ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Larry Holmes, a fighter again at 42, slipped easily into the old conversational stick-and-move routine with a group of writers after a promotional gig the other day in a casino showroom. It wasn't long before he fell to reminiscing about his first fight. That's natural. With the end so close, it's more satisfying for Holmes to look back at how far he's come.
Scranton, Pa., was the first stop for Holmes, a seventh-grade dropout who became heavyweight champion for more than seven years from 1978-85. He debuted with a four-round decision over Rodell Dupree March 21, 1973.
"I got $63 for my first fight," Holmes said. "I fought on a Wednesday, and I had to wait until Monday to get paid by my trainer, Ernie Butler. He locked the money in his trunk. I said, 'What are you going to do with $63?' Ernie put $10 in the bank for me and started my account."
Many fighters end up with little more than what they had at the start, but despite his claims that he repeatedly was shortchanged by promoter Don King, Holmes has held onto his money better than most. He was supposed to get $5 million for his 1981 fight against Muhammad Ali, but Holmes said he actually got $2 million. The $500,000 he expected when he beat Ken Norton to win the World Boxing Council title became $150,000. A $200,000 fight against Earnie Shavers turned into $50,000. And 25 percent of those reduced purses went to King, who was double-dipping, Holmes says, as his manager.
"I didn't get it all," Holmes said, "but what I got, I saved."
Holmes has made and lost money in business, but he says he has enough to keep his family comfortable in his hometown of Easton, Pa. Still, it's nice to be able to come back after a three-year retirement following his 1988 loss to Mike Tyson and work his way up to a fight with heavyweight contender Ray Mercer tonight at the Atlantic City Convention Center. The bout will enable Holmes to deposit $1.05 million in his bank account. If he wins, bigger paydays lie ahead.
Former champion George Foreman showed the way by ending a 10-year retirement to make a comeback in his 40s that has generated millions of dollars. But when someone asked Holmes if he is following Foreman's lead, he had to laugh at the irony. Isn't this where Holmes came in?
"Everything George ever did, I want to be like," Holmes said, sarcastically. Turning more serious, he added, "Everything I do, I can never be me. If I make a poem, I'm trying to rhyme like Ali. When I said fighting at 40 is not a death sentence, everybody said, 'You sound like Foreman.' "
Holmes may not have been a great champion, but he was a very good and durable titleholder who cleaned out the division for years. Yet, as Ali's former sparring partner and successor as champion, Holmes never could escape the shadow of "The Greatest." Now, he finds himself in the considerable shadow of Foreman, a great puncher who never possessed Holmes' boxing skill and savvy.
The return of Foreman and Holmes is viewed by some as a sad example of two pensioners willing to risk their health for a few more paydays, but it's really more of a commentary on the state of a sport that is desperate for quality performers. "It's a new era. I don't think these guys are the type I grew up with," said Holmes, ticking off the names of his contemporaries: Ali, Norton, Joe Frazier, Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena.
After watching current undisputed champ Evander Holyfield go the distance with Foreman and get knocked down twice in his last bout against the mediocre Bert Cooper, Holmes believes he has a chance to become champion again, but he wants to do it before his 43rd birthday in November. "I'd love to have the opportunity Bert Cooper had," Holmes said. "If I'd have fought Holyfield that night, I would've won."
The only heavyweight Holmes truly respects is Tyson, who knocked him out in the fourth round of their 1988 fight. "I fought him for the $3 million," Holmes admitted. "I didn't really think I could beat the guy, but I thought I might get lucky."
Tyson, of course, is on trial now in Indianapolis for rape, and could be out of the picture. Even if he is acquitted and resumes boxing, Holmes said Tyson has not been the same since he was knocked out by Buster Douglas two years ago.
"The Mike Tyson I fought was weaving and bobbing and throwing punches," Holmes said. "This Mike Tyson is walking straight in and taking punches to give punches."