Larry Holmes: Where does he rank historically?
24.01.04 - By Janne Romppainen: Making all-time top-10 lists of the best fighters of certain divisions is a subject of an eternal dispute as any boxing fan can testify. It is great fun that is for sure, but the person who makes the list concerned always has his or her own taste and that is what eventually decides the outcome. That is also why we can never reach a consensus. Although no final results can be given, there are nevertheless some facts that we can take on account when making such lists. Some fighters are undeniably “greats” and they belong to everybody’s lists.
Article posted on 24.01.2004
What seems funny is that almost no fighter has gotten his deserved recognition when he has actually fought, but his reputation has risen years, sometimes even decades later. For example the consensus opinion of Joe Louis’ era was that The Brown Bomber would have lost to Jack Dempsey, the legend of the 1920s.
Today, very few experts would pick The Manassa Mauler over Joe Louis in a mythical match-up. Also Rocky Marciano was seen as a tough but very limited slugger back in his heyday, it was later that he was acknowledged to be one of the best heavyweights ever. Even Muhammad Ali went through the same treatment: in the late 1960s many experts belittled his skills and didn’t rank him among the top-10 best heavyweights ever. Today, many experts agree that Ali of that time was the closest of perfection that we have ever witnessed in heavyweight history.
Larry Holmes is one fighter who has also seen this same path. Twenty years ago when he still was the long-reigning heavyweight king he was seen as a solid but not spectacular champion and his name was missing from many boxing journalist’s top-10 lists. Only in the recent years he has finally started to get the status that his fistic achievements have deserved him. But how high should he be ranked? Let’s examine this matter for a while.
Larry Holmes launched his professional career in 1973. Before turning pro he had had merely 22 amateur bouts and compared to many other champions who had achieved Olympic medals in their amateur careers he was an unknown name inside the boxing world. In a sense this was a good thing, since it gave Holmes the time to sharpen his skills without too much disturbing noise around him. Holmes fought often and beat everybody he faced. He also got some incomparable experience outside the official bouts when he went to Muhammad Ali’s training camp in 1975 and got a chance to spar with the champion. Holmes learned a lot from other fighters and his own skills developed quickly. Holmes possessed a great technique. He moved neatly, punched pretty quickly and had weight behind his shots. His left jab was one of the best ever, its accuracy and snap were marvellous. Holmes also knew how to put punches together and his chin held up for the few shots that his defence let through. No wonder, then, that he kept winning
A points victory over the feared Earnie Shavers in 1978 opened Holmes a route to fight for the WBC title against Ken Norton, who had received the title because Leon Spinks decided to defend his crown against Ali instead of Norton who was the number one challenger. In a magnificent fight, Holmes took home a close but just decision and captured the title and – in eyes of the experts - also the status of the best heavyweight of the planet. Holmes defended his title often and he didn’t duck any comers. Among others he faced and beat notable contenders such as Mike Weaver, Shavers in a rematch and Scott Le Doux.
WBC-belt was still a paper title however and Muhammad Ali set in on fire when he announced in 1980 that he would fight again. The public still saw him as the real titlist and Larry Holmes had to stay in his shadow. The teacher and the student met each other in the ring in 1980. In one of the saddest bouts ever seen, Larry Holmes behaved like a gentleman and tried not to beat Ali up too badly. Holmes won every round before Ali’s corner surrendered after ten one-sided stanzas.
Even though Holmes was clearly the best fighter of the world, the audience did not forgive him for beating their idol. Holmes still had to live under Ali’s shadow. Outside the ring he simply couldn’t match the charisma of his predecessor. Inside the ring he proved that he was a worthy champion by meeting and beating everybody the division had to offer. Leon Spinks, Trevor Berbick, Gerry Cooney, Bonecrusher Smith and Tim Witherspoon among others had to succumb in front of him. Only his fights against Witherspoon and Carl Williams were even slightly debatable, apart from them nobody could dispute his superiority. His public status was revealed when the press hyped up his “Fight of the Century” against Gerry Cooney however: nearly all the advertisement was based on that “The Great White Hope” Cooney could and would crush the champion who still didn’t get his fair share of respect. It was understandable that Holmes was bitter. Before the fight he was again overshadowed but not during it. Holmes gave Cooney a bad beating and stopped him in 13.
Holmes had a record of 48-0 and 21 successful defences when he agreed to face Michael Spinks, the reigning light-heavyweight champion of the world. Holmes was just one victory shy from Rocky Marciano’s legendary record and his list of title defences lost only to the one of Joe Louis’. Perhaps a victory over Spinks might have changed the publics attitude towards him, but after fifteen rounds Spinks’ arm was raised up. The fight was definitely a close one, maybe the verdict was even disputable, but there was no robbery. Spinks had been slightly better and that was enough. After the fight Holmes made remarks that are not among the most honourable of his life. The infamous one-liner “Rocky Marciano couldn’t have carried my jock-strap“ won him few new fans. Holmes simply didn’t accept his loss, he accused the official instances for that they had deliberately taken his chance to surpass Marciano’s record. The rematch against Spinks didn’t change the outcome either. It went fifteen rounds again and the verdict was even more disputable than the first one but the result stayed. After these two bouts, Holmes retired with a 48-2 record.
The Easton Assasin was not satisfied however. After taking almost a two-year lay-off he came back to challenge Mike Tyson for the world title. Holmes hadn’t prepared properly and when Tyson was at the top of his game, the result was not a real fight at all. Holmes was gutsy, but Tyson blasted him out in four rounds. Holmes retired again, but when he saw how George Foreman was doing a strong comeback in his forties, Holmes decided to try it once again. He had no worries for money, but probably because of the under-appreciation that he had faced earlier, he still felt that he had things to prove. This time Holmes had a better approach to the title fight. He took some warm-ups and among them easily beat up a top-10 contender Ray Mercer before stepping in the ring against the reigning champion Evander Holyfield. The fight itself was a terrible bore. For most rounds, Holmes simply stood in a corner, easily taking every punch that Holyfield through but giving back little resistance. Holyfield’s decision victory was undeniable, though Holmes scored a moral victory by finishing the bout on his feet.
This would have been a respectable ending for Holmes’ career but he carried on fighting. After a couple of more silent years he made it to the championship ring one more time in 1995 and challenged Oliver McCall for his WBC title. Holmes was actually very close of winning it, but couldn’t quite held it to the end and he suffered the fifth loss of his career. After that, Holmes’ career has been filled with retirements and new comeback tries. He hasn’t fought at world level after that, but he hasn’t lost either except for a controversial bout against Danish Brian Nielsen. Understandably most of his fights have been painful to watch however, the man approaching his fifties didn’t remind the young lion who ruled the division in the 1980s. So far his last official appearance in the ring has been a lacklustre show against a novelty hero Butterbean, whom Holmes defeated on points back in 2002. Holmes however was just seen in an exhibition fight, so it might be that the old warhorse will still step in the ring despite what the public would hope. So far Holmes’ record is 69-6, with 44 knockouts
Looking the statistics, few men ever have achieved as much as Holmes. He has fought for the world title 26 times, which is second only to Joe Louis. As mentioned, he also made 21 successful title defences and only Louis is in front of him with 25. Between 1978-80, Holmes won eight championship bouts in a row inside the distance, a record that he shares with Tommy Burns. His record at best was in numbers 48-0, only one victory away from Rocky Marciano’s list, but Holmes had had 22 title fights whereas Marciano ever fought seven. If Marciano is considered to be one of the greatest ever because of his ring record, then certainly Holmes fits in their company too. Holmes’ reign was almost eight years long, which is the second longest continuous reign in the division’s history.
Holmes also is one of the most complete fighters ever, he had very few apparent weaknesses. Usually the fighters who are successful at 40+ are ones who have both a good chin and a knockout punch, because they are the last things to go. Holmes wasn’t really a KO artist, but he nevertheless kept winning well after normal fighters would have hung up their gloves. He was able to do that because of his magnificent craft. “I need to learn to box” commented Ray Mercer after getting schooled by the then-42-year-old veteran. That says a lot. It has sometimes been said that Holmes’ era was a weak one, but with names such as Smith, Witherspoon, Shavers, Spinks, Weaver and Norton that is not entirely fair.
There is in fact very little that can be counted against Holmes when considering his all-time ranking. In his prime he did have some trouble with other strong fighters with good jabs as his close tussles against Witherspoon and Williams prove. This leads to think that Holmes might have had trouble with modern-day big men such as Riddick Bowe or Lennox Lewis who both could jab and box. During the late stages of his title reign Holmes was at times accused for ducking his contenders. While it is true that Pinklon Thomas especially should have gotten his chance it must be remembered that ducking never was Holmes’ habit when he was in his prime and in later years he simply didn’t fight that often as is the usual case with any fighter. Still, it might be that had Holmes fought Thomas in 1985, his title reign might have been a bit shorter. Holmes’ reputation has also suffered for his numerous comebacks, but it must be noted that they all have come years after his prime.
I am of the opinion that Holmes definitely is a top-5 heavyweight of all times. In fact, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali are the only ones that I would certainly rank over him. After that, it is all debatable. He has done everything that a great champion needs, except maybe for being a colourful and popular figure outside the ring, but I can’t count that against anybody. The Easton Assasin has deserved his status as a real all-time great.
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