By Blaine Hislop
Updated: October 27, 2004
MIAMI, FL—I have a confession to make: I’ve never liked Larry Holmes. Perhaps part of the reason is the brutal way in which he disposed of an aging, creaking, years past his best-before-date Muhammad Ali in 1980. Maybe part of it is the fact that Larry never seemed to have any semblance of charisma or style or magic while he reigned as heavyweight kingpin. Maybe I’ve always disliked Larry because of his emotionally austere and distant public persona and because of that sizable chip he always seems to carry around on at least one enormous shoulder. Looking back, I must admit that yes indeed, all of those factors (on some level, surely) have contributed to my distaste for the Easton Assassin. But the over-riding reason for my lack of love for L.H. really boils down to two things: in the weeks leading up to his highly charged 1982 title fight against Gerry Cooney, Holmes shamelessly played the race card; and, in more recent years, he has been obnoxious and ugly in discussing some of the sports living legends. Let me start with the prequel to the Cooney fight first.Now, before I get up and running, I want to make one thing abundantly clear: there were bigots in the mainstream media in 1982 who shilled for Cooney in a manner so visceral that racial considerations clearly were at the heart of their partisanship -and that sort of nonsense would infuriate any right-thinking man. And it is also an indubitable fact that Holmes suffered a lack of public acclaim in 1982 that can be traced, at least in part, to the fact that he was yet another Black man holding the (then) most prestigious prize in all of sports. Thus, given such circumstances, it is perfectly understandable why Larry might be in a foul mood as fight night approached. But Holmes’ behavior in the weeks leading up to that fight was nonetheless distasteful -and, ultimately, unacceptable.
To begin with, all of his bitching aside, Larry never had it as bad as Joe Louis or most of the great Black champions who came before him. Now, I’m not saying that Larry had to act like Little Lord Fauntleroy in May and June of 1982, but I am saying that Holmes’ incessant bitching and moaning (bitching and moaning, by the way, that seemed to segue almost invariably into personal attacks on the Irish slugger) suggested a measure of self-absorption that was almost pathological. If Larry was angry at the white power structure and believed it to be oppressing him and others like him, then that was one thing, but attacking the taciturn Cooney as a person was another matter entirely. To the best of my knowledge, neither Gerry nor the people around him at the time used race as a lever to propel him into a lucrative title fight with the reigning heavyweight champion. And if Larry felt he was getting shafted financially, then the true culprit – at least so far as his in-ring proceeds were concerned – was another Black man: Don King. I felt then – and I still feel now – that Larry’s act was an infantile one (at least as infantile as Muhammad Ali’s crude shtick in Manila roughly seven years earlier) and that it did his public image considerable, and lasting, harm. Simply put, Larry discredited another professional as a person (and a blameless person at that) simply because of the color of his skin (Oh yeah, I almost forgot: Larry also played the race card against Scott LeDoux as well, and if you’ve got to play the race card against Scott LeDoux, then you’ve got a real problem).
The second reason why I’m not a big Holmes fan is because of the callous way in which he has ridiculed some of boxing’s all-time greats. Call me a sappy idolator if you will, say that I’m one of those insipid sorts who’d much rather ply his trade swapping saccharine tales with old-timers rather than engaging in real sports journalism, but Holmes’s put-downs of Ali and George Foreman in print (and, to a lesser extent, of Joe Frazier) are in poor taste and basically superfluous. Okay, Larry, Ali was a lecherous womanizer. Your point being? Stories about Ali’s philandering and his other lifestyle choices were common knowledge even in the 1970s; they’re hardly worthy of further discussion now. The George Foreman of “Mean, Lean Grilling Machine” fame (and fortune) is a malicious phony? Well, I suspect that neither of us knows the contemporary Big George well enough to slag his character in such a manner. And Joe Frazier is a bad guy because he broke two of your ribs in a pre-Ali-Frazier I sparring session and then wouldn’t give you the day off… well, first of all, boxing is a hurt business, big fellow; secondly, your story runs counter to the stories of other former Frazier sparring partners who’ve discussed at length Smokin’ Joe’s generosity and his willingness to look after guys he may have inadvertently roughed up in the ring. For what its worth, it sounds to me like someone is more than a little jealous.
Anyway, there you have it; a confession I’ve waited more than twenty years to give. I want to be the first to say that Holmes was a great champion; in fact, I consider him one of the ten greatest of all-time. But part of being a beloved champion, at least in this corner, involves acting like a great champion, too. Muhammad Ali sometimes did things that made you shake your head in disbelief, but his time as champ is also marked by innumerable acts of generosity and charity – many of them never recorded. There is no such humanitarian legacy for Holmes – and that’s just a fact. At the end of the day, if Larry wants people to love and revere him, he has to give them a reason to do so; it is not enough to merely demand it.