This is the seventh installment in Carlos Acevedo’s Shoot The Moon series covering the career of Larry Holmes.
July 7, 1980
The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison
For the good old American life: For the money, for the glory, and for the fun … mostly for the money. Bandit
“What the hell. I’m a truck driver with a clean shirt on.” Scott LeDoux
Until the lead-up to his challenge of Larry Holmes, in a title fight that was simultaneously off-the-boards and off-the-wall, Scott LeDoux was best known for having thrown a fit on national television, one that culminated in Howard Cosell wrestling with his own mutinous toupee at ringside. After losing a debatable unanimous decision to Johnny Boudreaux, a seething LeDoux lashed out at the nefarious forces so familiar, even then, in boxing. Boudreaux was in the early stages of an interview with George Foreman and Cosell when Ledoux struck, unexpectedly, from the ring apron. Leaning through the ropes, “The Fighting Frenchman” swiped at Boudreaux, setting off a melee witnessed by millions of viewers across the country. In the ensuing chaos, Cosell saw his hairpiece zapped from his dome—almost Looney Tunes style—as if he had stuck his finger in an electrical outlet. That was in 1977, during the rotten-to-the-core U.S. Championships Tournament, a Don King supercon sold to ABC TV with the help of his bold backroom henchmen Paddy Flood and Al Braverman and a crooked assist from The Ring and its editorial quisling, Johnny (Bought) Ort.
In a few years, Ledoux would wind up in the wilting AWA, the Minneapolis-based grunt-and-groan outfit on the verge of demise, where he would referee some of the clumsy action (snapmare, collar-and-elbow, chinlock, sunset flip, spinning toehold, wheelbarrow) before finally feuding with Larry “The Living Legend” Zbyszko. For now, however, the ham-and-egger from Crosby, Minnesota, far from the fighting hotspots of Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, or Atlantic City, was the latest designated victim for the undefeated Holmes.
The long ring walk might as well have been a march to the gallows, a stutter-step to the flagstone wall where a firing squad awaited, a sad shuffle to the bobbing edge of a gangplank, mid-squall, perhaps. Only Scott LeDoux disagreed with such pessimism. This, after all, was a fighter who had sobbed in his dressing room after more than one loss and who had ambushed Boudreaux long after the final bell had rung. “In my heart, I know I can beat Larry Holmes,” he told AP. “A lot of people used to say LeDoux can’t win. They said I couldn’t even get here. I shut them up once, I’ll shut them up again.”
LeDoux was referring to the win that finally got him a shot at the most important title in sports (even the tarnished post-Ali version): a ten-round decision over undefeated Marty Monroe that aired on NBC. Before that, LeDoux had a reputation as a limited but scrappy bruiser who would fight anyone. His pedestrian 26-8-4 record included losses to George Foreman, Mike Weaver, Ron Lyle, and Duane Bobick, but draws against Leon Spinks and Ken Norton (along with the Boudreaux robbery) suggested that LeDoux was more than just another homespun local hero.
Even for his longshot chance at history, LeDoux remained grassroots. LeDoux trained in his garage, in Anoka, where a minuscule 13-foot ring took up most of the space. His sparring partners were his old friends; although, occasionally, his manager, Tom Daszkiewicz, would go a round or two in the ring, until he was exhausted by the effort. From time to time, LeDoux would headbutt the heavy bag with zest, sharpening his dirty tactics for the fight. He was a regular at a Minneapolis bar, The King of Clubs, where the patrons razzed him about his lack of defense. This folksy regimen was catnip to newspapers, who saw in it a way to link the underdog trope popularized by Rocky. (Of course, the fact that Rocky Balboa trained in a teeming inner-city gym was never mentioned.) LeDoux was the subject of human-interest features across America. He had been a sickly child, who would grow into a scrawny teen at the mercy of his schoolmates. “My mother says now, ‘I don’t know how you ever won any fights,’” LeDoux told the New York Times. “‘You never won any when you lived here.’ I won my first fight when I was in the 11th grade. I must have been 0 and 40 by then.”
But neither Ledoux nor Holmes were the stars of this promotion. No, as usual, the story was Muhammad Ali, the human eclipse, who had bedimmed the championship reign of Larry Holmes from the moment “The Easton Assassin” had been designated WBC titlist in 1978. Since curtailing his retirement, Ali had dominated the newswires like the Iran hostage crisis or the Son of Sam. When Mike Weaver scored a miracle KO over John Tate in April 1980, Ali lost his preferred target for a comeback extravaganza. His focus shifted to Holmes, his former sparring partner, and a man whose idolization of “The Greatest” cruelly set him up for both riches and regrets.
On April 16, Ali held a press conference at the Beverly Hills Wilshire to announce that he would be bypassing the near-anonymous Weaver and instead challenging Holmes for the WBC title. The site: Maracana Stadium in Rio De Janeiro; the date: July 7; the spoils: a potential purse of more than $8 million for the most famous athlete in history. “It sounds too good to be true,” Ali said, “but the fight is on, no question about it.” A few weeks later, after Prime Sports, Inc. (represented by Murad Muhammad, a former Ali bodyguard eventually immortalized by Don King as the “stupidest man in boxing”) failed to meet certain financial stipulations, Holmes–Ali vanished like a bit from a David Copperfield ABC special.
That left Don King scrambling for an opponent to face Holmes on prime-time television. In that sense, Lady Luck finally found her way up north, where Scott LeDoux was brooding about his permanent status as club fighter—a term he loathed. Twice LeDoux had played gatecrasher at title fights, heckling Holmes from the crowd at press conferences following his successful defenses against Alfredo Evangelista and LeRoy Jones. Although LeDoux posed no threat to Holmes, he was solid box-office in Minnesota and had built a national profile with headline fights televised on ABC and NBC. And the Great White Hope angle, while predictable, was irresistible to Don King, who immediately labeled LeDoux “The American Dream.” At a press conference to announce the fight, King fantasized aloud about the possibility of LeDoux upsetting Holmes. “Being that he’s white, blond, and blue-eyed, it would be tremendous,” he cooed. “It would send boxing through the roof. Even the Eskimos in their igloos would be talking in their Eskimomese about Scott LeDoux.”
Holmes agreed to terms—reportedly a $1 million payday—and Minnesota had its first heavyweight title fight in history. The Met Center in Bloomington, home of the North Stars and, occasionally, the Kicks (North American Soccer League), held 16,800 spectators, and King was optimistic about a full house. But even a shrewd promoter like King could find himself hoodwinked by the illusory world of boxing. Less than two years later, King would reap millions from another “White Hope,” Gerry Cooney, but this time, alas, he had overestimated the value of racial discord. As a regional celebrity, LeDoux was small-town royalty; as a potential test to a champion in his prime, he was a skid-row pauper.
Because LeDoux had lost to more than just the contenders he had faced (Dino Denis and Roy Wallace had also beaten him), the “hope” in “white hope” seemed somewhat optimistic. Ticket sales lagged. And Ledoux, always the prickly type, had already worked himself into a rage, partly out of frustration with his underdog status, partly out of frustration with a bruising career that stretched back to 1974, and partly because of Larry Holmes. A potential box-office dud only added to his troubles, and soon LeDoux was airing his grievances to the press.
Whether or not LeDoux had been encouraged to sell wolf tickets for a fight whose allure proved limited because of its standing as a mismatch is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that LeDoux poured forth his obscene, retrograde (even in 1980) convictions with a venom that did not seem coaxed or forced. He sounded genuinely aggrieved when he ranted to Doug Grow of the Minneapolis Star. “You know what it’s like in boxing now? A white guy has to knock a black guy out just to get a decision. White guys aren’t supposed to be hungry enough to fight. Hungry! I haven’t seen anybody hungry in this country. Look at this state. Do you see anybody hungry? Do you ever see a skinny Indian? I’ve never seen one. I can say that and not get in trouble because I’m part Indian. Let me tell you something. We never saw a welfare check in our house. My father worked; he did whatever it took. He worked in the mines, and he never asked for anything. He’s still up there working and all he’s going to have to show for it is a gold watch. But that watch will mean something to him. You don’t see the black man do that. You don’t see the Indian do that. If you want to eat, you work. That’s the way it was for my dad.”
What made these comments even more bizarre was the fact that LeDoux shared an unforgiving profession with Holmes, a profession in which upward mobility was little more than a heartbreaking myth for most of its credulous practitioners. It was Holmes, from Easton, Pennsylvania, who had reached the pinnacle, it was Holmes who had pulled up his bootstraps. From quarry to gravel pit to foundry, Holmes had clawed his way to distinction—and millionaire status—with the single-minded pursuit of a man who had been to hell and never wanted to see its brimstone again. He had shared ramshackle motel rooms on the road with his first trainer, Ernie Butler; he had worked as a truck driver for Strongwear Pants while fighting for pocket change at the Catholic Youth Center in Scranton, Pennsylvania. To earn the living that boxing could not provide, Holmes took up hard moonlighting as a sparring partner—first for Ali, fortunately lax during workout sessions, and then for Joe Frazier, for whom the word “relax” might as well have never been coined.
In contrast, LeDoux had attended the University of Minnesota; he came from a nuclear family; he lived in Crosby, Minnesota, far-flung and sparsely populated, but free of urban tumult, if Easton, a city with approximately thirty thousand residents, could be considered urban. In 1980, the All-American conceits of self-invention, rugged individualism, and material improvement were embodied, during the midst of a recession, by a sour man dressed in a Pony tracksuit. If anyone had prospered in the land of opportunity, it was Holmes. “There’s other ways to sell tickets,” Holmes said, in response to the race-baiting. “I get bothered sometimes by LeDoux. He can’t kick that prejudice stuff.”
Even as Holmes and LeDoux squabbled, Muhammad Ali was omnipresent. At the weigh-in, held at the Regency Hotel, the crowd that had gathered began chanting for Ali, and news reporters, in the days of hot copy, made a beeline for “The Greatest” whenever he was within hailing distance. A last-minute press conference thrown together by King (in hopes of boosting ticket sales) featured Ali performing magic tricks and vowing to win the heavyweight title once again. There would be something almost mystic about this feat, Ali suggested, since his proposed challenge of Holmes, in limbo for weeks and searching for a home like some forlorn vagabond, would likely take place in Egypt. “And now I’m going to the pyramids to become the world’s heavyweight champion for the fourth time, to beat Larry Holmes alongside the Nile.”
But Ali truly upstaged Holmes when he put on a spectacle from his seat at ringside during the fight. From round to round, Ali all but turned unicycle stunts in the audience, even as Holmes battered LeDoux around the ring. With the crowd splitting its attention between the main event and the Ali sideshow, Holmes felt more than just overshadowed: he felt belittled. Ali taunted Holmes, energetically shadowboxed, played to the crowd, and raised the sort of ruckus that had set him apart from the everyday scrapper nearly twenty years earlier. After the fight, Holmes all but ignored Ali when he entered the ring for an encore of his floor show. “Muhammad Ali is an asshole,” Holmes would say later. “The hell with Ali. Let him go fight somebody else. I don’t want to. He don’t deserve it.”
With the sound of the opening bell still echoing throughout the Met Center, it became clear that Scott LeDoux was as overmatched as the lopsided prefight odds had indicated. Where Holmes was fast, smooth, coordinated, and energetic, LeDoux was ponderous, herky-jerky, cumbersome, and listless. To keep Holmes slightly off-balance, LeDoux had adopted a more defensive style, slinking clumsily around the ring, hoping, he had said, to reach Holmes in the late rounds.
In the second, a looping right hand caught Holmes by surprise. It was one of the few clean punches LeDoux would land through the six-plus rounds he managed to last. For the rest of the fight, Holmes alternated between stalking, jabbing, and dancing on his toes. By the fourth round, Holmes was teeing off on LeDoux, and in the fifth, while LeDoux tried countering off the ropes, a TKO seemed imminent. Early in the sixth round, a right staggered LeDoux, and Holmes, sensing blood, moved in behind a combination. A defiant LeDoux rode out the assault, even landing a haymaker at one point, but Holmes closed in. With about thirty seconds to go in the round, Holmes landed a right uppercut that sent LeDoux to his knees in agony. Later, LeDoux would claim that Holmes had thumbed him. “I dropped down to my knees to get eye my open,” he said. “I felt a lot of pain, instant pain, and instant panic. When your eye rolls underneath your eyelid, it’s a terrifying experience.” LeDoux beat the count and survived, but he was on borrowed time in the ring.
When the fight was finally stopped, roughly two minutes into the seventh, his eye looked like winterkill thawing on the MN-210. Still, LeDoux was incensed that his one shot at glory had been clipped. So, too, was the crowd. In a matter of seconds, the audience began pelting the ring with cups and ice. For a moment, it seemed as if things would get out of hand, and the timekeeper at ringside fled the scene in terror before rendering an official time of stoppage. Referee Davy Pearl had to be escorted from the Met Center by police officers as threats assailed him like hail during an autumn storm. “He was blind in one eye,” Pearl told reporters after the fight. “There was blood in the eye, like it was coming out. I never saw anything like it before. My concern was for the fighter.” Later, LeDoux would claim that his strategy of being cuffed around the ring by Holmes was just beginning to pay dividends when Pearl intervened. It was the sort of nonsense pugs of every level—from club fighter to Hall of Famer—babbled after every loss, but LeDoux seemed more delusional than most. Except, perhaps, Muhammad Ali. On this night, no one seemed as delirious as “The Greatest.”
When ABC concluded its telecast, Ali pursued Holmes through the hallways of the Met Center, where he continued his mocking harangue until Holmes backhanded him across the face. Then Holmes locked his dressing room door, where Ali banged on it interminably, hollering, over and over, “I want Holmes! I want Holmes!”
If Holmes had been tolerant of Ali before, if he had considered salesmanship the driving force behind everything Ali had done, it might have been because of the abstraction that the distance of newspapers and sportscasters had caused. But here, in Bloomington, Minnesota, Ali was in the flesh, and Holmes had a closer look at his antics. He did not like what he saw. “He was trying to humiliate me,” Holmes said after the fight. “I respect him as a man and as a fighter, but I’m building up animosity because he is denying me my just dues. You know, I slapped Ali’s face by my dressing room door. He was talking a whole bunch of stuff he was going to do to me. I don’t need it. I told him: ‘You denied me and now you’re here begging. I don’t need you; you need me.’”
Naturally, Ali had his own viewpoint about the commotion he had caused. “Holmes is just jealous,” he said. “There were ten thousand empty seats last night. I’m not chasing him. Don King asked me to come to sell tickets.” Indeed, it was an ominous detail that only 6,481 fans paid to see the fight—for both Holmes and Ali, who was on-site, after all, as unofficial barker. But his boisterous presence failed to add enough glitz for accounting purposes.
It made Ali look like old news. There was no future for him in boxing, not against Weaver, and certainly not against Holmes, who had run his record to 35-0 on a joyless Monday night in Bloomington, Minnesota. Whatever was next for Muhammad Ali, it could only be an exercise in ruinous nostalgia.
Howard Cosell: Here at ringside in Bloomington, Minnesota, a disturbingly unruly crowd still around us, I’m here with Muhammad Ali. I want your reaction to the events.
Muhammad Ali: It was embarrassing; it was a disgrace. The dude just wasn’t the man. Holmes punched him to death, they should have stopped it earlier. He’s cocky, he’s shot, he was gettin’ tired, he was punchin’ nobody. You wait till I go . . . [Addressing the camera directly, punctuating comments with his fist.] I want all of you to know that I’m coming back and I’m going to destroy Larry Holmes. Larry Holmes hasn’t a chance. I’m gonna come back. I’m four-times champ. I promise you—I’ll destroy Larry Holmes. He’s nothin’! He’s got no class! He’s still my sparring partner! He haven’t improved not at all! That’s why I came to watch him and I promise you, I’ll wipe the ring with him! There’s no way—the man’s got no class for me!
Cosell (interrupting): All right. Now that you’ve gone through that—
Ali: I’m waitin’. Gone through nothin’. I’m ready.
Cosell: Now wait a minute. Wait a minute. Look at yourself. Are you prepared, no matter what you say about Holmes in your tubthumping for the bout, are you prepared to go against a man that many years younger–
Ali (interrupting): Man, you crazy, he’s . . . he’s seven years younger than me, so what? My boxers in my amateur club are ten years younger and I’m faster than them. Ali—I’ll whip Holmes tonight. The way he looked . . . I’m 230, I would whip Holmes tonight. I’ll tell you what. [Voice rising] I wouldn’t come back and go out a loser. I’m three times champ. I’d be a fool to come back if I didn’t think I could win. I’ll destroy Holmes. I’ll destroy Holmes. And I want all of you to read my words: I’m back! All you—and I’m going to show you how great, how class I am! I’m going to destroy—it’ll be no contest!
Cosell: OK. Would you have stopped the fight sooner?
Ali: I think I would have stopped it much sooner. About a round sooner.
Cosell: OK. Thank you. [Pats Ali on the cheek.]
Ali: But . . . no class, no class!
Cosell: All right. Good luck to you.
Ali: I’m tellin’ ya! Wait and see if I ain’t the king! I’ll destroy Holmes!
Cosell: And so Muhammad Ali is back, in a sense. Whether or not he will truly be able to come back as a fighter remains to be seen. Certainly, he is doing his very best to promote the projected fight in Cairo. In the meantime, here in Bloomington, we’ll be back after this from our local stations.