ATLANTIC CITY — Larry Holmes was flat on his back, his legs spread apart, while the referee tried to jiggle the mouthpiece from between Holmes’ teeth. A mob of people hovered over him, three guys in red satin jackets, a policeman, a doctor.
“Get out, get out,” the ex-champ mumbled.
This was Holmes last look at the boxing world, a view of the ceiling, peeking in between the faces of saddened and shocked onlookers. Exit center stage. He had been decked by a tornado named Mike Tyson, just as everybody said he would be. Thirty- eight is too old to be trying this sort of stuff.
“Did Holmes at all frustrate you or fool you?” Tyson was asked later on, in the aftermath of this fourth round knockout which kept him undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
“Naw,” Tyson would answer. “I’m too seasoned a fighter at this stage to be fooled by tactics like his.”
Tyson is 21.
So much for savvy, for experience, for the tired and sad belief that aging ex-champions can somehow reach down and dig up 12 rounds of dusty glory. This fight never should have taken place, not from a boxing point of view, it was a mismatch everywhere but in marquee value. Holmes still had some name recognition. That was worth a few million. The Tyson people offered it. Holmes grabbed it.
What? You thought he was fighting for honor? Holmes had nothing to lose
Forget it. This was less about dignity than the absence of it. What did Holmes have to lose? Remember that his last two fights — in late 1985 and early 1986 — were both defeats, Michael Spinks did him in, and if the decisions didn’t hurt enough, Holmes made an ass of himself in post-fight press conferences.
By the time he retreated to his Easton, Pa. home, he had little of the proud reputation a man who held the heavyweight title for more than seven years should have. So when this Tyson thing came along, what was stopping him? The worst he could do, for a $3 million purse, was exit again, perhaps a little more courteously (remember the “Rocky Marciano couldn’t carry my jockstrap” line?). And the best he could do would be surprise the world.
So it was, that he came to be in that ring Friday night, measuring Tyson at first, holding him at bay with a long, if slow jab. It was a dull beginning, a nothing fight for the first three rounds, but nothing is what you want when you fight a man- eater like Tyson.
And then, the fourth round. Holmes came out with life, he danced, he snapped a few jabs like the old days, the crowd began to roar. And Holmes ego, which has often been his Achilles’ heel, swelled on him again. He lowered his hands, taunted, and Tyson, as unblinking as a grizzly bear, attacked. He floored Holmes with a whomping right hand. The old man landed shoulders first on the canvas. “I knew it was over then,” Tyson would say.
Holmes got up. If there was anything to be earned now it lay solely in how brave he could be. He tried to jab, to hold off Tyson, but the kid monster came back, and a right hand that grazed Holmes’ head sent him down again. Now the crowd was screaming. This was like a scene in a shark movie where the only drama is whether the victim escapes.
No escape. Tyson was wild, attacking, he backed Holmes into the ropes, flailing away, a right, another, a stinging left, another right. The killer saw the champion out of position, he wasn’t even standing in front of his foe, but rather swiping a long right across Holmes’ face as if punching him from a moving bus. Down went Holmes. Tyson, now 33-0, was drying off by the time he stood up.
‘I’m gonna party tonight’
If there was any justice, they would have ended it there, kept Holmes away from a microphone. Instead, once he came to his semi-senses, he spoke again.
“He caught me with a right hand,” said Holmes.”I lost my equilibrium.”
“My mistake was waiting for him to get tired in the fifth round. I wasn’t ready to fight him in the fourth.”
“Will this be it?” he was asked.
“Of course, man,” he said, “unless somebody offers me a lot of money. . .
“Hey, I made three million tonight. That’s nothing to sneeze at. If they’d have said come do this for nothing, I wouldn’t have been here. . . .
“Let ’em say what they want. I’ll laughing all the way to the bank. I’m gonna have a party tonight, and tomorrow night. . . .
And this is where we leave a man who, during his prime, was one of the best. He exits richer — and poorer, yet another victim of the oldest ruse in the book; Father Time is beatable.
Holmes pulled at his robe and in normal speaking voice invited Sugar Ray Leonard to the party he would be throwing in Easton. Down the hallway, in a packed room, Tyson, who had once idolized Holmes and had now wiped his memory clean, was asked who would be next to challenge his greatness.
“I don’t know” Tyson said, a ski cap over his head, “I’m gonna go to Japan and fight some guy.”