Larry Holmes: Against The Odds

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Larry Holmes: Against The Odds Larry Holmes: Against The Odds, the autobiography of the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world, was co-written with journalist Phil Berger and first published in 1999. Although Larry Holmes is generally regarded to be one of the ten greatest heavyweight champions of all time (holding some version of the title from 1978 to 1985), he never really escaped from the illustrious shadow of Muhammad Ali – who he succeeded as champion and once worked for as a sparring partner – and gained a reputation for being a somewhat bitter character who always seemed to have a gripe or complex about something. Holmes always seemed to resent the fact that he wasn’t as loved or appreciated as Ali and his reputation sunk to a low in 1985 when, after building a perfect 48-0 record and on the cusp of drawing level with Rocky Marciano’s famous 49-0 mark, he lost a close decision to underdog Michael Spinks and made an infamous and ill-judged comment after the fight about Marciano being unable to carry his jockstrap. Holmes, to put it bluntly, was never one of the most liked heavyweight champions but his autobiography is a surprisingly enjoyable and funny read with some fascinating insights, amusing jokes and interesting reflections on the various characters he has met over the years. ‘He was a loose cannon,’ says Holmes memorably of Leon Spinks. ‘A man who exposed himself as a dumb b*****d the more you saw of him. I knew he’d end up a jive ex-champ, driving a Cadillac with about three bucks in his pocket and a brain like cornflakes.’

‘In my time the great heavyweight champions were men whose path was made for them,’ says Holmes at the beginning of the book, a pointed reference to the likes of Ali, Frazier and Foreman having it (in Holmes’ opinion) much easier because they won Olympic Gold Medals and were therefore more marketable and able to secure financial support. When he turned pro, Holmes claims he got ‘about as much attention as a flea’s ass’ and his account of life on the road and some modest purses bears this out. Born in Cuthbert, Georgia, into extreme poverty, Holmes didn’t learn to read until he was an adult, drifting into small time criminal activities but eventually earning a living through boxing, chiefly as a sparring partner – most famously for Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in the early seventies. Frazier hurt Holmes in places he didn’t even know he had places in sparring sessions but it was as a sparring partner for Ali at Ali’s legendary Deer Lake training camp where Holmes made his name. The young Holmes often held his own with Ali as Ali would never fight flat out in sparring sessions but rather use them to hone a particular strategy he was working on. It’s fascinating to be taken into this orbit as a fly on the wall and Holmes displays a lot of affection for Ali and these days. In 1980 Holmes and Ali would meet for real in the ring but Holmes was 28 and in his prime while Ali was nearly 40, hadn’t fought for two years and had absolutely nothing left. Holmes is admirably honest about his deep reluctance to take this fight and utter dismay at having to batter his idol and mentor.

“Boxing was first and foremost a business to Holmes and he made the most of his earning potential, eventually owning a lavish house, a swimming pool shaped like a boxing glove and office complexes in his home town of Easton.”

Aside from the aforementioned Leon Spinks, legendary American boxing commentator Howard Cosell and infamous promoter Don King also recieve a sustained roasting from Holmes in Against The Odds. Cosell is dismissed as an Ali groupie and several stories are recollected to emphasis Holmes’ view that Cosell was a rather pompous figure who knew far less about boxing than he thought. Don King is a ‘bushy-haired horses*****r’, ‘an incurable egomaniac’ and ‘the ultimate user/abuser’. Holmes concurs strongly with the line on King by former white heavyweight contender Randall (Tex) Cobb that the only colour King really cares about is not black or white but green. Holmes won the WBC heavyweight championship on June 9, 1978, with a 15-round decision over Ken Norton in Las Vegas and defended it an amazing 15 times before a big fall-out with King – who more or less controlled the WBC through his close relationship with its dodgy President Jose Suliaman. So Holmes adopted the (then) lightly regarded IBF belt and continued to defend as the linear champion until the Spinks upset, though of course not agaisnt on King fighters. Holmes’ dabbles as a singer later in life inspire him to write a song called Boxing Politics. ‘The only thing worse,’ says Holmes of the backbiting and double-dealing in the sport. ‘Is being knocked out.’

Disappointingly perhaps, Holmes glosses over many of his fights with a few sentences although he admits that some of them were rather unmemorable and carefully selected in between the big, tough encounters with the likes of Shavers, Norton, Witherspon etc. When you consider the longevity of Holmes tenure at the top you begin to understand why he’s always felt so unappreciated even if his resume did include several names that are unlikely to make it into the boxing hall of fame. Holmes’ finest hour comes when he fights Gerry Cooney in 1982. Cooney, a 6’6 white heavyweight contender from New York is unbeaten and an apparently devastating puncher with a record littered with brutal knockouts. The handsome and genial Cooney is projected by his eccentric managers Mike Jones and Dennis Rappaport to become the world’s first billion dollar athlete if he beats Holmes, becoming a real life Rocky. The fight turns out to be man against boy though as Holmes navigates Cooney’s thunderous left-hooks to the body and stops the exhausted challenger in the thirteenth round. The thoughts of Holmes on this blockbuster event are interesting to read about, particularly the unsavoury elements of race swirling around the fight. Holmes admits that the fact that it pitted a white heavyweight against him made it a bigger draw, however depressing this fact might be, and laments the fact that the carefully matched and frequently inactive Cooney made millions of dollars from boxing mostly because of his skin pigmentation. The book suggests a Holmes who has mellowed with age and this is true here as he more or less says that Cooney was a decent chap who couldn’t help the fact that he was white and marketable.

Larry Holmes: Against The Odds is an interesting and decent read that boxing fans will certainly enjoy.”

Boxing was first and foremost a business to Holmes and he made the most of his earning potential, eventually owning a lavish house, a swimming pool shaped like a boxing glove and office complexes in his home town of Easton. He lost again (for only the second time in his long career) to Michael Spinks in a 1986 rematch and, although Holmes was 36 and fading, most still felt he’d done enough to outpoint the younger man. It was the revenge of the boxing establishment says Larry, for his tirades at judges, and you feel like he has a point. He made a comeback in 1988 at the age of 38 to fight the new champion, a young, brutal and apparently unstoppable dynamo called Michael Gerrard Tyson. Holmes admits he was there for the payday and never had enough time to train, getting whacked out by Tyson in the fourth round after making the young sensation look ordinary for a round or two with his experience. ‘As I neared the ring,’ says Holmes. ‘I had this weird thought: Why not be the first fighter to refuse to go into the ring? All those people watching on HBO, I’ll amaze them all.’

Amazingly though, Holmes returned to boxing again in the nineties and even in his forties was still crafty enough to upset hot prospect Ray Mercer and extend Evander Holyfield the full twelve rounds in a 1992 heavyweight title fight. Larry Holmes: Against The Odds is an interesting and decent read that boxing fans will certainly enjoy. Pretty good on the whole.

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Larry Holmes: Against The Odds
by Phil Berger and Larry Holmes

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