The great Larry Holmes regrets coming out of retirement to face Mike Tyson, remains thankful for his four years learning from Muhammad Ali as his sparring partner, believes Anthony Joshua “needs to show us more” and reckons he might just have schooled Tyson Fury in his prime.
Holmes, 72, and one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, spent much of his early years in the masterful shadow of Ali, and, in London on a talking tour with former foe Gerry Cooney for Bar Sports, says that he “took no pleasure in beating Ali” very late in the career of “The Greatest”.
Yet it was Holmes who went on to become a revered heavyweight world champion in a reign from 1978 until 1985, his career record reaching 48-0 before his first defeat by Michael Spinks.
The “Easton Assassin” – as Holmes was known – was, indeed, the only opponent to stop Ali, and looking back on a masterful career at the tail end of the golden age of heavyweights, with victories over Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Mike Weaver, Cooney, Tim Witherspoon, Carl Williams, Marvis Frazier and others, Holmes explains: “There were so many great fights, and we are all tempted to go on for too long, but early on, I learned so much working as Muhammad Ali’s sparring partner for four, five years.
"I borrowed it all from Ali. Jab, jab, jab, jab, right hand, left hook. Jab, jab, jab...I watched him, I sparred him, and he did that – so why couldn’t I do it? Ali was one of the greatest fighters of all time. I had the pleasure of meeting him, eating his food, running on his grounds and people always ask ‘what was it about Muhammad Ali?’ and I try my best to explain it – but, you know, it’s unexplainable, because he did so much of everything. He taught me so much, and then he came back to fight me in the ring. I took no pleasure in beating Ali.” Holmes is the only fighter still alive who defeated Ali.
“You don’t go out like that, you go out standing on your feet,” recalls Holmes of that night in 1980 when he peppered and dismantled Ali, stopping him in the 10th round. “He did against me what I did when I fought Mike Tyson. I shouldn’t have come out of retirement against him. I fought Mike Tyson and I lost. He stopped me. Tyson could punch, you can’t take that away from him. He would stand in front of you, try and push you against the ropes, but he wouldn’t have been able to do that to me in my prime. I would have beaten him.
“So would Ali, Joe Frazier, Norton and George Foreman. But you should quit while you are ahead.”
Why did Holmes come back in 1988 to fight Tyson, and why do fighters come back ? “Money. It’s the money.”
Holmes, early in his career, was amongst a group of extraordinary fighters. “Every corner you turned, you were going to get one of them.Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Kenny Norton, Earnie Shavers, Gerry Cooney – all these fighters who got in there together. Different to today.
“Joe Frazier knocked people out and he was only 5ft 10in tall. I remember working with Joe as a sparring partner and he broke my ribs. But you didn’t get no day off. I was walking around holding my ribs. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid, he told me. So I worked.”
It was the same when Holmes was champion, and needed hungry sparring partners. “I’d put $10,000 on my head. If you knock me down, I’ll give you $10,000, I’d tell them. And they tried to knock me down. No one did it. And when I was beating them up, I was sad about it.
“But these fighters today – I don’t wanna knock ’em – but they couldn’t stand up against us. We were physically different. It was different then. They don’t all fight each other.”
'Anthony Joshua is like a ripe tomato'
Joshua is expected to face Oleksandr Usyk in a bid to win back his heavyweight title belts in Saudi Arabia this summer. “Anthony Joshua, he hasn’t really shown a lot,” says Holmes. “He’s like a ripe tomato. He might have it. But who has he fought? I’m not going to knock him, and say he’s a bad fighter. To be called great, you need to be compared to some truly great fighters, and he hasn’t got that far yet.”
And Fury? “Same thing. Guy who’s big, nice size, strong. It would have been an interesting fight, me and him, but I have change-ups, going in, or staying out. Side to side, switch hitting,” says Holmes, starting to throw out the jab, then the right hand.
“Look, I’m happy with all the gifts I was given, I can’t complain. I don’t like to knock nobody but I like to tell the truth.”
It is the 40th anniversary of Holmes’s most controversial fight – with Cooney – on June 11, a contest promoted by Don King, with “Black vs White” racial undertones leading into the fight. It had nothing to do with the two fighters, explains Holmes. In fact, both men despised the way it was billed, and Holmes – who stopped Cooney in the 13th round in Las Vegas – had armed police securing his safety. Holmes and Cooney, now 65, have been close friends ever since.
“I always liked Gerry. We have remained friends for 40 years. But Don King wanted to sell everything, he’d sell the hair off your head,” laughs Holmes. “Don is Don. Truth is, it had nothing to do with colour. Half of my family is white.”