“Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?”- Mary Shelly, Frankenstein
It’s a strange sight to see the heavyweight champion of the world weep. After his fight with Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes looked like a small boy, despite his hulking frame, as he sobbed in his dressing room. He was a whisper of the athletic phenom that had just pulverised another man in a boxing ring. The reason he wept was that man was his mentor. He was forced, by the cruel hands of fate and the even crueler structure of boxing, to harm someone he loved.
Muhammad Ali first met Larry Holmes in 1971, when he was on the comeback trail, and looking for young blood to help him get his eye in, sharpen his timing, build back into the fighter he was before his exile. In this endeavour he had burrowed into the forests of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, to build a new training camp. By the end of 1971 Deer Lake, or ‘Fighter's Heaven’ as Ali preferred to call it was finished. Eight log cabins; a gym, a ring, a mosque, sleeping quarters and a cafeteria; this return to basics would become Ali’s headquarters for many years.
The problem though was who would populate the cabins. The stalwart trifecta of Team Ali; Angelo Dundee, Bundhini Brown and Gene Kilroy would soon solve this issue. Alongside usual sparring partners like Jimmy Young they brought in a local kid, a good but untested young professional from just over an hour away in Easton.
The story of their first spar is enshrined in boxing lore. Dundee said of Ali’s sparring technique “Ali hasn’t won a round in the gym since I’ve known him. He’s the worst gym fighter in the world. But he always showed me flashes: ten seconds, fifteen seconds.” In the spit and sawdust of Deer Lake gymnasium this was the story. Holmes was jabbing and pushing Ali around when all of a sudden he exploded and gave Larry a black eye. When he was offered an ice pack at the end of the round Larry just laughed and said "I’m going to tell everyone Muhammad Ali gave me a black eye."
This attitude impressed Ali and Larry soon became Ali’s star pupil. "He gave me the opportunity to be with him, to learn from him. I took full advantage of it," Holmes remembered "There's no better teacher than the great one, Muhammad Ali."
Muhammad Ali began, over a number of years to deposit information into the young and inexperienced Holmes, teaching him both physical and psychological lessons. “I improved every single day,” said Holmes. “I didn’t improve week-to-week or month-to-month, I improved every single day. I was never out of the gym and that’s what made me the fighter I became.”
Holmes was a superb athlete, malleable and versatile, a vessel into which Ali poured his knowledge and skillset. Like a scientist in a laboratory he would add ingredients to Holmes and see what worked. From Ali’s fast footwork came Holmes’ unorthodox rhythms. From Ali’s trademark jab came Holmes’ wicked leading weapon. From Ali’s superb conditioning came Holmes’ own brutal 15 round fitness.
Larry remembered “In sparring, Ali would throw the punches at you, but if he hurt you he’d slow up. His whole thing was getting in shape. If he doesn’t get in shape, then he can’t be ready for Kenny Norton, Joe Frazier or George Foreman. He wouldn’t have been able to beat those guys without being in shape.”
Most importantly of all though, throughout this time Holmes was galvanising his mentality. He learned the ins and outs of Ali’s methods of psychological warfare, how to evade it, and enforce his own brand. Boosted by his successes in sparring and the ring the facade of invincibility Ali had for so long, was now beginning to shield his protege.
The two sparred, and often lived together as one's skills faded and the others doubled. As Muhammad Ali worked his way through contender after contender during his second reign as champion Holmes was paitiently working away in the wings becoming increasingly dangerous.
By 1980 though the tides had completely turned. Ali had lost and then regained his title in two bouts with Leon Spinks and hadn’t fought for nearly two years, eventually relinquishing his world title. Holmes had taken his place at the top, the WBC heavyweight champion had defended his title eight times against a parade of top contenders such as Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Mike Weaver and Alfredo Evangelista.
The fight was made for the second of October, Don King billed it; “the Last Hurrah”. Ali’s classic trash talk started immediately “I made you. I clothed you. I fed you. I’m gonna get out of my rocking chair and whip your butt”. Larry though just laughed “I find him amusing. He makes me laugh!” He retorted.
When the Muhammad Ali of 1980 climbed into the ring he saw across from him the Muahmad Ali of 1966. He had bred another fighter to have all of his own best attributes, that night he saw a Larry Holmes that was psychologically impervious and physically indomitable. The apprentice had superseded the master. Muhammad Ali looked across that ring and saw a monster of his own creation.
He tried desperately to gain a last advantage, shouting and swearing, acting, playing to the crowd, but it was in vain. Holmes just stared back at him.
The beating was hellacious. Holmes started with the disrespect that Ali had shown Liston and Patterson all those years before. His shots thundered into a man who evidently should not have been allowed into the ring. The longer it lasted though the mood changed, as the husk of Muhammad Ali soldiered bravely on Larry began to lose faith in what he was doing. He beckoned to the referee to stop the fight, he spoke to Ali, begging him to quit. As the crowd booed and chanted even louder for Ali, Holmes realised he was becoming the villain.
When the Ali corner called a stop to the madness in the 10th round, Holmes looked at the baying mob, still chanting for his defeat, shocked at the brutality with which he had defeated his former teacher. He was crying when he got back to the dressing room. He was crushed by the weight of victory, knowing then more acutely than ever that he would live to regret this night for the rest of his days.
In later life he was wistful in his recollections of that fateful evening; “I fought a friend, a brother. You can’t get happiness out of that. I did what I had to do. I still love the guy but we all come and we all go. I’ll be gone someday, too.”
Muhammad Ali would soon slip into the grip of Parkinson’s disease, most agree as a result of his particularly brutal ring career. Many, unfairly, blamed Larry for this directly, as their bout was the most blatant example of his taking punishment. This stigma remains around Larry Holmes to this day, the man who came after the greatest. This though is unfounded as ultimately it was Ali who constructed Holmes, and it is simply a cruel twist of fate that it was him that had to face the consequences of his brilliance.
“Beware for I am fearless, therefore I am powerful“ - Mary Shelly, Frankenstein
Eddie Willis for SimBoxx