WASHINGTON -- Former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, 42 and twice a grandfather, is finally enjoying life as a fighter.
Ten weeks shy of his June 19 title match in Las Vegas with undisputed heavyweight king Evander Holyfield, Holmes seems relaxed and enjoying his part in the pre-fight buildup.
"You know, I was champion for 7 1/2 years and made millions of dollars, but it was never really fun until now," said Holmes, sharing a parlor car with Holyfield and the media on an Amtrak train reserved by co-promoters Dan Duva and Bob Arum.
"Through experience, and I guess, wisdom, you learn to do and say things differently. You learn you can get the job done without animosity and anger."
The younger Holmes always seemed to be carrying a giant chip on his shoulder, castigating reporters for labeling him a pale copy of Muhammad Ali, suggesting ring legend Rocky Marciano couldn't carry his jockstrap, or instructing fight judges to "kiss me where the sun don't shine," after losing his crown in 1985 on a close decision to Michael Spinks.
Looking back on those tumultuous times, Holmes said his angry stance was dictated, in particular, by promoter Don King and trainer Richie Giachetti.
"When I started fighting, I was a seventh-grade dropout," he recalled. "I was relying on their advice. But after I won the title, they kept creating constant pressure.
"King convinced me that I had to hate my opponent, and he told me which reporters I could talk to, and those I should turn my back on. When I fought Gerry Cooney in 1982, it became like a racial war. But that's the way King and [Cooney's manager] Dennis Rappaport wanted to sell the fight, create all this animosity between the two camps, calling Cooney 'the Great White Dope.'
"I told Gerry, 'Hey, it doesn't have to be this way.' But by then, he started believing all the hype himself."
In time, Holmes grew weary of King's machinations and financial manipulations.
"It started even before I was champion," Holmes said, remembering King's bookkeeping methods. "I fought this real killer, Roy Williams, on the undercard of Ali's championship match with Jimmy Young at the Capital Centre. I was supposed to get $3,000. King paid me $1,500. I broke my hand and had to pay my own doctor bills.
"When I fought Ken Norton for the title in 1978, I was supposed to get $500,000 and took home $150,000. For Earnie Shavers, who hit me so hard it felt like I was struck by lightning, I was promised $200,000 and got $50,000. For Ali, my purse was supposed to be $5 million. I got $2 million and had to sue for $1 million. King was the promoter, but still took 25 percent of what I got. I made a lot of money in boxing I never got to see."
Now a multimillionaire with substantial real estate holdings in his hometown of Easton, Pa., Holmes, who earned $42 in his first pro bout in 1973, will get to keep most of his guaranteed $7 million purse for fighting Holyfield.
"When I came back to fight Mike Tyson in 1988, I was building a place that cost $5 million and I needed the $3 million purse," he said. "But now I'm not fighting for the money anymore. I'm coming back to gain respect, and give my grandchildren and kids something to be proud of."
And they will remember a once-sour heavyweight king who has learned to enjoy life as the underdog.
Said Arum, who has promoted the comebacks of both George Foreman and Holmes: "I told Larry, 'Look at how George #F presents himself to the public and how popular he's become. Why create animosity when you don't have to?'
"With King, I don't think any of the fighters that fought for him got the right direction. He wanted to be the superstar. He'd demean champions like Holmes as 'my fighter.' And then he'd shortchange them. That made them angry at King and everyone else. They were never able to spread their wings.
"But now Larry is his own man. He sees how being nice works for George. And now he's finally getting the affection from the public he should have had a long time ago."
NOTES: TVKO president Seth Abraham made a point of reminding everyone that it was also on June 19, in 1945, that Joe Louis knocked out Billy Conn in their rematch at Yankee Stadium. Asked Arum, "Who's got Conn's phone number?" Countered Lou Duva, Holyfield's co-trainer, "Why, do you want Conn to make a comeback, too? . . . Rock Newman, manager of top contender Riddick Bowe, stopped at Union Station long enough to rip the Holyfield-Holmes promotion. "Holmes is a washed-up old fighter who beat a pitiful amateur in Ray Mercer," said Newman. "Holyfield can only establish his credibility as a champion by fighting Bowe."