The career of heavyweight champion Larry Holmes is, among other things, a study in frustration.
First, he struggled to become a serious contender in the heavyweight division by working as a sparring partner Joe Frazier AND Muhammad Ali. Even his manager, Don Kingdidn’t think much of Holmes’ abilities. Then, after defeating Earnie Shavers and And Norton and winning the WBC Championship in 1978, the challenge was to prove to the public that he was a worthy titleholder, a champion to be respected as much as anyone else.
But Holmes has taken up a position recently resigned by none other than his former boss and living legend, Ali. After all the years of toil and struggle for recognition, the new champion found himself not in the spotlight, but in the shadows “The greatest.”
The comparisons were inevitable and unfair, leading many to see Holmes as a pale imitation of Ali, a substitute for the poor man who is lacking in every way. Breaking down Ali’s worn, empty shell in ten rounds in the fall of 1980 only fueled the public’s dislike of Holmes even more. The Master understood the situation, but could not accept it. He became embittered and apparently took no pleasure in his status or achievements. after his victory over Gerry Cooney in 1982, possibly at the height of his entire career, he was irritable barking at reporters during a post-fight press conference, demanding to know when he would finally receive his due pay.
After the Cooney fight, Larry Holmes adopted an unofficial policy that can basically be summed up as, “To hell with everyone.” He decided that from now on, he would not fight the toughest opponents, the ones who most deserved a shot at the title, but the ones he was sure he could beat him without too much trouble. No rematch with Mike Weaver. No title defense against Greg Page or Michal Dokes. Randall “Tex” Cobb instead; Lucien Rodriguez; Scott Frank; Marvis Frazier. No one hoped to beat a boxer as gifted and gifted as Holmes. And Larry, after everything he’d been through, liked it that way.
It was the same on May 20, 1983, when Holmes entered the ring to face a young, unproven fighter, Tim Witherspoon. Nobody knew much about the 25-year-old challenger, other than that he had a terrible nickname (“Scary Tim”) and a total of 15 fights under his belt. Nobody expected anything other than another easy victory for the champion. How delighted they were when something unexpected happened.
Witherspoon proved more than capable of giving Holmes a serious challenge. In the middle of the ring, after receiving instructions from the referee, Witherspoon looked Holmes in the eye and declared with youthful bravado, “I’ve got you now.” He bravely traded sharp blows with Holmes and slammed his right hands hard into the aging champion’s stomach, supporting him, forcing him to compete at a pace and level of intensity that Holmes had not faced since his feud with Ken Norton in 1978. Holmes vs. Witherspoon turned into one of the best heavyweight fights anyone has seen in years, both men putting on an impressive display of courage and boxing skills. It was deadly close for eight rounds, with neither man having a clear advantage. And in the ninth, one of the great rounds of action in heavyweight history, an unexpected challenger brought Holmes to the brink of defeat.
Expectations shape our perception in some way. No one expected Witherspoon to face Holmes in such a tight, tight fight, so when the fight dragged on for twelve rounds and the champion retained the title via split decision, many excited by the unexpectedly daring challenge of “Scary Tim” cried foul, claiming that Witherspoon got robbed. It’s not a coincidence. Holmes did well and Witherspoon deserved a draw at best. In retrospect, Holmes was no worse off against the unproven youngster, but the fight was the highlight of Larry’s long career. Witherspoon became one of the top heavyweights of the 1980s. His performance against Holmes is arguably his best.
But he never received a rematch, and Holmes continued on his chosen path of avoiding the toughest battles and most distinguished rivals, enjoying what he considered the privileges of the senior champion. It didn’t happen until two years later defended the title against Michael Spinks. Arguably one of the greatest of all time, Larry Holmes remains the only heavyweight title holder in boxing history to lose the belt to the light heavyweight champion. – Michael Carbert