LAS VEGAS — As Larry Holmes prepares for a sweep of the Spinks brothers, thought to be only somewhat tougher than a sweep of the Niekros, talk turns to the cheapening of a cherished record.
To match Rocky Marciano's record with a walk-through against a blown-up light-heavyweight, somebody's little brother at that, is thought in some corners to be a sacrilege. It's as if Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak were equaled or broken on a bunt single that somehow didn't roll foul. You're taking that? For the record?
In fact, the sourness that attends Holmes' quest Saturday night at the Riviera Hotel and Casino, as he goes to equal the record of most victories by an undefeated heavyweight champion, almost suggests that an asterisk should be attached to the achievement. Yes, Holmes may be 49-0, but all he had to do was mess over Leon's little brother Michael to get there. Who couldn't be 49-0 with a diet of spent cruiserweights and such. It is one thing to avoid undue excitement as he nears retirement; he is 35, slower and more vulnerable than ever. But for Holmes to handicap his fights by accepting only the least opposition is quite another.
Bring on Joe and Phil Niekro. Give them gloves for their other hands and we'll really put that record out of reach.
Should Holmes beat Michael Spinks here as expected, then add another victory, he will be one of the least appreciated record-holders since Roger Maris befouled Babe Ruth's legacy.
Says Holmes, flashing the sensitivity that has earned him a reputation for arrogance and general petulance: "I don't care if people are upset about me beating the record. It's there to be broken. It's like Pete Rose beating Ty Cobb's record."
Well, of course it is not. Pete Rose is beloved, Ty Cobb was not. Rocky Marciano was beloved, Larry Holmes is not.
And there are glibber explanations than that, although glibness here is strictly point of view. Says co-promoter Don King, the man who has helped engineer the record-breaking fight: "I'd have to say that if Gerry Cooney were about to break the record, sentiment would be different." It should be noted, as King definitely means it to be, that Cooney is white, Holmes is not. "I don't have to be specific," King says, "do I?"
Pressed to be specific, King says: "They ain't gonna put Larry on no box of Wheaties, I don't care if he knocks out 17 more guys."
Leaving aside race, even leaving aside the fact that Holmes had to follow the impossible act of Muhammad Ali, there are other reasons why he won't command a country's affection. The thing is, Holmes, the gentle family man, can be flat-out nasty. And often is, come fight time.
Holmes enjoys a measure of obsequiousness among his followers and is vindictive when his rule is questioned. Richie Giachetti, the once-exiled trainer who has been brought back into camp for the career's wind-up, can vouch for that. "Yeah, he scolded me the other day," Giachetti says wearily. "But that's a good sign. I'd feel bad if he didn't yell at me three-four times in the week before a fight."
And then there was the matter of firing the venerable Archie Moore, the former light-heavyweight champion. Moore has been employed, effectively, to help the promotion and to recall for reporters the time he campaigned against Marciano, to play up the angle of good little man vs. good big man. But when the Old Mongoose began consorting a bit too much with the light-heavyweight's entourage, Holmes fired him, calling him a spy. Moore was checking out of the hotel when King finally reached him and returned him to the appreciative press.
The person Holmes needs in camp, however, is not really Moore. It's Dale Carnegie. As they say, Will Rogers never met Larry Holmes on the eve of an important fight.
On the eve of a fight, which is really the only time he gets exposure, Holmes is nearly schizophrenic, driven to a strange madness by his underdog mentality. At a press conference this week, he called Don King the best thing that has happened to boxing since the protective cup. Yet Holmes has often been at odds with King. Then, belying his week-long cooperation with the press, he went on a tirade about a story that seemed to him to have implied racism in his camp and family and excoriated the reporter by name. The story had appeared more than three years before.
He is hard to figure, harder still to love.
Then, too, Holmes seems to work hard to remove the romance from his achievements. He adopts an attitude that suggests he is little more than a mercenary. Rose, despite contract squabbles in the past, is perceived as a sportsman. Holmes comes across like a gun for hire, compassionless and bottom line all the way. Talking of the record, Holmes says: "The record never really came up until I fought Carl Williams (in May). I didn't even know it was 49-0. But the press is always reminding you. Even today, it doesn't really matter to me. I win, get paid, go home and live with my money."