This is the fifth installment in Carlos Acevedo’s Shoot The Moon series covering the career of Larry Holmes.
February 3, 1980
Seems no one’s talking ‘bout those crazy days gone past,
Weren’t they amazed when you were really last?
You are the little dreamer.
You were the little dreamer, yeah yeah.
If nothing else, Lorenzo Zanon at least looked like a tough guy. In fact, with his baleful glare and outlaw sideburns, Zanon resembled a heavy from a Poliziotteschi—The Big Racket or Shoot First, Die Later, maybe. He was also the perfect fall guy for Larry Holmes, whose two previous title defenses had seen him battered from corner to corner by Mike Weaver and nearly obliterated by an Earnie Shavers right cross that might as well have been a baby grand dropped from a third-story window. Both times Holmes had rallied to score a stoppage, but his struggles did little to hush the murmurous peanut gallery still aching from the absence of “The Greatest.”
“You people don’t give me my just due,” Holmes told the Associated Press before his bout with Zanon. “I followed behind a great man—Muhammad Ali.”
In early 1980, the heavyweight ranks were thin, and Holmes saw his shaky championship claims devalued by the ascension of “Big” John Tate, who had won the WBA title (vacated by Ali) in October 1979 with a unanimous decision over Gerrie Coetzee in South Africa. Fitful pseudo-negotiations for an “undisputed” clash played out in sports pages across the country, but Tate was a short-lived beltholder with a grim future awaiting him, and Holmes was never much interested in unifying despite tough talk to the contrary.
Facing Zanon made Holmes realize that the concept of variance went beyond poker tables. For his fifth title defense, Holmes would earn $600,000, a drastic pay cut from the $2.5 million jackpot he hit against Earnie Shavers in New York City. Aside from Tate, Ali (still generating buzz despite his leave-taking), and NFL defensive end Ed “Too Tall” Jones, name recognition was at a premium among heavyweights, and Holmes had to fight frequently to bolster his millionaire standing. Already Holmes was looking past Zanon: he was scheduled to defend his title against unheralded Leroy Jones on March 31, less than two months away.
Even with a soft touch—or two—on the horizon, Holmes seemed combative about his status. “I wasn’t TV-made,” Holmes told The Morning Call. “I’m self-made. I made $100 in my first fight; $125 in my second. In my first nine fights, I made $900. I feel good about me. I don’t want to change. As long as they compare Larry Holmes to Muhammad Ali, they’re remembering me.”
What “they” would remember about his forgettable fight against Zanon was another question altogether. For years, Zanon had been part of a seriocomic Continental European round-robin that included Lucien Rodriguez and Alfredo Evangelista. A 3-1 record against his Old World peers and possession of the EBU heavyweight title convinced no one that Zanon would be a threat to Holmes. After all, his only visits to America had left him seeing stars—and not the kind headlining at The Hilton or The Landmark. Zanon suffered consecutive kayo losses in 1977 to Ken Norton and an enfeebled Jerry Quarry before fleeing to the relative safety of Torino, Milan, and San Remo. His return to Las Vegas, where his luck had proven sour (his losses to Norton and Quarry took place in Caesars Palace), promised just another painful run of snake eyes. The pips, of course, would be bruise blue instead of black.
Zanon was the son of a steelworker from Lombardy and took up boxing, more or less, by accident. “I wanted to try boxing, judo, or karate but the gym only had boxing,” he said about his limited combat sports choices. He had amassed a record of 25-4 fighting almost exclusively in Italy and had failed to impress American wiseguys with his performances against Norton and Quarry. Challenging Holmes meant a $125,000 payday for Zanon, a sum he would never command in the Piedmont region, even against his paisano, Alfio Righetti.
“He’s the European champion,” Holmes weakly offered about facing his most obscure challenger yet, “and that in itself makes him a worthy opponent. I’ve fought everyone in the world, so why not him?” Unfortunately, Holmes was technically wrong about the European title: Zanon had been stripped of it a few months earlier for failure to defend his championship.
After participating in his first title defense in which he was not an out-bet (against Shavers), Holmes found himself in another bookmaking dud: his fight against Zanon was off-the-board. And for good reason. Although Zanon was rated fifth by the WBC, he inspired mockery from most of the US media. In an issue of World Boxing, Steve Farhood had referred to Zanon as an “inept garbanzo”; Dick Young, of The New York Daily News, used “pushover” and “Italian Sausage” as his characterizations; before the opening bell, Howard Cosell described how Zanon had lost to Jerry Quarry in 1977: “For nine rounds Zanon outboxed Quarry all over the ring. In the 10th, he went out. He went out from a series of punches that were more invisible than ‘The Anchor Punch’ of Ali in Lewiston, Maine, on May 25, 1965.” When Quarry flattened him, Zanon had his license lifted by the Italian Boxing Federation.
No one expected Zanon to trouble Holmes, and the Wide World of Sports telecast on ABC included the World Wristwrestling Championships, in the hopes that a novelty event could draw viewers uninterested in a heavyweight mismatch. Nor did the Vegas demimonde much care about the fight. As was the case with his defenses against Alfredo Evangelista and Ossie Ocasio, Holmes was unable to produce a sellout or even a significant gate. He did his best to boost weak box office numbers and fill the seats of the Sports Pavilion, however, purchasing $20,000 worth of tickets and donating them to a local grammar school. His adviser, Charles Spaziani, followed suit, with his bulk tickets going to the American Cancer Society. Even so, The Sports Pavilion, with a capacity of 4,500, would not require an SRO run.
At the opening bell, Zanon began his awkward sprint. For three rounds, he was a study in cross purposes: seemingly intent on running and fighting simultaneously. Zanon had nimble feet and a pesky jab. That was all. He was otherwise clumsy, sloppy, and physically weak. His right hands were thrown as if he were trapped in a Zero-G float room. But his perpetual motion was a rare trait among big men and, combined with his flicking jab, Zanon made an uncharacteristically flat-footed Holmes look ineffective early. Then came the fourth, and the beginning of the end. With Zanon circling exclusively to his left, Holmes began to open up with one-twos. A right cross thirty seconds into the round caught Zanon pinpoint on the jaw. Zanon tumbled, nearly head-over-heels, like a man who had emptied an entire bottle of Martini & Rossi Asti Spumante. He beat the count, but another right sent him bouncing off the ropes and onto his face. Once more Zanon, although groggy, arose, and Holmes pursued him around the ring. Holmes threw a left-right that had Zanon in distress, retreating. Here, Referee Ray Solis, imported from Mexico, prolonged the beating by mistakenly applying a stand-eight count (prohibited in Nevada) and depriving Holmes of the finish.
Somehow, Zanon survived the fifth—even landing a sweeping right at one point—but Holmes had accelerated his attack. Holmes and Zanon traded sloppy combinations during the sixth round, and, with less than half a minute to go, “The Easton Assassin” came over the top of a sloppy left with a thudding right. This time, Zanon would listen, woozily, as the referee tolled ten.
How would Holmes, alternating between feasting on second-raters such as Evangelista and Zanon and struggling against veteran contenders such as Weaver and Shavers, earn the respect he demanded? A cynical press corps, already unimpressed by his performances against Weaver and Shavers, harped on his quality of opposition as often as possible. Before the fight, Holmes realized the catch-22 implicit in facing a subpar import such as Zanon. “I’m not here to try to prove anything,” he told AP. “If I don’t take him out early, people will say I’m not worth anything. If I don’t knock him out in the first round, people will say I’m slowing up, don’t have my coordination.”
At the post-fight press conference, he once again lamented his standing as a partial champion who was overshadowed by a man whose nickname was “The Greatest.” Insisting that his ultimate goal was to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, Holmes went on to talk about a future bout with Tate. (It would never happen. Throughout a championship reign that lasted more than seven years, Holmes made only one attempt to seek out a co-champion, when he agreed to face WBA titlist Gerrie Coetzee in 1984. That fight never materialized, when a neophyte promoter ran out of cash before he could sign both participants.)
In the meantime, all the talk about “just due” and “respect” received a strange twist after the fight. When Holmes appeared at the press conference, Lorenzo Zanon, who had already been seated, stood and began to applaud as the champion approached.
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP)—Muhammad Ali, stung by criticism of his mission to urge a Moscow Olympics boycott, accused President Carter today of “sending me around the world to take the whipping” from black Africans opposed to U.S. dealings with South Africa. Ali told reporters he probably would not have undertaken his presidential assignment if he had known beforehand “the whole history of America and Africa and South Africa.” He also said he had received a message from Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev last week asking him not to undertake the mission.