This is the sixth installment in Carlos Acevedo’s Shoot The Moon series covering the career of Larry Holmes.
March 31, 1980
“Never being happy isn’t the same as being unhappy. Is it?”— Montgomery McNeil, Fame
In the weeks leading up to his title defense against Leroy Jones at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Larry Holmes, already seething over assorted wrongdoings—real and imagined—found himself sharing the flickering spotlight with two heavyweights—one of them from the past (Muhammad Ali) and one of them purportedly representing the future (John Tate). By fight time, however, Holmes had been upstaged by Mike Weaver, a plodding journeyman he had stopped more than a year earlier. On the undercard of a prime-time, multi-site extravaganza aired on ABC, “Hercules” had scored a miracle KO of the illiterate Tennessee hillbilly Tate, leaving him facedown on the canvas like a whiskey priest run over by a covered wagon.
By coldcocking Tate in the fifteenth—and final—round, Weaver, trailing on all cards, threw an entire Craftsman wrench set into the Ali comeback. Even with a credible performance against Holmes in 1979 and now the stunning victory over Tate, Weaver could not qualify as a box-office magnet to draw Ali into the ring with him. The undefeated Tate had been the target for Ali all along.
When Don King announced that Jones would be next for Holmes—before Holmes had even defended against Lorenzo Zanon—the old bugaboo was back: “The Easton Assassin” was targeting tomato cans. This narrative was something Holmes bitterly assessed before the fight. “There’s so much conniving and scheming in boxing, there are days when I feel like I don’t want anything more to do with it,” Holmes fumed. “I win, but it’s never because of how good I am, always that my opponent is weak.”
Jones had emerged from boxing outposts such as Denver and Wichita (as well as the seedy Las Vegas club scene) to challenge for a distinction that still retained a mythic power over the sporting public—even if it was now a disputed crown thanks to the limitless imbecility of dueling sanctioning bodies. Although Holmes had been the beneficiary of WBC chicanery in 1978, when he won a paper title from Ken Norton via narrow decision, he was in no mood to acknowledge Tate or his renegade WBA crown. “I’m the only true champion, and the people know it,” said Holmes. “If television, AP or UPI wants to say there are two champions, I can’t tell them what to say. But I think I’ve proven myself and regardless of what goes on elsewhere.”
For Holmes, “elsewhere” meant more than Tate and his claim to heavyweight supremacy; it meant the Ali-verse, where the retired “Greatest” remained, in his own mind at least, axis mundi. Even after years of rehashed skits and diminishing performances in the ring, Ali retained a stranglehold on the collective imagination, especially that of the intellectual left, which never ceased believing that Ali was some sort of political revolutionary, far beyond the reaches of a grubby blood sport.
Holmes was far less impressed with the cultural cachet that Ali claimed and recognized his comeback as mere crass commercialization crossed with monstrous egocentricity. “Every time Ali goes to the bathroom, it makes news,” Holmes said. “It’s all wrong what he’s doing. He just doesn’t know when to quit. I think he needs the money, but any time someone makes $60 million and that doesn’t last, another $8 million won’t help. It was overspending on his part. I never needed a $250,000 bus . . . houses in Chicago, California, and Miami. There was never a need to prove anything. All I ever needed was to wear my jeans and have shoes to wear.”
Money, of course, was a motivating force, but for Ali, perhaps, not the prime mover in his comeback plans. While Ali still commanded the world stage to an extent, his public pursuits were now more serious, more somber, more sour. And real-world failures would accrue far more often than losses in the ring ever did. His limited ambassadorial roles, as in his recent mission as a celebrity diplomat for Jimmy Carter, could not compare with the adrenalin rush of victory before a feverish audience of millions. In a way, he was like the character of Clare Vawdrey in the Henry James story The Private Life: Ali simply could not exist without being in the limelight; he needed, as some sort of life essence, adulation on a grand scale. Without it, Muhammad Ali was void.
With Ali, as usual, monopolizing the national attention span—since the mid-1960s he had been as ubiquitous as the soup cans of Andy Warhol—Leroy Jones, undefeated and unknown, seemed like an afterthought.
Born in Meridian, Mississippi, Jones was twelve years old when his family moved to Brooklyn. He attended Boys High School in Bed-Stuy, where he played basketball and football—losing a scholarship to Grambling when he injured his knee—and eventually wound up in Denver grinding out a living as a heavyweight rounder under the management of Bobby Lewis. (In New York, where he won two Golden Gloves titles, Jones fought out of the Telstar Gym on 28th Street and immediately drew criticism for his flabbiness. At one point, Jones entered an amateur tournament weighing three hundred pounds, which brought unflattering comparisons to roly-poly Buster Mathis Sr.)
Out West, Jones joined the Denver Rocks amateur club and became a regular sparring partner for heavyweight demolition man Ron Lyle. To make a hard living even harder, Jones worked with George Foreman in the same brutal capacity. During The Great Inflation of the 1970s, economic hardship had become the new normal for millions of Americans, and Jones compounded the national trend by choosing a dangerous, dubious, and disreputable profession. After a successful pro debut, Jones deposited his $150 check into his bank account . . . and was still naive enough about boxing to find himself shocked when it bounced. Subsequent paydays suffered from less red tape, but, for years, they barely outstripped the amount. To support his family between fights and sparring sessions, Jones worked two jobs in Denver: he was a maintenance man at a hotel and a floor waxer in a hospital.
In 1977 Jones received some overdue exposure when he competed in the ill-fated U.S. Boxing Championships, outpointing brutish Dino Dennis before the tourney, a corrupt and crooked co-production cooked up by Don King and his underlings (including The Ring) went up in flames. Over the next few years, Jones remained undefeated with minimum activity and few noteworthy wins. “Yeah, sometimes I think there’s a lot of injustice in my life,” Jones said about his struggles. “But then I look at it again and say, ‘Hey, man, you just gotta pay a little more dues than the next man. When you finally make it, you’ll appreciate it more.’”
His 24-0-1 record did include a decision over Mike Weaver, however, in the days when Weaver thought roadwork meant trotting to the corner store for a six-pack of Eastside Old Tap. With his only real distinction being his lack of distinction, Jones personified the heavyweight desert of 1980. Now, at twenty-nine, he had finally stumbled into the opportunity of a lifetime, along with a purse—$150,000—that would surpass all of his previous paydays combined.
Throughout the buildup of the fight, Don King tried to hype the mismatch, repeating, ad nauseam, a banal slogan wherever he went: “Today nobody, tomorrow somebody.” Oddsmakers, at least, were not fooled by this pitch. Most books that bothered to set a line made Holmes anywhere from a 12-1 favorite to a 20-1 favorite.
When Holmes entered the ring, he had already spent weeks steaming at distractions and what he perceived as slights to his standing. There was Ali, of course, sucking the oxygen out of the sports world; there was Tate, with his brash claim of being heavyweight co-ruler. (In a strange incident, Holmes abandoned his training camp in Cleveland after being hoaxed; two men, dressed in severe suits, served Holmes with a bogus paternity suit. Holmes set up camp in Cleveland as a favor to his trainer, Richie Giachetti, who owned a gym there. “But it will be a cold day when I come back. I won’t be back to visit. This joke isn’t funny.”) Then came Weaver, whose KO of Tate in Knoxville an hour or so earlier became instant legend material.
Finally, Holmes was unhappy essentially fighting in a swing bout on the telecast. His starting time was, more or less, TBA, with a waiting period ranging from fifteen minutes to an hour and a half. This potential tedium did not sit well with the brooding champion, who found fault even in top billing. “Who wants to stand around with gloves on for two hours?” Holmes asked. “I thought I got away from this kind of thing when I left the amateurs.”
It must have been a relief for Holmes to hear the opening bell ring. After just a few rounds of milling, Jones, who weighed in at a flaccid 254.5 pounds, probably did not feel the same way. He was simply no match for Holmes. A lively crowd at the Sports Pavilion in Caesars Palace watched as Holmes began pummeling Jones in the third round.
Top-heavy, Jones fell off-balance repeatedly, and his attempts at combinations were graceless; at times, he looked like a man trying to swat flies with a soggy newspaper. This untidy (anti-) style made him a wide target for Holmes, who strafed his pudgy opponent with crosses, hooks, uppercuts, and body shots. Whatever blows Jones did manage to land, including the occasional counterpunch, were cuffing or slapping. Holmes barely acknowledged these shots, including a snappy right hand that landed in the third.
From time to time, Jones tried to crowd Holmes and score from short range. If Jones thought he could smother Holmes in the trenches, he was painfully mistaken. On the inside, Jones often wound up with his feet parallel and his hands out of position. Although in later years Holmes would be typecast as a jab-and-dance master—an imitation of Ali when Ali would glide around the ring on his toes—his performances were notable for their variety. Despite his reliance on one-twos, he exploited flaws and openings as they appeared. Against Jones, Holmes showed his versatility.
Holmes battered Jones until “Big Bad Leroy” sprouted an angry boil on his left eyelid and until Referee Richard Greene had finally reached his threshold for sadism. With Holmes bludgeoning Jones in a corner, Green stepped in to stop the butchery with a handful of seconds left in the eighth round.
Larry Holmes had made his sixth successful title defense. There remained only the question of Muhammad Ali and whether or not Holmes would fight the man who once shook up the world. “Of course I’d fight him,” Holmes said. “It’s not my fault if the sucker wants to come back to the ring—I’d fight my mother if she gets into the ring—but when I beat him up and hurt him, then everybody will be against me for that. All this business with the promoters fighting, the managers fighting—everybody but the fighters fighting—has made me tired. I’d like to bring the championship together, but if it’s not to be, it’s not to be. My main concern these days is to get paid, go home, and be with my family. When I do leave boxing, people may not remember me as a great heavyweight. The way things are going in the sport these days, I’ll be satisfied if they say that I was a good champion.”
Eventually, perhaps, the media would get around to that. But a week after Holmes had battered Jones, Sports Illustrated shined its considerable spotlight on the heavyweight division. On the cover? Flabby in training gear and now sporting a mustache, was none other than Muhammad Ali.