LAS VEGAS — Larry Holmes, the grandfather who hopes to become the oldest of all the heavyweight champions Friday night at Caesars Palace, was turning up the intensity dial the other day.
At a pre-fight news conference, he looked out at several hundred people and talked impressively about old and new dreams.
"All my dreams came true," he said, referring to his 1978-1985 reign as heavyweight champion, when he defended his championship 20 times.
"On Friday night, another of my dreams is going to come true. No one believed me when I told them (of my dream) the first time, but I held the title 7 1/2 years. And I fought everyone, too."
He looked down from the lectern to his Friday opponent, Evander Holyfield, and wrapped it up like this:
"This time, he's in there with a real, real fighter. I will fight him with everything God gave me."
As Holmes returned to his seat, a smiling Holyfield was the first at the head table to begin applauding the 42-year-old former champion.
Applause. Rarely has there been a fighter who appeared to need it so much.
Mike Tyson doesn't much care if people like him or not. Nor does Roberto Duran. Michael Spinks was pretty much indifferent to public affection. So was Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
But Larry Holmes is an interesting case. His reign was sandwiched between those of two spectacular champions, Muhammad Ali and Tyson. In the years after Ali's departure from the scene, when his memorable fights with Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton became only memories, Holmes won . . . and brooded.
Earnie Shavers, Mike Weaver, Trevor Berbick, Leon Spinks, Renaldo Snipes, Gerry Cooney, Tex Cobb, Tim Witherspoon, Bonecrusher Smith--he beat the best of his era and he beat most of them convincingly.
Yet often he spoke in hurt tones, saying that reporters and fans were still fawning over Ali, that somehow he hadn't been accorded sufficient respect.
He took to pointing out how many millions he had in his bank accounts and real-estate investments, as if that would somehow register as a measure of his success.
He was pursuing that theme again this week.
"I don't need the money I've got, because as you all know, I'm wealthy," he said. "I've got $5 million, I've got $7 million. I'm a seventh-grade dropout. I've done OK. Respect to me, is money. If someone pays you a million dollars to do something, that's respect."
Near the end of his championship reign, in 1985, he was unbeaten, at 48-0. He lost his championship on a decision he disputes to this day, to Michael Spinks. One more successful defense and he would have tied Rocky Marciano's career record at 49-0.
The promoters that week in 1985 had brought in Peter Marciano, the late champion's brother, to to talk about the 49-0 possibility with boxing writers. Before the fight, it got out that Peter Marciano had said, possibly in jest, that he was going to a Las Vegas church, light a candle, and pray that Holmes would lose to Spinks.
Holmes heard that, and brooded.
"Why would he say that?" he said at the time. "The guy doesn't even know me."
Then, in a major upset, Spinks was awarded a victory by decision. When Holmes came to the post-fight news conference, he saw Peter Marciano in the crowd and the dam broke.
"Rocky couldn't carry my jockstrap," he said, a remark that still has not been forgotten.
In an ESPN interview with Charley Steiner this week in Las Vegas, Holmes was apparently furious when Steiner raised the subject again.
"Looking back . . . at that postfight statement, do you look back now and say, 'Damn, I wish I hadn't said that?' " Steiner asked.
Said Holmes: "They (the media) wanted something to pounce on Larry Holmes with, and that was it. They made a mountain out of a molehill. It was slang. It didn't mean anything. I respect other people's families, but when people try to tear me down. . . . I never did that.
"My place in history, my record speaks for itself."
In a sense, many who have known Holmes for years say that the Marciano remark hurt Holmes more than the Marciano family.
"Larry is a brooder, he's very sensitive to what people think about him," said Jerry Izenberg, sports columnist for the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, who has known Holmes for more than 20 years.
"Up until the night he made the Marciano remark, Larry never had any significant problems with the press. When I needed to see him, I would just drive to his house in Easton (Pa.), I never needed an appointment.
"He is convinced to this day he won both of those Spinks fights (Holmes also lost the rematch on a decision). He was terribly angry after that first fight, and when he saw Peter Marciano in the press room that night, he just went off his rocker.
"Looking back, Peter probably shouldn't have been in there. He was very visible, all week, and Larry resented it."
His championship gone, Holmes returned to Easton for nearly two years. Then he accepted a $3.1-million offer from Don King to fight Mike Tyson in Atlantic City.