This is the second installment in Carlos Acevedo’s Shoot The Moon series covering the career of Larry Holmes.
Is it any wonder I reject you first?
Fame, fame, fame, fame
Is it any wonder you are too cool to fool? (fame)
Fame, bully for you, chilly for me
Got to get a rain check on pain (fame)
March 23, 1979
Two days before he was scheduled to defend his WBC heavyweight title against longshot Ossie “Jaws” Ocasio at the Las Vegas Hilton Pavilion, Larry Holmes rode a bus up into the Nevada Alps to visit the Spring Mountain Youth Camp, where he gave a squad of wayward teens the inspirational talk of a lifetime. For Holmes, this outing underscored one of his prime objectives: to be a sporting figure with gravitas. “I want to be accepted as the true champion I feel that I am,” Holmes told Philadelphia Daily News reporter Tom Cushman. “And I want to conduct myself as a champion. I’m trying very hard.”
Judging from some of his most recent actions, alas, Holmes had yet to master consistency. A few days earlier, at a press conference to boost lagging ticket sales, Holmes had poured a glass of water over Ocasio. “I wanted to kill him,” Ocasio would later say of the man who had publicly treated him like a schmuck, “to pick up the pitcher and break it over his skull. In my country, people do not do such things as he did. But I knew it would be stupid to kill him before the fight. I decided to let him play the part of the fool.”
Saint or fool? It was a dilemma Holmes would wrestle with before the nonplussed nation for the next seven years. Here, in 1979, when mass media was just beginning its unstoppable run at digital overkill, all the celebrity, all the money he had accrued since winning a sliver of the heavyweight championship against Ken Norton had failed to alleviate the existential heartbreak of faint praise or, worse, outright disapproval. Muhammad Ali, after all, remained the recognized V.I.P. of the sports world at large. “You’re damn right it hurts when people want to talk about Ali instead of me,” Holmes fumed.
Although his one-punch KO of Alfredo Evangelista was a ratings smash for ABC, Holmes produced mediocre box office figures for his first title defense. As a result, Holmes-Ocasio was downgraded from Caesars Palace to the Las Vegas Hilton Pavilion, where fewer than six thousand spectators would gather to see the only heavyweight champion willing to risk his title in the ring.
A pair of decisions over a ballooning Jimmy Young—who had eaten too many hoagies since upsetting George Foreman—vaulted Ocasio onto the heavyweight title stage. It was a star turn for which “Jaws,” undefeated but with only thirteen pro fights, was completely unprepared. But Ocasio was raised in a Santurce, Puerto Rico, slum, where a lifetime of grinding poverty had bred a certain foolhardiness difficult to resist: no matter how far away the brass ring was, Ocasio felt compelled to chase after it—risks be damned. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars to a man who had grown up with twenty-one brothers and sisters, to a man who had dropped out of high school for a job as a roadworker under the blazing Caribbean sun, to a man with an inconsequential amateur career, was like stumbling across a shipwreck full of Spanish doubloons.
A junk artist with a fair left hook, Ocasio was competent enough to win a title a few years later in the cruiserweight wasteland, but he was no match for a seasoned Larry Holmes. And Ocasio could not help but emphasize his marginality. Against the garish neon and Day-Glo of Las Vegas strip clubs, bars, and casinos, Ocasio stood out, unique, as a temporary A-list jibaro. Everywhere he went he carried a Yo-Yo with him, which he manipulated with a playful dexterity at odds with his clumsy ring style. He also had the added disadvantage of being that most incongruous of non-commodities: he was a Puerto Rican heavyweight. Ocasio, billed at five feet eleven, was labeled “The Shrimp” by Holmes. Nor was his nickname inspired by the ferocity of “Bruce,” the animatronic/polyurethane Tinseltown terror of every adolescent dream from the late 1970s. “I go fishing one day back home in this big boat and my friends tease me about reeling in a shark. Everybody laughs. They start calling me “Jaws” because of the movie.” Then, of course, came the water-dousing by Holmes, straight out of a Laurel and Hardy skit.
By the time the opening bell rang, no one expected a legitimate prizefight. Even his manager, “Honest” Bill Daly, who advised Ocasio to crouch and duck as often as possible, seemed doubtful. “If he tries to stand up against Holmes, he’ll get killed,” said Daly. “Making Holmes punch down will reduce his power.”
When they finally met at ring center, Holmes was an out bet, and Ocasio was a generous 5-1 underdog. Except for the occasional wild left hook, Ocasio troubled Holmes only with his herky-jerky style and, perhaps, the odd smile he wore on his face for the first few rounds. But, for a little while, at least, Ocasio used his awkward moves to keep Holmes off-balance. Instead of his usual perimeter game, Holmes employed pressure tactics against a fighter he knew was not in his class. Even so, with his constant bobbing, weaving, ducking and deking, Ocasio was more of a threat to give himself motion sickness than he was to kayo Holmes, whose seek-and-destroy M.O. was beginning to tell in the fourth round. As Ocasio started to fatigue, his form—what there was of it—began to unravel. A left hand stung Ocasio and a one-two wobbled him momentarily. In the fifth round, Holmes added war-cries to his stalking. Now stepping behind his jab and adding uppercuts to his attack, Holmes took decisive command. Ocasio was battered in the sixth round and returned to his corner on rubbery legs. In the seventh, Ocasio was ready to be reeled in. Holmes sent him crashing to the canvas with a trip-wire jab, timed just as Ocasio was rising from one of his dips. Ocasio beat the count, only to be decked by a straight right. Once more, Ocasio arose before ten, and once more Holmes poleaxed him, this time with a whistling overhand right. Referee Carlos Padilla, his jaunty sky blue bowtie a sharp contrast to the grim proceedings taking place under his watch, seemed on the verge of malpractice when he allowed Ocasio to continue after the third knockdown. “For God’s sake, stop it before Larry kills him!” cried Richie Giachetti from the ring apron. Defenseless, Ocasio merely swayed as Holmes closed in for the finisher: a left hook that left “Jaws” free-falling, limbs akimbo. Padilla intervened without administering a count.
The post-fight press conference proved more strenuous than what had taken place in the ring. Holmes was grilled by the motley press and heckled from the crowd about his opposition by heavyweight roughneck Scott Ledoux. “Sit down and shut up, White Boy,” Holmes sneered in response. “I wish we had a lot of white boys like you, just for me to fight.” Frustration, which would become a hallmark of his title reign, was beginning to boil. Yet Holmes was far removed from the squalor of scrapping in bars for hot dogs and pocket change, from the nightmare of incarceration in a juvenile detention center. In fact, he was light years away.
Here he was, among the beautiful people (Vegas style) of his day: the high rollers and Hollywood hustlers cruising the Strip straight from Miracle Mile mixed with the K-Tel crowd smoking Viceroys or Belairs, sheathed in loud polyester, velour, sateen, mutinous combovers alternating with taut Vitalis pompadours, medallions and tooters glittering beneath the lights, trophy wives in Obi wraps and shimmering gowns or Gitano jeans, sporting Ray-Bans at night, ready for their cameos on TV screens from coast to coast. And Holmes, once again on prime-time ABC, earning a $1.5 million payday, now owner of three cars—a Coupe De Ville, a Cadillac limousine, a Lincoln Continental—ruling headlines in every Sports Final across the country, but still nursing a hot knot at the center of his heart not even sudden fame could remedy. From his final open workout before the fight: “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to be your champion. I want to be the people’s champion. Darn it, I sign autographs all day and I train hard and I want to be your champion.”