the last couple of rounds. But the two judges that had it 146-139 were way off. 143-142 was more in line.

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  • April 1, 2020 at 5:14 pm
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    This is one of those fights where one fighter won rounds decisively, but the other guy won more rounds overall. I had Holmes winning 8-7 in rounds, 143-142 in points. The unofficial AP scoreboard had Holmes 145-140. Williams couldn’t put him down, so he doesn’t get extra points for winning rounds decisively.

    If you asked me to pick a winner for the whole fight and not round-by-round, then Carl won. But if you do it by rounds, then Larry won more.

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  • May 21, 2020 at 3:42 am
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    Very good article, putting the focus on the real tragedy of boxing robberies. Thanks for that, since we boxing fans sometimes forget that.

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  • June 6, 2020 at 1:05 am
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    I am really impressed by this well written article by Michael Carbert and the extremely thoughtful and intelligent replies left by so many people on the Holmes – Williams fight. I was a huge boxing fan during the 1980’s, and have recently rewatched all of Holmes fights chronologically since the Norton fight. After watching the Holmes – Williams fight earlier today, I was pining for other opinions on the scoring and other opinions on who actually won the fight. I didn’t think I would find much information, but here I am, reading relatively recent commentary 35 years after the fight occurred! Thanks to everyone! I admit I was watching the Holmes – Williams fight today while working out (trying to get myself back into reasonably good shape), so my scoring could be off because I was multitasking and not focused solely on the fight;… but I had it 7 rounds Williams, 6 Holmes and 2 even. I thought Williams won 5 of the first 7 rounds, and generally speaking, I felt Holmes did not dominate the rounds he won. Holmes was pretty old by heavyweight boxing standards in 1985, and I think Holmes really struggled with an opponent in Williams who was physically bigger and had a longer reach (and not to mention 10 years younger than Holmes ). I was a Holmes fan back in the 80’s, and nostalgically, even a bigger Holmes fan now. But I think Williams did indeed win this fight (although I plan to watch again and score more carefully). Give Holmes credit for fighting well in the later rounds, allowing us to have the “who won” debate 35 years later! And as for the two judges with the lopsided scoring in favor of Holmes, well… that is what ultimately got me frustrated with boxing and caused me to stop following the sport altogether… In any event, I loved reading all the opinions and insight on this fight!

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  • July 11, 2020 at 12:08 am
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    You mention tomato cans…Holmes was coming off beating David Bey (who beat Greg Page) and Bonecrusher Smith (by TKO…Tyson couldn’t even do that). So there goes that argument.

    As far as Williams beating Holmes, he won the first 7 rounds. But I’d watch the last half of that fight again…Holmes staggered Williams more than once (while Williams didn’t even hurt Holmes a little). I personally had Holmes ahead 2 points. So your lamentations aren’t entirely qualified.

    Williams was a mediocre fighter who lucked out doing as well as he did against one of the three greatest heavyweights of all time, 3 years past his prime. No more.

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  • August 4, 2020 at 1:19 am
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    I don’t know about “robbed” – the fight was close enough that I’d understand if someone saw it for either fighter. For what it’s worth I saw it for Williams, 144-142. And the points you’ve made about boxing decisions are good ones. I can’t think of any other sport where the result is so subjective and prone to error.

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  • August 5, 2020 at 7:20 am
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    Thank you so much! You said it all: “When the judges get it wrong, they don’t pay a price, but the victimized boxer does. Sometimes it’s crushingly steep. Imagine how different Carl Williams’ career and life would have been had his hand been raised that night in Reno.” I think about this guy often and about how life is fragile. Thanks a lot for your words.

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  • December 15, 2020 at 7:26 pm
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    Just watched the fight and they asked Carl right after who he thought won and he said Holmes did. They asked him right after and he didn’t contest it at that time.

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    • December 16, 2020 at 5:59 pm
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      To be fair, it’s evident that he misunderstood Marv Albert’s question. Albert says “Do you think HE won?” but Carl clearly heard “Do you think YOU won?” and he replies, “Yes, I do.”

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