At 42, ex-champ Holmes fights odds and history He says Mercer bout is risk worth taking

February 07, 1992|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Correspondent

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — "There are certain things you can't get back, like the elastic in your socks."

Eddie Futch, former trainer of Larry Holmes

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Former heavyweight king Larry Holmes, who fights unbeaten Ray Mercer at Convention Hall tonight, has fallen into a familiar trap that has lured countless former champions back into the ring.

Blame it on ego, money concerns, missed glory, wounded pride, persistent dream, or a combination of the above. But ring legends Willie Pep, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard could not resist seeking a last hurrah until absorbing a final, embarrassing whipping.

Old fighters don't die. They are carried out of the ring, feetfirst. Holmes, 42, has been slow to learn this lesson. This is his second attempt to regain the heavyweight crown he lost to Michael Spinks in 1985, and he stubbornly sticks to his creed: "If I fail, at least I can say I tried."

In the past, Holmes, who owns substantial real estate in Easton, Pa., and says he is financially secure, has said all the right things. He vowed he would not suffer the same fate as his idol, Ali, whom he battered into submission 12 years ago.

When first returning to the ring in 1988 to challenge then-heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, Holmes said: "I'm not like Ali. When he fought me, he was an old 38 with a body that was beaten up from too many wars with Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman. I had some tough fights, but no wars like Ali."

Holmes lasted only four rounds against Tyson, and was left dangling over the ropes, a badly faded image of the man who had ruled the heavyweight division for close to eight years.

"I didn't have to fight Tyson. I came back to prove something. I was trying to get back the championship they [the judges] took away from me," said Holmes, still haunted by his two controversial losses to Spinks.

Both Futch and boxing guru Ray Arcel, who also trained Holmes, urged him to quit fighting. Said Arcel: "With Larry, it's not money or a desire. It's just an urge to prove he's still the top rooster. But when you're 38, you get hit with too many punches, and they start leaving a permanent mark."

Now Holmes is 42, a grandfather trying to act like a young heavyweight hopeful.

After his failed mission against Tyson, Holmes tried concentrating on his varied business interests, but found that was not enough of a challenge.

"I get bored very easily," he said.

Reminded of Ali, a victim of Parkinson's syndrome that has limited his speech and mobility, Holmes said: "Ali might have been hurt by boxing, but nobody's sure, and I'm no doctor. I know that can happen to me. But I still want to take the chance. We don't know what is promised to us. I'm just doing this because I want to."

Holmes says he is not fearful of damaging his image. He believes his still powerful jab, experience and ring know-how will be more than enough to handle a powerful, but untutored heavyweight like Mercer.

"I'm not tampering with a great career," he said. "I can do what George Foreman did."

But Holmes did not follow the same boxing blueprint as Foreman, who fought 24 tuneups before challenging Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight title.

"I don't have a lot of time or patience," said Holmes, who beat five journeymen last year before accepting a match with Mercer, the former WBO champion. "This is it for me. If I can't get a title fight with Holyfield by the end of this year, I'll hang up my hat.

"If I whip Mercer, the big paydays will come quicker. But I have no plans to hang around and serve as some young fighter's punching bag."

Perhaps, Holmes should heed the words of Sugar Ray Robinson, who was still chasing ghosts at 44, losing to nondescript pugs he once would have toyed with.

Said Robinson: "You always say, 'I'll quit when I start to slide.' Then one morning you wake up and realize you've done slid."

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