Throughout his career, Larry Holmes had been underestimated. When he started fighting his way up the heavyweight ranks while also working as a sparring partner for Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, no one thought he was championship caliber. Even after he defeated Ken Norton in a thrilling 15 round classic to win the WBC version of the title, he couldn’t get his just due. In 1980 many thought a decrepit Ali could defeat him, and after that the pundits gave challengers Leon Spinks and Gerry Cooney solid odds to take his crown. Instead, Holmes went on to rack up 20 successful title defenses and he’s now generally regarded as one of the best heavyweights to ever step through the ropes. But in 1988 he was still being underestimated, specifically in regard to mass appeal.
Holmes’ career had supposedly come to an inglorious end with two close decision losses to Michael Spinks in 1985 and ’86. After the first defeat, an angry Holmes, who had been one win away from tying Rocky Marciano‘s record of 49 straight victories, told the press that the great Marciano “couldn’t carry my jockstrap.” After losing another close decision to Spinks, which most observers felt should have gone to Larry, the former champion spiced up his post-fight interview by declaring that “the judges, the referees and promoters can kiss me where the sun don’t shine.”
So perhaps the people staging Holmes’ showdown with Mike Tyson could be forgiven for thinking it wasn’t a match-up worthy of exposure on closed-circuit or pay-per-view, instead opting to air it on HBO. After all, Holmes was old, unpopular and had been out of action for almost two years. And surely it was a foregone conclusion that Tyson, easily the most impressive heavyweight anyone had seen in years, would dispose of Larry with little difficulty. Tyson vs Holmes was an intriguing match-up, but it lacked mass appeal. Right?
And yet, come fight time, as the two gladiators strode through a sold-out Atlantic City Convention Hall surrounded by their respective entourages, the electricity in the old arena was palpable. Afterwards, more than one observer marvelled at the tension in the air, noted the goosebumps ringsiders had. Even the organizers of the bout, including Donald Trump, were surprised at the degree of anticipation and excitement.
What they had misjudged was the power and appeal of a classic storyline, and what they had overlooked was that Larry Holmes, despite his graceless comments, represented greatness. No one could deny that. And since most agreed Holmes had been robbed in the second Spinks bout, a Tyson vs Holmes match offered another rendition of that stirring and timeless old tale: the clash between the wise, old king and the bold, young usurper.
This was a match for heavyweight history, as well as a bellwether bout for Mike Tyson. People wanted to know: was he really as awesome as he appeared? This force of destruction who had bested virtually every serious contender in the division, was he a candidate for the pantheon? Or could the canny old veteran expose him, find the chink in the armour, the unseen weakness, and rob him of his power?
Others would eventually take advantage of Tyson’s shortcomings, but in fact this was Iron Mike’s peak. His unique blend of power, quickness and ferocity would never be more potent. At the opening bell, Holmes appeared startled by Tyson’s speed as the young champion bore in and unleashed wicked shots to the body. Forcing the former champion to continually backpedal and clinch, Tyson gave Larry no time to set himself, no chance to find his rhythm. The veteran tried in vain to land a big uppercut or right hand to get Mike’s respect, but his timing was woefully off.
The pattern continued in the second: Tyson pressing, landing to the body, Holmes retreating and clinching, even scurrying out of harm’s way to avoid being cornered. In the third, Holmes started timing the young upstart a bit better and landed a sharp right hand and a few uppercuts on the inside, but Tyson remained the more effective fighter, his two-fisted assault forcing Larry to clinch again and again. Tyson had won the opening three rounds but he appeared frustrated with the constant holding and wrestling as he got in a blatant low blow near the end of the third and a left hook after the bell.
In the fourth Holmes gave the nostalgic in the crowd a bit of what they had hoped to see. Up on his toes for the first time, he circled the ring with seeming authority, snapping home several quick jabs, for a moment looking something like “The Easton Assassin” of old. But the vision was fleeting. Holmes’ 38-year-old legs could not maintain that posture for long and soon enough it was back to grappling and clinching and trying to slow down the younger, faster man. But Tyson never stopped throwing big punches with bad intentions and finally one got through cleanly.
Midway through the round Tyson nailed Holmes with a perfectly timed overhand right that put Larry down hard. Shocked as much as hurt, the old champion made the novice mistake of getting up too quickly from the knockdown, his head still ringing as Tyson tore back in and sent him down a second time, and again the proud Holmes was upright in seconds.
Tyson pursued as his dazed quarry reeled about the ring, trying to regain his equilibrium, taking punch after punch. A series of right hand clouts drove Holmes to the ropes where he planted himself, timed Tyson as he came in, and then let go with a huge uppercut. But the punch never happened; instead Holmes’ fist got snagged in the ropes. A second later Tyson landed the coup de grâce, a final right flush on the jaw that put Holmes flat on his back. The referee waved his arms over the fallen old warrior as officials and cornermen flooded the ring.
The torch had been passed. History had been made. Mike Tyson was clearly the rightful heir to the old king’s crown, the only disputant remaining being Michael Spinks, whom Tyson would demolish in 91 seconds later that same year. And did Holmes have any sharp comments to make, any protest, anymore angry words to offer? “Tyson is a lot better than I thought,” said the humbled ex-champ. “A lot better. People can talk about Spinks all they want. Tyson is the true champion.” – Michael Carbert