LAS VEGAS — This is to be a kind of retirement party tonight, with Larry Holmes getting his gold watch and returning to Easton, Pa., to enjoy his considerable pension.
There, he plans to spend mornings hanging out at his little bar, afternoons eating lunch at his little hotel, evenings playing on his little softball team.
"Also clipping my little coupons," he said of his retirement plans.
Holmes has fought for pay for 12 years, holding first the World Boxing Council heavyweight title and now the International Boxing Federation championship. He's 35, rich, undefeated in 46 fights and 18 title defenses. Although he remains a tad sour that he could never rival Muhammad Ali in popularity, he is finally assured that he will be remembered as a truly great heavyweight, with skills matched only by his heart and dedication. He earned that.
The only thing that could spoil the party, billed as Holmes' very last fight, is a crasher named David Bey, a fighter who has neither credentials nor fear, a combination that can be dangerous. Said the redoubtable Randall (Tex) Cobb, one Philadelphia fighter commenting on another: "Bey here, he ain't afraid of nothing, living or dead."
Before last November, that wouldn't have counted for much. But a heavyweight named James (Bonecrusher) Smith gave Holmes the scare of his life then, although Holmes rallied from cuts and stopped Smith in 12 rounds. Seeing such vulnerability raised the hopes of every two-handed fighter weighing more than 200 pounds. Holmes could be had.
So the excitement tonight, in an outdoor arena behind the Riviera Hotel and Casino, is whether Holmes can be had by a cocky muffin like Bey. That excitement, however, is sufficient. Will Holmes retire in time, or one fight too late? An unusual assembly of both fans and fight journalists is on hand to find out.
Bey is as good an antagonist as any in this drama. He's 28, has won all 14 of his fights and is big and strong. He weighed in at 233 Thursday, topping Holmes' 221 1/2. Besides his apparent lack of respect for Holmes, he has power. Of his 14 fights, 11 have been won by knockout, although Greg Page extended him the full 12 rounds last August.
It's possible he could take Holmes, if the IBF champion's legs are really gone. Bey may just walk straight ahead, as he always does, and take Holmes out. It's not a matter of Bey's having more skill; nobody can get up on his toes and flick a jab the way Holmes can. It's a matter of Bey's being younger by seven years.
Holmes, however, is buying none of that, although his $2-million purse makes almost anything affordable. "Bonecrusher put me in great shape for this," he said. "A lot of people been dreaming, been praying, been lighting candles. I'm putting those candles out. I'll beat on him till he falls down."
When Bey protested, Holmes said: "You're still a baby. I had 28 fights when I won my title."
If Bey is a baby, is Holmes then an old man? Holmes says watch this old man work out. He has been training here for 6 1/2 weeks, not cutting any corners. "I call my room here the cell block," he said.
His trainer, venerable Eddie Futch, said that the one thing that sets Holmes apart from the eight World Boxing Council champions and two World Boxing Assn. champions--all of whom have come and gone since Holmes won the WBC title from Ken Norton in 1978--is that dedication. "Most of these fighters get so much money so quick that they head right into the fast lane," Futch said. "The money didn't come that fast for Larry, and he could never afford that life style."
As a consequence, said Futch, Holmes is a well preserved 35, in his prime in much the same way Archie Moore and Jersey Joe Walcott were at that age. "He stops people because he's prepared."
To be sure, Holmes has never neglected the preparation required. He has been as clean a liver as any modern fighter. As he observed, there is not much trouble to get into back in Easton, now that he has the money to buy carburetors for his Dodge Chargers--but that's another story. "In my town, those people keep my feet on the ground," he said.
The man who intends to knock those feet out from under Holmes is an enthusiastic fighter with his own story to tell. His tale is not from small-time street trouble to the top of his game, as is Holmes', but instead a story of racial discrimination and fatherly love.
Bey, who has Bay tattooed on his arm to help folks in their pronunciation, came out of Nicetown, Pa., a Philadelphia neighborhood. It was not a ghetto but it wasn't the Main Line either.
Early on, Bey learned to fight in answer to the taunts of half-breed flung at him in the neighborhood. His father, a sparring partner for Joe Louis when they were in the Army, was black and his mother was white. Bey didn't have to pick fights to get action.