LAS VEGAS — Larry Holmes was a nobody. Just some name. “Get down here by 8 p.m. and you can have a fight with him,” the promoter said. Rodell Dupree looked at the clock on the gym wall. He had four hours. “OK,” he said, and hung up. He grabbed his gloves, called his girlfriend and his uncle, and they drove from Jersey City to Scranton, Pa., in his ’65 Chevy. Got there just in time.
The fight started. The two men threw punches at each other’s faces, ribs, arms. Four rounds later, it was over. The guy named Holmes won on points.
Dupree waited around until he got his money — maybe $200 — and drove home. He never saw his opponent again.
That was 1973. In the dozen years that followed, Larry Holmes would rise to become heavyweight champion of the world, to beat men such as Muhammad Ali and Gerry Cooney, to win 48 fights without a loss. This weekend, with the world watching, he goes for No. 49 against Michael Spinks. If he’s successful, he’ll tie a record set by the legendary Rocky Marciano.
The talk in Las Vegas is of the greatness in numbers, of history, of the glorious light that’s about to shine on Larry Holmes.
But there’s a little ray shining on Pine Street in Jersey City. Dupree now makes his living driving a forklift, but he never forgets.
He was Holmes’ first pro fight. A clash of dreams
A message was left for Dupree at his uncle’s house. At 1 a.m., Dupree called back.
“Yes, I fought Holmes first,” he said happily, ignoring the hour, as if this were the first time someone had asked. “I couldn’t do nothing to him. He was like a big barrel. But I tried. They didn’t expect it to go no four rounds, I know that.”
He paused. “I was hungry, you know? Back then, I was hungry.”
He talked for a while about his career, about nights like that night in Scranton, when he was still heady with dreams, big dreams. He’d be a name someday. Maybe a champion. Yeah. A heavyweight champion.
It happened — for Holmes, not for him. Dupree fought another seven years, then gave up. He had kids to feed. He never beat anyone big. He never made more than $4,000 for a year’s worth of fighting. His record is a blur. He doesn’t remember the last man he fought.
Mostly, boxing left him with a lot of bruises and swollen flesh, until he finally said enough. But there was that one night — Larry Holmes, who knew it would be the Larry Holmes? — and he carries it with him like a lollipop in his pocket, and tells his sons about it, and the guys he works with at the chemical plant.
“Sometimes the guys tell me, ‘Rodell, you were the first, man. You should call Holmes up, tell him you want to be the last, too.’ “
He laughs at the idea and says he never considered it. Not really. The first of 49
Larry Holmes woke up this morning in a Las Vegas hotel suite. His entourage stood by, ready to serve. A glass of orange juice? A massage? Name it.
Rodell Dupree woke up this morning in Jersey City. He is likely behind the wheel of his forklift as you read this.
For one brief moment, 12 years and a lifetime ago, they were equal, eye-to-eye across a boxing ring, where past and future meet at the end of a leather glove.
Holmes got hitched to a star. Dupree stayed here on earth. Glory comes in different doses to different people.
You take what you can get.
“The highlight of my career,” Dupree said, “was when Holmes won the championship. At least now, wherever I go, I can say I fought heavyweight champion Larry Holmes in his first professional fight. And we went four rounds.”
He paused. “Yeah . . . we went four rounds.”
If Holmes ran into Dupree today, it’s doubtful he’d recognize him. That was, after all, 12 years ago. There have been so many fights in between, so many millions of dollars, so many headlines.
But every fighter carries a piece of his opponents with him. And in a small way, Holmes has carried 48 fighters to the brink of history here in the Nevada desert.
Dupree would like to see Holmes fight Spinks. He won’t. Cable TV — on which the fight is shown — is a luxury he can’t afford right now.
“I’ll wait and read about it Sunday. Maybe the newspaper will run a list, you know, and my name will be there, No. 1.”
He’d like that, he said, and he hoped it would happen so he could show his kids.