NEW YORK -- Slowly, but surely, former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes has been selling off his considerable real-estate holdings in his hometown of Easton, Pa.
"I've gotten rid of my restaurant, most of my land, and I'm in the process of selling my hotel," he said yesterday at the kickoff news conference for his fight with World Boxing Organization heavyweight champion Ray Mercer on Feb. 7 in Atlantic City, N.J.
"But I'm keeping the federal office building that nets me $350,000 a year in rent. It's got a courthouse and three holding pens. If I don't like the judges, I can always lock them up," he said, laughing.
There was a touch of irony in Holmes' humor.Had it not been for three boxing judges who awarded Michael Spinks a controversial decision in April 1986, Holmes would have regained his heavyweight crown and possibly retired with his boxing reputation intact.
Instead, this 41-year-old grandfather will be stepping back into the ring against Mercer, 30, who, as an aspiring fighter, idolized Holmes when he reigned as heavyweight king from 1979 through 1985.
Promoter Bob Arum, working with Holmes for the first time, called the match "The Last Stand."
But by the time the fight occurs, Mercer may be stripped of his WBO title for failing to defend it against mandatory challenger Michael Moorer. Arum has filed for an injunction, but this infighting apparently doesn't concern Holmes.
"I didn't like the way my career ended, flat on my back," said Holmes, recalling his abortive comeback in 1988, when he was beaten in four rounds by then-champion Mike Tyson.
So Holmes embarked on another comeback in April.
He has whipped five journeyman fighters who would have served as his sparring partners when he ruled the heavyweight division, and decided that was enough preparation for Mercer, a strong puncher with an iron jaw, but easy to hit.
Holmes' comeback is being likened to that of George Foreman, who waited 10 years before returning to the ring and then extended heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield to the 12-round limit.
"They wanted me to take the slow track back to the title, like George did," said Holmes, a trim 230 pounds. "But after five tuneups, I feel I can lick most of the guys around today.
"What George proved in his comeback is what I already suspected. He showed us that the top heavyweights today, except for Tyson and possibly Razor Ruddock, wouldn't even deserve a mention in the '70s, when we were fighting against guys like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and Earnie Shavers.
"The lack of competition today brought me back as much as anything. Sure, we all like money, but that's just the icing for me.
"I could sit in my office and count my money and revenue from municipal bonds," he said. "Or I could go fishing on my boat in the Hudson or in Jacksonville, Fla., where I've got another home.
"But I get bored very easily. I've been fighting since I was 14, and it gets in your blood. I'm not tampering with a great career. I'm just doing what I like to do best."
Holmes has returned without longtime promoter Don King, whom he charged with taking too many kickbacks from his major title purses. But Holmes once said he never would perform for Arum as long as he was a black fighter.
Reminded of that, Holmes smiled and said: "There were some things about Arum promoting fights in South Africa I couldn't abide. But I was a lot younger then and didn't understand the business end of boxing. Now, I'm a kinder, gentler Larry Holmes."
The younger Holmes had a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth, labeling judges who voted against him "crooks," cursing critical reporters and demeaning boxing legends such as Rocky Marciano.
Now, the bitterness has abated. Grandpa Holmes is saving his furyfor the ring.
"Of course, I'm not the same fighter I was five, 10 or 15 years ago," he said. "But I'm smarter, and I economize. I run three miles instead of five and spar six rounds instead of 12. I've learned to take all the shortcuts. I'll be using a lot of tricks to beat Mercer."
NOTES: Arum said he hopes that Foreman will fight in the spring against the Holmes-Mercer winner. . . . Arum plans 2 other championship fights in Atlantic City the weekend of Feb. 7, with James Toney defending his IBF middleweight title and James Waring meeting Alfred Cole for his IBF cruiserweight crown. . . . Former WBO middleweight champion Doug DeWitt will launch a comeback on the Feb. 7 card. . . . Arum wants to promote a Tommy Hearns-Bobby Czyz cruiserweight showdown. . . . Mercer promises to pay the cleaning bill for Marla Maples' white suit he bloodied in drubbing Tommy Morrison last month on a Donald Trump card.