“Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection. The lovers, the dreamers, and me.” Kermit, The Muppets Take Manhattan
June 22, 1979
For nearly two years Larry Holmes, “The Easton Assassin,” had listened, bitterly, to the whispering campaign against him: he had won an off-brand title from Ken Norton; he had thus far failed to live up to the star voltage of his predecessor, the most famous athlete in history, Muhammad Ali; he had defended his ersatz championship against undistinguished Alfredo Evangelista and Ossie Ocasio; he had a growing chip on his shoulder already the size of a Datsun 280ZX.
It was true: Holmes seemed hexed and not even a headline slot in Madison Square Garden could cheer him up. In fact, Holmes was gloomier than ever. Every major network in America—ABC, NBC, and CBS—had stunningly rejected his scheduled title defense against Mike Weaver on (in)humanitarian grounds. To Holmes, being dismissed outright by all three major networks symbolized the lack of respect he had received since becoming WBC champion. And he blamed it all on one uberman: Muhammad Ali. “If Muhammad Ali were fighting Weaver,” Holmes rued, “I bet it would be on television.”
In the late 1970s, the only heavyweight champion who had ducked through the ropes at “The Mecca” had been “Howdy Doody” Bob Backlund. The last time the most important title in sports had been up for grabs on Eighth Avenue was in 1971, when Joe Frazier and Ali stopped the world in “The Fight of the Century.” Since then, The Big Apple, still reeling from near-bankruptcy a few years earlier, had become unfriendly to heavyweight champions. To Larry Holmes, it was downright hostile. All signs pointed to his defense against Weaver being a financial catastrophe. “I guess you could say I took this fight to build my reputation,” Holmes said. “I might come out of it with a reputation for being the biggest fool who ever held the title. It was not supposed to be this way. I was supposed to get paid, anyway. But it got changed along the way.”
Even with an undercard topped by Roberto Duran-Carlos Palomino, sales were slow enough to virtually guarantee that Holmes would be toiling for arcade money. Down on 42 Street, The Deuce, he could probably rack up a few games of Galaxian or, if he was lucky, he could splurge on Skee-Ball with his limited earnings. To cash in, Holmes would have to wait for his $2.5 million showdown against Earnie Shavers, scheduled for September 14.
If Holmes was to work pro bono, it was because of the checkered past of Mike Weaver, a Los Angeles heavyweight hovering between the low-rent worlds of trial horse and journeyman. Like so many before him, Weaver took a wayward path to boxing. He became a member of the Marine Corps boxing team at Camp Lejeune when he flattened the current leatherneck champion after a dispute over a jukebox choice. “My gosh, if he had told me who he was he could have played his record,” Weaver recalled. “I never liked to fight anyway. I was good at it, but I hate to hurt people and I hated even more to get hurt. My face was too handsome to let it get messed up.”
Despite his chiseled physique, there was nothing Spartan about Weaver, and his sporadic training schedule was further hindered by grinding day jobs that included stints in a liquor store and a factory. “Those fights were all a long time ago, when the only reason I boxed was to pick up extra money,” he told Tom Cushman about his unpromising early career. “I’d go to the gym once or twice a week and hit the heavy bag. That’s all. I’d take fights on three- or four-days’ notice, but I never planned on them going over three or four rounds. I never did any roadwork.”
There is nothing like the pick-up fighter in professional sports. Nobody will ever get a phone call from Major League Baseball, the NFL, the NBA or the NHL while drowsing on his couch, midget Schlitz in one hand, remote control in the other. Because all it takes to become a boxer is a thumbs-up from a bored physician administering the flimsiest of exams and a nominal fee for a license from a fugazi state athletic commission, just about anyone can become a pug. Not long after being discharged from the Marines, Weaver became what is known in the trade as a “ham-n-egger.”
Depending on which bills remained unpaid, Weaver accepted fights with barely enough time to pack his kit. Often, he was overmatched, and in his first years as a knockaround pro he managed the stunning feat of being kayoed by not one but two Bobicks—Duane and Rodney—sibling Great White Hopeless wannabes of the pre-Cooney era. Less than two years after hitting the California circuit (from San Diego to L.A. to Bakersfield and Fresno), Weaver sported a record of 6-6.
Mike Weaver was destined to be a loser, and, in boxing, a loser is a man without a shadow.
But Weaver discovered ambition when he met a manager with know-how—Don Manuel, who had guided Lonnie Bennett and Eddie “Bossman” Jones to title shots—and a trainer—Ray Barnes—who had once gone the distance with Sugar Ray Robinson. Most important, perhaps, was the fact that Weaver had also become a regular sparring partner for Ken Norton in Southern California. Norton, perennial Ali nemesis and future paper titlist, gave Weaver a nickname, “Hercules,” and more than just a few pointers. With the exception of the cross-arm defense and a footloose style, Weaver modeled his new-and-improved look on Norton. There was the herky-jerky movement, the feints, the leaning out to draw leads, the looping counter right hands. Weaver did not have the natural ability, the athleticism, nor the experience, but he had something even Norton lacked: genuine KO power. By the time Weaver landed his title shot against Holmes, he had amassed a record of 20-8, with 15 kayos.
Throughout a career marked by passivity—as well as the fatalism common to second-rate fighters everywhere—Weaver had occasionally snapped himself out of a sleepwalking performance with his numbing power. (Most famously against “Big” John Tate in 1980, when “Hercules” scored a miracle KO with less than a minute remaining in the fight.) This attribute—possession of knockout drops in either hand—was what ultimately separated Weaver from the dented-tomato-can set. But against Holmes, he entered the ring with something else: dreams he could never have had just a few years earlier, stoked by repeated viewings of Rocky. Hunger, desire, tenacity—rare characteristics for Weaver in the future, often rare characteristics in the past, were momentarily combined for a concept venerated by prizefighters and existentialists alike—the here-and-now. Still, Weaver had a hard time convincing more than just oddsmakers about his chances. “When I tell people I’m fighting Larry Holmes, no one has said he thinks I’ll win. They just say how big and strong and fast he is and wish me luck. I can see they think I’ll need luck just to stay on my feet.”
A desperate Don King, recently made unofficial boxing czar of MSG by Sonny Werblin, scrambled, like a man who owed money to a loan shark, in hopes of making ends meet on a promotion that seemed doomed. At the last moment, he convinced HBO, in those days airing only the occasional fight, to broadcast the card for $150,000, what Holmes would later call pocket change. It was hardly enough to make a profit.
With the prospect of red ink threatening to drown him, King went into promotional overdrive. He set up a photo-op for Weaver at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a recreation of a Rocky Balboa trope—underdog racing up cultural touchstone steps—except with a Beaux-Arts background instead of Greek Revival. For a pop culture tie-in, Weaver repeated, over and over again, the story of how he had seen Rocky ten times and how this Hollywood capriccio had inspired him to overreach.
On one day, Holmes held a public workout at Lincoln Center; on another, he sparred with Danny Aiello, star of the play Knockout, at the Helen Hayes Theater, where he mingled with the artsy crowd; finally, Holmes warbled a version of “I Love New York” for a local TV spot. And King, as usual, would not shut up. “We’re not making any money here, that’s for sure,” he keened. “We’re doing this because we love New York. We’re fighting for the people. That’s often said but seldom done. There’s never been a fighter who came to defend his title with no guarantee, only a percentage. This guy is tendering himself for the people, for their consumption. What a magnanimous decision!”
In the end, 14,136 spectators entered the Garden that night—far short of a sellout—and most of them were there to see Duran, whom Jose Torres had once called “The High Priest of Machismo.” After Duran scored a sensational decision over Carlos Palomino, the scene was set for Holmes and Weaver. But champion and challenger had to linger in the ring for nearly twenty minutes while eccentric MC Bill Merriman introduced every pseudo-celebrity from Staten Island to Riverdale—including a Cadillac salesman. “I warmed up good in my dressing room,” Holmes recalled, “and I was ready to go when I got to the ring. Then they had all those long introductions. Politicians, fighters, everybody got into the act. I was ready to leave the ring or throw some of those people out of there. In the end, I lost my full concentration and cooled off too much.”
There, cooling off with him in his corner, stood Don King, whom Holmes would blame for both the delay and the financial uncertainty of the whole affair, channeling his inner Tom Wolfe, sporting a garish white suit and bowtie combo not even The Grand Wizard would have worn. King may have been nervous about the box-office till, but he was sanguine about the possibility of Holmes risking a $3 million payday against Earnie Shavers.
At ringside calling the fight for HBO were 1940s radio holdover Don Dunphy, ex-newspaperman Larry Merchant, and the worst celebrity mic presence since Burt Lancaster and Jim Brown provided color commentary, Ryan O’Neal.
For the first three rounds, Holmes scored with his jab while Weaver stalked and worked the body. In the fourth round, the dogfight began. Holmes opened up early, looking for a quick finish to his Big Top debut. He unleashed a hard combination that staggered Weaver and followed with a series of overhand rights that bounced “Hercules” off the turnbuckle in his own corner. But Weaver, who had entered the fight with four stoppage losses on his record, recovered quickly and lashed Holmes with a left hook that had the champion retreating. It must have been at this point that Holmes suffered a ruptured eardrum. When Weaver pressed the attack, Holmes hit the canvas and the crowd erupted in unison. Although Referee Harold Valan ruled it a slip, the fall could have easily been the result of a delayed reaction from the fusillade of blows a wobbly Holmes had taken. Things only got worse for Holmes when the fight resumed. Weaver stunned him with a cleanup right hand, drove him around the ring, and landed a thudding left hook at the bell. Wearily, Holmes trudged back to his corner; for the first time in the fight, he sat down between rounds. “It was frightening out there,” Holmes recalled in his autobiography Against the Odds, “not seeing clearly and hearing strange sounds in my head.”
Over the next few rounds, Weaver slipped into plodding, and Holmes rallied, keeping Weaver at bay with his jab and crossing with the occasional right. In an effort to regain momentum, Weaver came out for the eighth with bad intentions. He staggered Holmes early with a hard right, prompting the champion to exhort him for more and initiating a toe-to-toe exchange. The two men battered each around the ring for the next minute or so, with Weaver landing a crashing right hand to end the free-for-fall momentarily. With about a minute to go in the round, Weaver folded Holmes like a pocketknife with a left to the body.
While Weaver was still landing serious leather in spots, he was also succumbing, if only by degrees, to the pace. As the grueling rounds went by, Weaver no longer had the energy to bob, weave, and feint, making him an easier target for a Holmes who had been inaccurate throughout the fight. Holmes may have been exhausted, but he still had the edge in talent.
All that talent, and all the years of struggle Holmes had gone through, seemed moot when Weaver landed a straight right at the end of the tenth that left Holmes doing an involuntary jig by the ropes. Before Weaver could land the finisher, however, the rounded ended. In the eleventh, Weaver, with his dreams of distinction seemingly in reach, stormed out of his corner with both hands churning. Holmes returned fire, and they whipped bruising shots at each other while the crowd chanted for Weaver.
Suddenly, Holmes stopped fighting, pulled away from firing distance, and backtracked, arthritically, into his own corner, where he shot a desperate glance at his trainer, Richie Giachetti. Either Holmes was trying to lure Weaver into a trap, or he was so weary that he simply wanted to end the round as close to his stool as possible. Weaver, sensing victory, pursued Holmes, perhaps with the sounds of “Gonna Fly Now” ringing in his head.
Out of nowhere Holmes unleashed a right uppercut just as Weaver was leaning in. It landed with the whipping force of a nunchuck, and Weaver dropped to the canvas in a heap, his right leg empretzled beneath him, a sleepy look fogging his eyes. Shaken, Weaver beat the count and was fortunate that the bell rang before Holmes could follow up, but the one-minute rest period was not nearly enough to revive him. After an extended rally by Holmes, Valan stepped in to stop the fight forty-four seconds into the twelfth. Weaver, who had been pinned, unresponsive, against the ropes, protested mildly.
At the post-fight press conference, a weary Holmes, face puffy, eyes bloodshot, lips swollen, seemed at a loss for his performance. “I made a lot of mistakes in the fight,” he said. “I’m not making any excuses. Maybe I took him too lightly. In the future, I’ll be much better. I know how to fight, I know how to win. But I got hit with some shots I wasn’t supposed to get hit with. He hit me with a good right hand in that first round. I admit I was stunned. The only thing I did for Weaver was build up his confidence. Now I’ve got to go back to the drawing board, work on my lateral movement.” Later, Holmes would claim that he entered the ring suffering from the flu, which seemed odd since it was June, long past flu season on the East Coast. He ended his postmortem by announcing that he would not be ready to face Shavers on September 14.
This is how Larry Holmes made his marquee debut at Madison Square Garden in the City That Never Sleeps: maligned by the networks, participating in another out-bet fight, suffering a punctured eardrum, with an already-shaky reputation sent plunging by an anonymous journeyman, and with uncertain financial rewards. Eventually, Holmes claimed to have netted $250,000 from the Weaver battle. If so, it could only have been because of one reason: ABC purchased delayed rights to the fight, one of the lost heavyweight classics, and broadcast it on “Wide World of Sports.”
This is the third installment in Carlos Acevedo’s Shoot The Moon series covering the career of Larry Holmes.