This is the first installment in Carlos Acevedo’s Shoot The Moon series covering the career of Larry Holmes.
Oh, I see myself in a brand new way.—Boston
November 10, 1978
There was no comparison between the cut-rate twilights he shared cheap motel rooms with his trainer en route to pick-up fights in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Richmond, Ohio, and the shimmering fantasyland of the Caesars Palace Sports Pavilion. On the same night Larry Holmes would put his WBC heavyweight title on the line, the neon lights of Sin City would burn particularly bright: Tony Bennett, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Joey Heatherton, and, of course, the “Chairman of the Board,” Frank Sinatra—all illuminating The Strip from the MGM Grand to the Aladdin.
Glitz, for Larry Holmes, “The Easton Assassin,” had finally come after years of toiling in drab itinerant obscurity. In his first title defense, Holmes had settled on Alfredo Evangelista, an amateur torero from Spain via Uruguay, best known for taking Muhammad Ali the distance in May 1977. “One thing you learn being in the prelims, on the undercards all your life, and that’s patience,” Holmes told the Philadelphia Inquirer about having his own bold name spelled out in gaudy letters in the bawdiest city in the United States.
Patience is probably not the strongest word for the bitter journey Holmes endured on the way to defending his championship against Evangelista on prime time national television. Even before he was a teenager, Holmes was fighting on the pub circuit in Easton, Bethlehem, and Allentown, rowdy Rust Belt cities still a few years away from qualifying for ruin porn. “The bars were usually full of steelworkers or men from the paper mill and other factories,” Holmes wrote in his autobiography Against All Odds. “To me, they were really like the bars I saw in the Western Movies at the State Theater downtown. Rough and tough and exciting. It was nothing like being in school or in the house or on the block. The atmosphere in those places felt seedy, and illegal, which probably it was since little kids were on premises where drinking and betting were going on. There was usually a lot of smoke swirling about and the rank smell of stale beer and whiskey.”
As a professional, Holmes, who had earned sixty-three dollars for his debut, hardly found himself in spiffier surroundings. Five months earlier, however, Holmes had shucked off what must have seemed like permanent anonymity by warring against Ken Norton for fifteen electrifying rounds and limping away with a portion of the heavyweight crown. In fact, Holmes had only shined a feeble light on his obscurity. He had already been dismissed for winning just a sliver of the title from Norton (who never actually earned the belt in the ring), and he remained in the shadows of a man he could never replace: Muhammad Ali.
On September 15, Ali had defeated Leon Spinks to regain his title in an extravaganza televised from the Superdome in New Orleans, and Holmes found his claim to the heavyweight throne undercut even further. Before his fandango with Evangelista in 1977, Ali had heard boos throughout his previous title defense against Ron Lyle. That fight, dreary until the sudden TKO ending, generated the following headline for International Boxing: “Ali Finds Out Nobody Laughs at an Unfunny Clown.” Now, after outpointing Evangelista in a farce, Ali had his nickname changed from “The Greatest” to the “The Dullest,” and he was urged to retire by nearly every corner of the fight racket. His two fights with Spinks—who made climbing out of bed an insurance risk—hardly made a difference.
“I am the new, hottest guy in the world today,” Holmes said before the fight. “I don’t care about Ali. He is gone. He has lost his legs. He has reached his peak and now he is on the way out.” But was Holmes on the way in? The star wattage in Vegas—which included Ali in town to attend a function for Joe Louis—may have been overpowering after all. Ticket sales were slow and the press was as skeptical of Evangelista as it had been before he challenged Ali a year earlier. Don King, the domino-haired promoter, just a year or so removed from The Ring ratings scandal, blamed it all on his dastardly nemesis Bob Arum. According to King, Arum had been trying to sabotage “Return to Glory” by leaking rumors that Evangelista was injured, sick, half-blind, unfit to answer the bell. To combat this scuttlebutt, King escorted Evangelista to Desert Springs Hospital, where the heavyweight underwent a battery of tests. Evangelista passed them all and King responded, as was his wont, with a rambling press conference. “I want to introduce all of the outstanding fighters on this great card,” King said. “But before I do that I want to tell you about a cad. We have been, in recent days, beleaguered, beset with rumors, all the work of that sinister and diabolical Hitler of boxing, a scurrilous character whose paranoia has carried him to the brink of insanity.”
Insanity might have been inviting Evangelista to Las Vegas for anything more than baccarat or blackjack. The only notable heavyweight Spain had produced since the days of Paulino Uzcudun (who was Basque) had been Jose Urtain, a national phenomenon whose record was studded with, shall we say, friendly opposition. And Evangelista had the added disadvantage of being an import, brought to Madrid from Uruguay by Kid Tunero in the early 1970s. With his feathery blow-dried hairdo, his oversized shirt collars, and his gold neck chain, Evangelista looked like he was ready for the break of dawn at Studio 54 or Danceteria. Nevertheless, Evangelista, 23-2-1, was riding a nine-bout winning streak entering his doomed challenge of Holmes; its only highlight was a stoppage of Jean Piere-Coopman, “The Lion of Flanders,” a man who had fortified himself with champagne before—and during—his fiasco against Muhammad Ali in 1976.
Unlike Coopman, who only wanted to hug and kiss Ali whenever he could, Evangelista at least said some of the right things. “Larry Holmes,” he warned, “will find out I’m a different fighter than the man who fought Ali.” This, in a sense, was true. Against Ali, Evangelista was merely a straight man, the target of more pranks than punches; against Holmes, poor Evangelista was a flagellant, lashed from round to round, until, finally, he was counted out in the seventh. To score the knockout blow, Holmes, 28-0, had pulled a fair imitation of a signature Jersey Joe Walcott move. He was walking away, almost casually, from an Evangelista in pursuit, when he suddenly stopped and whipped a roundhouse right that sent the man who had lasted fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali crashing to the mat. In the end, it was a fitting homage. After all, Walcott had spent bruising years scrambling to the top, just like Larry Holmes.