LAS VEGAS — By the time you read this, history will have been made here in the Nevada desert.
Some sort of history, anyhow. Either Larry Holmes will have equaled the record 49 straight victories set by Rocky Marciano, or his younger opponent, Michael Spinks, will have destroyed the belief that a light-heavyweight cannot steal a crown off the head of a heavyweight champion.
But no matter what the outcome, there was a hollowness leading up to this event that thudded like a lead pipe to the skull — particularly to people who once heard the words “heavyweight title fight” and felt goose bumps of excitement.
For Saturday was little more than a number. Fight No. 49 for Holmes, 30 years to the day after Marciano’s 49th bout.
They inked the fight onto the calendar. Hyped it as “History in the Making.” Brought in every former heavyweight who would take a plane ticket. Yet it remained as thin as the neon on the Las Vegas strip, and just as fleeting.
You can’t program history.
And you can’t pretend that this was a battle of the two best heavyweights in the world, or that this morning’s winner has proven anything more than that he could beat Saturday’s opponent.
And that’s a shame. A title, not an alphabet belt
Oh, for the days when a heavyweight title fight really meant something. When the biggest and strongest went toe-to-toe for one glorious title and not some alphabet belt. Even boxing’s staunchest critics might confess a peculiar interest when the two most powerful muscle dancers slugged it out in a square ring for all the world’s marbles.
But there has been none of that recently in the heavyweight ranks. Not by the hand of Larry Holmes. Since taking a beating while outpointing Tim Witherspoon in May 1983, Holmes has avoided the most dangerous heavyweight challengers — men like Greg Page, Pinklon Thomas, Gerrie Cotzee — while padding his record with the likes of James (Bonecrusher) Smith, Scott Frank, David Bey, and the son of Joe Frazier (Marvis, a very poor imitation).
And who cared? It had come down to numbers, the mighty heavyweight drama, playing itself out like a line in a delicatessen. No. 46. No. 47. Step right up, No. 48.
So when Holmes finally closed on No. 49 — and cast it against Spinks, who had to eat his way up to the heavyweight class — the biggest interest that could be roused was the curiosity of “somebody’s going to set a record, and we ought to be watching.”
Who would have cared passionately about this fight if it were No. 39 on Holmes’ list?
And what really would the record mean anyhow, since Holmes and Marciano fought a number of unworthy opponents in their later fights?
Sad. For the heavyweight traditon deserves better. Someone pointed out Saturday that, should Holmes win, his record- breaking 50th fight would likely be against Alfonzo Ratliff — who? — a cruiserweight who already has lost to Thomas and Witherspoon.
And should Spinks win, my goodness, then what? He’d have to defend the title against the likes of a Page, a Thomas, a Tony Tubbs — legitimate heavyweights who are not only heavy, but young. No sneaking up on Father Time there. Why, it would be enough to chase Spinks back down the scale to his previous division.
This is how heavyweight champions of the world should behave? Excitement has dulled
No. Something has been lost here, and though it might not be missed this morning in the yelling and screaming and celebrating for the winner, its absence remains as real and unrelenting as a jab to the brain.
The shine has faded. The luster dulled. The heavyweight tradition — enhanced by men like Louis, Dempsey, Johnson, Ali — has been skinned to its core, until it takes a ghost of a dead fighter to resuscitate interest.
“After I’m gone,” Holmes said last week, “someone will bring me back, just like I brought Rocky Marciano back to life.”
It shouldn’t have to happen. Records? Big deal. What takes place in the ring should stand on its own, or it’s not worth it.
The greatest thing about heavyweight title fights used to be the way they stoked the imagination, made us wonder about the power, the will, the heart it took for one of the two toughest punching warriors in the world to emerge with his hand held high.
There’s no heart in numbers.
And when the smoke clears from Saturday’s fight, those who love boxing will feel the absence.