By Thomas Hauser
THERE was royalty at Sony Hall on October 10 when Larry Goldberg promoted his latest club fight show in Times Square.
Larry Holmes was there.
Once upon a time, New York was the boxing capital of the world and club fights were the lifeblood of the sport. Now, Goldberg is the only promoter who runs regularly-scheduled club fights in New York. October 10 marked his seventh show at Sony Hall during the past year.
Holmes was more than heavyweight champion of the world. He was a great champion and had the inquisitors to prove it. There were times when he over-committed on his jab and lifted his chin when he threw it. That left him vulnerable to a well-timed counter-right (as Earnie Shavers, Renaldo Snipes, and Mike Tyson demonstrated). Each of those men knocked Larry woozy. And each time, he got up.
“First you get up,” Holmes said later. “Then you worry about whether or not you’re all right.”
He knocked Shavers and Snipes out.
Holmes is 73 years old now and carries the weight of having engaged in 75 professional fights. He’s a little unsteady on his legs these days. Getting hit the way he got hit by men like Earnie Shavers, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Gerry Cooney, Ken Norton, Muhammad Ali, Renaldo Snipes, Tim Witherspoon, Ray Mercer, and Mike Weaver exacts a toll.
“I paid a price for fighting those guys,” Larry says. “Fighting like I did takes a lot out of you. But I’m still here.”
His wife, Diane, is his rock. They’ve been married for 44 years.
As befitting his status, Holmes receives an appearance fee when he goes to fights. Sitting at Sony Hall, he reminisced about his own first fight – a bout contested in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on March 21, 1973, 50 years ago. The opponent was Rodell Dupree, who brought a 2-2 record into the contest.
Years later, Dupree recalled, “We was both coming up and trying to get to the same place. Holmes got there; I didn’t. It was a good fight, a rough fight. He deserved the decision. I have no regrets about it. I wish I’d been able to fight him again. But to be honest with you, I couldn’t beat the man he become.”
Holmes’s purse that night was one hundred dollars. Earnie Butler (his manager and trainer at the time) took his one-third share and also deducted the three-dollar boxing license fee. Larry went home that night with 63 dollars.
“I was thinking about Earnie today,” Holmes said at Sony Hall. “He was my first teacher. I didn’t know anything about boxing then. All I knew was throwing punches if someone started something with me on the street. Earnie was the start of the whole damn thing for me. After a while, we went different ways. I think it was best for me that we did. But there’s one thing I feel bad about. When Earnie died, no one told me he died so I didn’t go to the funeral. I wish I’d been there to pay my respects. Fifty years ago. Ain’t that something.”
Holmes, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Ken Norton formed a quintet that shaped heavyweight boxing for two decades.
Holmes and Frazier never fought each other. “But we sparred together,” Larry recalled as he waited for the fights at Sony Hall to begin. “I used my jab on him pretty good and then Joe broke my ribs. I liked Joe. If Joe was sitting here now, I’d tell him, ‘Joe, you were a bad motherfucker. You did it your way and I did it mine and both of us got it done.’
“If Ali was here,” Holmes continued, “I couldn’t say anything to him because he wouldn’t give me a chance to talk. But Ali was one of the nicest guys ever. The fight against Ken Norton was probably my best fight. And George was the smartest of all of us because he ended up the richest.”
Holmes and Foreman are the only two of those five champions who are still alive. The others are gone. So is Earnie Shavers, who Larry says hit him harder than he was ever hit before or after. “If Earnie was here,” Larry noted, “I’d tell him, ‘Please, don’t hit me again.'”
“Inside the ring,” Larry added, “all those guys were vicious. And so was I. Outside the ring, we were all nice guys. Fighters today, they don’t get it. I hate it when I hear someone say, ‘I’m gonna kill this motherfucker. I’m gonna put him in a coffin.’ Number one, that’s not the way people should talk. And number two, fighters should understand, we’re all in this together. Mike Tyson beat my ass but I’m not mad at him. He was just doing his job. If I was young and Mike was old when we fought, I’d have done the same thing to him. Gerry Cooney and I are friends now. Back then, people tried to make us black against white. But for Gerry and me, it was just two guys fighting.”
Sony Hall is a small venue. Finding space for changing rooms, medical examinations, and fight-night administrative chores is a problem. The New York State Athletic Commission limits the number of fights that are allowed on Larry Goldberg’s cards to six because of the cramped quarters. This time, two of the scheduled six fights fell out at the last minute and Goldberg was down to four.
The opening bout of the evening was a good club fight. Christian Otero vs. Carlos Marrero, two guys with ordinary records who are used to being brought in as opponents. This time, each man had a chance to win and they fought like it. Otero won a unanimous decision.
That was followed by two dreadful bouts, the worst of the two being Cristina Cruz vs. Josefina Vega. Cruz was 5-0 as a pro with zero knockouts and had scored only seven stoppages in 134 amateur contests. If she dropped an egg, it might not break. Meanwhile, Vega had lost four fights in a row dating back to 2019. She didn’t know how to defend herself or properly throw a punch. Cruz won every minute of every round.
“I’m okay with women fighting,” Holmes offered. “There’s people who say boxing is ugly for women. But boxing is ugly for men too.”
The last fight of the evening was a barn-burner – Cletus Seldin vs. Patrick Okine. It wasn’t expected to be much. Okine had fought only four times in the preceding six years and his sole win during that stretch had been against a fighter who was making his pro debut and now has two knockout losses in two outings.
But Seldin and Okine both came to fight. Not box. And they fought like rock ’em, sock ’em robots. If either of them threw a jab, I don’t remember it. They hurled hook after hook with no pretense of defense and some roundhouse rights thrown in. Referee Ricky Gonzalez stayed out of the way which, for the most part, was good. But he let Seldin use his forearms, elbows, and shoulders on the inside more than should have been allowed. Finally, in round six, Seldin dropped Okine with a crushing left hook. Okine rose and was being pummeled against the ropes when Gonzalez appropriately stopped the bout.
Holmes didn’t see it. He was gone by then, on the seventy-mile drive back to his home in Easton, Pennsylvania. If all goes as planned, he’ll be in Saudi Arabia later this month for Tyson Fury vs. Francis Ngannou.
Thomas Hauser’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book – The Universal Sport: Two Years Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.