Larry Holmes is 28 years old, 6'4" and 210 pounds, one of those heavyweights who seems vaguely familiar. For six years, he has been fighting pretty much out of sight against mediocre opponents, men going nowhere or coming back from there. There are those who insist that Holmes has it all: style, speed and a jab that can drive rivets. He has the moves of a Muhammad Ali, his fans say, and the left hand of a Sonny Liston. It was the left hand that knocked out 19 of his 26 opponents; the others he had decisioned. Only one question about him seemed to remain last Saturday in Las Vegas. If he already had class, when Larry Holmes finally got into the ring with somebody of stature, would he also have heart?
No one can remember when the whispers first began, questioning the size of Holmes' courage. As a matter of fact, when pressed, no critic could say why the question was asked. Mostly it was: Who has Holmes ever fought? Let him fight someone tough, then we'll see if he has a ticker.
Finally, last February, Don King, the promoter, asked, "Do you think Earnie Shavers is tough enough?"
"Beautiful," said Larry Holmes.
The match was made, a 12-rounder at Caesars Palace, nationally telecast over ABC. It was billed as an elimination bout for heavyweight title contenders—Shavers No. 3 and Holmes No. 4—with the winner meeting Kenny Norton, the newly ordained WBC champion.
Two days before the fight Shavers sat in his suite at Caesars Palace and admitted that he had wasted little time wondering about the degree of Holmes' courage. He waved a large powerful hand toward a video-tape machine and a stack of film cassettes piled nearby. They were all of Holmes' fights. Shavers had looked at one or two; the rest had been studied by Frank Luca, his trainer.
"I'll see him when we get in the ring," said the man many claim is the most feared puncher in boxing today. "I've heard the questions, but I didn't train to fight a guy with a faint heart. If he's got one we'll find out Saturday quick enough. But I trained as if I was going in with a young Joe Frazier. I can't afford not to. I'm not going to fight that much longer. I can't afford a setback."
At 33, Shavers is indeed running out of time. After winning 54 of 61 fights, 52 of them by knockout, he figures there are only four or five more fights left in his body. He hadn't fought since losing a 15-round decision to Muhammad Ali last September. Shavers was in the best shape of his career to fight Ali, and for Holmes he had driven himself even harder. For Ali he had weighed 211; for Holmes he would come in at 210. For Ali he had sparred 215 rounds; for Holmes 245.
"Holmes is a lot younger and a lot hungrier," Shavers said. "It's his first big test, and he wants to beat me and move on. I can't afford it. I'm gonna have to punish him. I'm gonna break his ribs. Every time it rains and those ribs hurt he's gonna think of Earnie Shavers."
That same day Holmes wandered into the Caesars Pavilion, where the fight would be held, and soon picked up a crowd of admirers. He is flamboyant enough outside the ring to cause some to say that he has made himself a carbon of Ali.
"I was born with fast feet and fast hands and a fast mouth," Holmes says. "That doesn't make me a parody of Ali. That just makes me me. Everything I do is pure Larry Holmes. I'm not like Ali. He's old. His time has come and gone. Now it is my time."
Like Shavers, Holmes also had done extra duty preparing for the fight. "I haven't even said hello to a girl in the last 35 days," he said. "For me that is a world record. After all that, if Shavers thinks I'm gonna run from him he's nuts. I'm gonna be on him like white is on rice. He says that anybody stands up to him gets knocked out. We're gonna find out."
Shavers had trained in secret at Johnny Tocca's gym in downtown Las Vegas. He had worked on rolling his body to the left and right and hooking with both hands. He didn't want his taller opponent's head, just his body.
Holmes also worked on a new weapon, a right hand. He had broken the hand against Roy Williams in April of 1976, and he had used it very little in his four fights since. With so much at stake, Richie Giachetti, Holmes' manager and trainer, temporarily had imported Ray Arcel and Freddy Brown, the 148-year-old training team, from New York. From the start they insisted that Holmes work with his right hand.
"What ya saving it for?" Brown had demanded.
"Now that you ask," said Holmes, "I don't know."
"Then t'row it," said Brown.
A burly ex-fighter who had to retire because he kept breaking his wrists, Giachetti has been with Holmes since his second fight. He had brought his fighter this far; now it didn't bother him a bit to turn him over to Arcel and Brown.
"Look, those guys have worked 39 world champions between them," Giachetti said. "You got to figure they know something. And this is for the big one. Larry is fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world. If he beats Shavers—after he beats Shavers—who is going to stop him? Norton? Leon Spinks? Frazier? Ali? Nuts! Nobody, that's who."
The morning of the fight Holmes and Giachetti stayed in the suite and watched cartoons on television. About noon Arcel, 78 going on middle age, came into the room. For a moment he studied Holmes. Then Arcel said, "Larry, listen. You don't like this guy Shavers, do you? You're going into the fight filled with venom, aren't you?"
Looking mean, Holmes nodded.
"Then I want you to get rid of it," Arcel went on. "All of it. Because you can't win a fight like that. You have to go in there just like he was a sparring partner. You can't do what you want to do when you are tight with hate. You can't use your left hand properly, and you are going to use that left. You're going to keep it working, stick it in his face, stick it down his throat, stick it in his chest, stick it in his Adam's apple. And the first chance you get, throw the right. Even if you miss. He isn't looking for your right hand. We want to make him start thinking about it."
Then Arcel applied the clincher, right out of Knute Rockne: "Now is the time. Ali is gone. Frazier is gone. George Foreman is gone. Norton and Spinks we don't really know about. You can be the champion and you're going to start today."
By fight time Holmes was so eager to get into action that he was trembling. He came out eagerly, but under full control. His jab flickered like a snake—four, then three, then four. Obviously tight, Shavers stalked him, powerful fists at the ready, blinking at the rain of jabs.
Midway through the first round Giachetti yelled at Arcel, "How's he look?"
"He's beautiful," Arcel screamed. "He's just beautiful."
Moments into the second round, the seat of Holmes' red trunks split. "Oh my God," Giachetti said, and ordered someone to run and get another pair from the dressing room. Then he turned back to the action. Something more important than split pants was happening. Near the end of the round came the moment everyone had been waiting for. Lunging, Shavers smashed Holmes with a thunderous right to the head. Backed up a step, Holmes shook his head, then cracked Shavers in the face with a left and a right. From that moment, every time Shavers hit Holmes with anything heavy, he took a murderous barrage in return. End of question about the ticker.
By the fourth round Holmes was in a new pair of trunks, and by the sixth he appeared to be in command of a tiring Shavers. But early in the sixth Shavers backed Holmes into a corner and began working to the body with both hands.
Across the ring Giachetti and Arcel and Brown were shouting in unison, "Get out of there! Get out!" Above all else, they had warned Holmes about getting pinned in a corner. Holmes looked at his handlers with a slight smile and shook his head, no. He was giving his sparring partner his best shot, and it wasn't bothering him one bit. And from that point on it was Holmes doing what he wanted, Shavers trying desperately for the one big punch to end it. And at the end it was Holmes who almost found the big punch.
The fight was in the final seconds and Holmes, refusing to coast although he knew he was ahead by a ton of points, caught Shavers with a smashing overhand right to the jaw. Stunned, Shavers almost went down. He recovered just before his right knee touched the floor. With a snarl, Holmes was all over him, ripping him with a barrage of nine straight punches before the bell ended the fight.
The scoring was anticlimactic. Judges Harold Buck and Joe Swessel had given Holmes every round and scored it 120-108. Judge Dave Moretti awarded Shavers the 10th round, which cut Holmes' margin to 119-109.
Later, Holmes, clad in a white terry-cloth robe, lay on a long rubbing table in his dressing room. His head rested on a stack of towels. Giachetti held a small piece of gauze against Holmes' left eye, which had been slightly cut. The fighter said he felt a little sick to his stomach, and Arcel began to rub it gently.
"That Shavers takes a punch," Holmes said wearily. "I hurt him a lot of times but he stayed in there. He's one hell of a fighter. And I guess I proved I can take a shot. He hit me with everything but the kitchen sink. One time I said to him, 'Hey, you really can punch.' He just laughed at me. Now I want Kenny Norton. Hey, do you think this win makes me the No. 1 challenger now?"
Near the foot of the table Jody Ballard, one of Holmes' sparring partners, looked at him and laughed. "No. 1 challenger?" he said. "The way they are tossing that title around, next week you may be the champion."