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Larry Holmes: “Ali Was One of My Best Friends”

By: Thad Moore

The impact of Muhammad Ali’s career on Larry Holmes cannot be overstated. Ali served as Holmes’ idol, mentor, sparring partner, and eventual opponent. Throughout Holmes’ illustrious career, which includes 7½ years atop the heavyweight division, along with 20 consecutive title defenses without a defeat, he owes much of that success to Ali.

Holmes photo 3

Holmes, 66, explains that before becoming a fighter, he admired Ali for the way he carried himself. “I liked Ali growing up. I liked the (stuff) he talked. I liked Ali because he was always talking, getting under people’s skin,” said Holmes.

Ali saw Holmes fight as an amateur and invited Holmes to training camp in Deer Lake, PA. Holmes knew the experience of sparring with the legendary Ali would be invaluable “Who do you go to but the best? For a whole year, I worked for Muhammad Ali with no pay.” Holmes continues, “When he started paying me, I got $500 a week. This gave me a home, somewhere to train with the best.”

During training camp, Ali taught Holmes lessons both inside and outside of the ring. Holmes spent years learning from his idol before fully going out on his own. “Ali was one of my best friends. He took me places. He did things with me and for me. He would try and hit me and hurt me in the ring for respect. I had a lot of respect from him. I was (like) his main sparring partner. Whenever, he wanted to work really hard, he would call me,” remarked Holmes.

In fact, Holmes worked as a sparring partner with Ali from 1972 to 1975. Up until Ali’s successful WBA and WBC heavyweight title defense against Chuck Wepner in 1975, they were together. That’s when Holmes decided he had to go out on his own to move his career to the next level. He felt he would never be a world champion with his primary focus on being Ali’s sparring partner.

When the Holmes-Ali fight was announced, this made for an uncomfortable situation for Holmes. “I told him (Ali) he was done before he stepped in the ring. In promotion, Ali said he was going to kick my ass. I said OK, fine. I went along with it. I never go 100% on a guy when I know he is hurt. Ali was hurt, ” said Ali. Holmes went on to win and retain his WBC heavyweight title after Ali’s corner threw in the town after the 10th round.

Holmes was born in Cuthbert, Georgia and moved to Easton, PA when he was five. Boxing was introduced to Holmes at an early age after getting in trouble at school. “I dropped out of school in the seventh grade. Teachers told me if you don’t quit we’re going to throw you out. I was big for my age, played football, and was popular with the girls. I got into teacher’s fights. I wouldn’t let them beat me up. A lot of the white girls and black girls liked me. I liked the white girls. I told the black girls to go to hell.” Holmes continues, “I was walking up the steps and I hit one of them on the butt and she stabbed me eight or nine times with a pencil. The teacher’s came in and told me to go home. That was it. I was out.”

Holmes’ motivation in the sport of boxing was never about inflicting pain or humiliating opponents. It was something he felt he would be good at and a way to make a living. “I prayed for everybody that I fought against. I never wanted to kill anyone. I prayed for me and my health. I was always excited about the opportunity to fight. I was scared. I was always scared before a fight,” said Holmes.

Holmes’ happiest moment in the sport was winning the WBC heavyweight title from Ken Norton by 15 round split decision. The classic fight between the two warriors was the clear highpoint of Holmes’ career. “When I won the title a lot of people said I would never be heavyweight champion of the world. I won the title and celebrated being heavyweight champion of the world. They said you can’t make it, Larry. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to be champion. I stayed champion for 7½ years. I stayed there. I fought everybody. I would fight every week if I could,” stated Holmes.

During the highly competitive Norton fight, both fighters had to dig deep in the championship rounds. Holmes found a unique way during the final rounds against the slightly favored Norton and throughout his career to find extra energy. “I would say to myself c’mon body don’t fail me now. Especially when you’re tired, I would sing a song in my head 10 more miles, five more miles, one more mile. When there’s one more round it really seemed to help me out. Something in my mind said body don’t fail me now,” said Holmes.

Holmes has positive recollections about his 1981 title defense against Renaldo Snipes. Holmes, who was leading on all scorecards, suffered a knockdown in the seventh round. Snipes caught Holmes with a right hand early in the seventh to score the knockdown and Holmes fought back aggressively to make it the best round of the fight. The champion, who retained his WBC heavyweight title, eventually won by 11th round TKO.

“It was a knockdown. I was hurt. He knocked the crap out of me. He hit me real good. I was beating him up and I dropped back with my hands down and he hit me-Bam! I went down to the floor. I found myself crawling up, pulling myself up by the ropes.” Holmes admits, “I looked over and he was dancing and smiling and I said I can’t let this guy get me. I recover pretty good. When Snipes hit me, I didn’t see it. When you get hit, you hear something go bang and a noise goes off in your head.”

The hardest puncher that Holmes said he ever faced was Earnie Shavers. Just as he had done during the Snipes bout, Holmes recovered from a knockdown to win. Holmes won a lopsided decision over Shavers in 1978, but in the rematch Holmes was caught with a hard right hand that knocked him down late in round seven. Holmes was hurt, but Shavers only had seconds to follow up before the end of the round. Holmes went on to win by 11th round TKO to retain his WBC heavyweight crown. 

Holmes, who was recently honored with a statue in his adopted hometown of Easton, PA, said that he and Shavers earned each other’s respect and have been life-long friends. “I tell everyone that I have a knot on my head from where he (Shavers) hit me,” said Holmes.

Holmes lists his work ethic as a big reason why he was able to be so successful. When other fighters would be hurt, they would often get stopped. Holmes had the heart, desire, and conditioning to get up from the canvas and come back and win. “I always stayed in shape. Not a lot of other people did. I worked hard,” said Holmes.

The former heavyweight champion talks about one of his most difficult title defenses, his fight against future two-time champion Tim Witherspoon in 1983. “I was fighting everybody. I was just going through the motions and I was getting ready to quit. I fought anybody they put in front of me. I wanted to get the money. I wanted to live happily. I didn’t and don’t owe anyone any money,” said Holmes. Holmes beat Witherspoon by 12 round split decision to retain the WBC heavyweight championship.

Another difficult title defense for Holmes was his fight against Carl “The Truth” Williams. Holmes won the highly contested bout by 15 round unanimous decision to retain the IBF heavyweight title. The champ lists the late Williams as the best pure boxer that he ever fought. “He boxed. Everything I did, he did. He was the man. It was a hard fight for me. This guy was knocking the (stuff) out of me. I asked him, did he copy off me? He said he copied off the best. He said he studied you Larry and wanted to be just like you,” admitted Holmes.

After Holmes’ title reign ended with back to back losses to Michael Spinks, he retired. He did make several comebacks, the first being his challenge to a dominant, in his prime, Iron Mike Tyson. Holmes landed a couple of good combinations in the fourth round, prior to Tyson stopping him in that same round. Tyson retained the undisputed heavyweight title.

“It was time for me to take over (early in the fourth round). I felt like I could get him. I didn’t expect him to hit me. I swear to God if they had given me two more weeks to train, I would have kicked Mike Tyson’s ass. They would have said and new (heavyweight champion of the world). My timing was off. When I brought my hands up to block the punch, I couldn’t bring it up high enough or far enough. Mike had to come up and hit me on top of the head. That’s what gave him the fight,” said Holmes.

Holmes continues to assess why he came up short against Tyson. “Mike didn’t hit as hard as Earnie Shavers. When I took the fight with Tyson, I said I know I can beat him because I know he’s not all there yet. He doesn’t know boxing like I know boxing. Anybody who is 5’10” or 5’11” or 6 feet, I know I can beat them.” Holmes continues, “I was going to whoop him. They are too short. I was going to jab them all day. Their arms are too short. They can’t get inside. I was told different dates for Tyson and it ended up being sooner. Don King said I had until June or July for the fight. Don King lied to me. Of course I took the fight because it was 3½ million dollars. I wasn’t quite ready.”

Perhaps the best compliment to Holmes’ greatness is shared by two of his former opponents. James “Bonecrusher” Smith, who fought and lost to Holmes twice, is quick to point out what set Holmes apart. “Larry was experienced. He was always thinking. He was real good. He had a real strong jab and he was real quick. He crossed that right hand. It was really good. He had all the shots,” said Smith.

Witherspoon is very complimentary about Holmes’ strengths. Among heavyweights, only the great Joe Louis had more consecutive successful title defenses with 25. “Larry had a good jab and right hand. Holmes was the greatest heavyweight champion of that era. He would get off the canvas and knock guys out.” Witherspoon states, “He had great determination. Larry had great heart. Larry and I are good friends.”

Holmes wants people to look back on his career and reflect on what he was able to accomplish both in and out of the ring. “Boxing’s been good to me. I want to be remembered as a good guy. I wanted to have a clean reputation. I don’t want to think I’m better than you or anybody else. They can compare my record with anyone’s record. I may not be the greatest, but I am one of the greatest heavyweights of all-time,” said Holmes. 

Larry Holmes fought in a difficult time following one of the greatest fighters this sport has ever seen, Muhammad Ali. However, Holmes’ greatness should stand alone, and his heart and desire should be unquestioned. His skills are among the best the heavyweight division has ever seen. For that, he should always be recognized.

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