LAS VEGAS -- When he initially retired from boxing, Larry Holmes had every apparent reason to be satisfied. But satisfaction proved elusive for a man who was groping for a place in history.
Holmes had reached the pinnacle and made a ton of money in a distinguished career. He held the heavyweight championship for 7 1/2 years, starting his career 48-0, one win short of Rocky Marciano's record.
It wasn't enough.
Now a victory over undisputed champion Evander Holyfield tomorrow night could go a long way toward lifting the cloud that long has hovered over Holmes.
The jury is still out. Does he pale in comparison to Joe Louis and Marciano? If Muhammad Ali is The Greatest, then who is Larry Holmes?
"I'm still a fighter," Holmes said yesterday. "I've always been a good fighter. Right now I'm 85 percent. That's all I have to be to beat Holyfield. The people know that Holyfield is fighting the best damn man out here. And I became that by beating Ray Mercer."
Holmes (54-3) would leave jaws agape by defeating Holyfield (27-0). And he might overcome the lack of appreciation he feels has dogged him.
Holmes served as a sparring partner for the flamboyant Ali from 1971-75. When he went out on his own, he was best known as an Ali clone, although he had a devastating left jab and a brilliant right cross that produced 37 knockouts.
"I never thought about it," Holmes said. "Ali had the best jab of that time, and I did use my jab a lot. A lot of things that he did rubbed off on me, like they did on a lot of other people. But I didn't try to copycat Ali."
Holmes, 42, is from a different era of boxing, and admittedly was too naive for his own good. He believes that in the early '80s, when $1 million purses suddenly became common, he was routinely fleeced by his promoter, Don King. And despite his record of success, there was more publicity for Gerry Cooney, the Great White Hope.
Holmes still isn't able to escape the bad impression he created in 1985, when, after failing to break Marciano's record, he said, "Rocky Marciano can't hold my jockstrap."
In losing to Michael Spinks, Holmes had become the first reigning heavyweight champ to be dethroned by a light heavyweight moving up in class. When Spinks beat him again a year later in 15 rounds, Holmes lost almost all his credibility.
His loss in 1988 to Mike Tyson by knockout in four rounds was predictable. Holmes retired after that fight to count his money and pursue business interests in Easton, Pa.
But the comeback of George Foreman served as a career guide for Holmes. Foreman lost to Holyfield and wound up with $12 million from a pay-per-view extravaganza in April 1991, and Holmes was paying attention.
Holmes fought five times in 1991, whipping Tim Anderson, Eddie Gonzales, Michael Greer, Art Card and Jamie Howe. The key victory came in February, when Holmes pounded out a 12-round decision over Ray Mercer, and the pieces for another title shot suddenly fell into place.
When a proposed fight between Holyfield and Tyson was canceled because of Tyson's injury and his rape conviction, the door eventually opened for Holmes.
When the Tyson verdict came down, Holyfield decided first to face Riddock Bowe, who priced himself out of the marketplace. Then the champ settled on the winner of Mercer-Holmes, which Holyfield openly believed would be Mercer.
With that upset came an apparent easing of the historical burden for Holmes.
"There's no more pressure on me," he said. "I don't have to prove anything anymore. I don't have to do anything but fight. I don't have to worry about who's the greatest or whatever."
While he has been testy to some, Holmes has worked hard at public relations, hoping to win over the media corps that blasted him for denigrating Marciano. Holmes handles the subject with humor these days.
"People are still trying to kill me with this Marciano thing," he told USA Today. "I was tall, dark and handsome. Was he any of those things? Well, I'm tall and dark ... two out of the three ain't bad."
The feeling is different this time around, Holmes added.
"I don't have to compete for any records," he said. "And for a change, nobody has to get mad at me. The only people who will get mad at me are Holyfield fans because I'm going to win."
Holmes thinks the fighters of his youth were better, that the heavyweight ranks had more powerful boxers, and that today's fighters don't understand the game.
"We fought then," Holmes said. "Ken Norton and I went 15 rounds, trying to kill each other. Earnie Shavers hit me so hard I thought lightning struck me. I don't think Holyfield has that big, big knockout punch. He hit Foreman 20 to 30 shots and couldn't put him away, and [Bert] Cooper was tough on him. But he's good and I have to be careful."
Holmes says he is no fool. Win or lose, he does not plan to stick around much longer.
"Why?" he said. "Because I want to be able to think. It's not how many fights you have, it's how many punches you take in doing it. You get hurt more in training than you do in competition.
"I've trained for eight weeks for this fight. For eight weeks, I took punches just to get my body in shape, my mind in shape. Just the other day, I dropped my hands to take a few shots. I know Holyfield is going to hit me."