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Spinks, Not Holmes, Makes Boxing History : Light-Heavy Titlist Wins the Big One

Times Staff Writer

Larry Holmes stood in the middle of the ring and grew old, round by round. Finally, he was as listed in the tale of the tape, a middle-aged man on the downslide. He was 35, slowed by a visible paunch and sadly confused in the face of a younger and smaller man. Finally, after seven years as heavyweight champion, this blinking shell of a former greatness was through.

Michael Spinks, the light-heavyweight champion of the world, had gained the International Boxing Federation’s heavyweight title, scoring a unanimous and entirely unexpected 15-round decision over Holmes at the Riviera Hotel Saturday night. Even Spinks hadn’t imagined it. “I never saw myself winning this fight,” he admitted.

In doing so, however awkwardly, he created all kinds of history. Spinks, 29, became the first light-heavyweight to win a heavyweight title--eight had tried. He became the first brother to follow as such a champion--Leon Spinks had held a heavyweight title eight years ago. It was, as advertised, a “September to Remember.”

Later, Spinks’ promoter, Butch Lewis, tried to apply an even higher measure of achievement to the event. Never mind history. “These slayed the giant,” he said, holding Spinks’ gloves aloft. “Jack and the beanstalk, David and Goliath.”

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It was some, if not quite all, of that. But even so, it seemed more of an ending than a beginning.

Holmes had been denied his place in history; his quest for ring immortality ended in a forum that more dramatized his shortcomings than Spinks’ strengths. His mission--to equal and then break Rocky Maricano’s perfect record for victories by a heavyweight champion--had been halted. So he settles into retirement back in Easton, Pa., at 48-1, with no record to assure his place in history, nothing for him to recall when the waves of bitterness sweep over him, as they always do.

What was it he said after the fight? “Rocky Marciano couldn’t carry my jockstrap,” was among the comments used to profane the late champion. But factor in the disappointment. Holmes immediately apologized and then explained, “I just was looking forward to giving my people something to remember in my lifetime.”

It was not a great fight, as historic and important as it may loom in later years. The undefeated Spinks (28-0), ducking and running, never hurt Holmes, though he did hit him more than expected. And Holmes, thought weighing 221 1/2 to Spinks’ inflated 200 pounds, never damaged the blown-up light-heavyweight. Holmes continually cut off the ring, trapping Spinks in a corner or alongside the ropes. But then it was as if memory had failed him. He used to hit people in the head at this point. Yet he just stood there, blinking. There was no right hand forthcoming.

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As Holmes always has in the past after a difficult fight, he explained this failure away by Spinks’ awkwardness. “He wasn’t that strong,” he said, “he was just awkward. Styles make fights, and his was just too awkward. I couldn’t get my right hand going, just couldn’t get a shot. He was pulling away and turning, and I just couldn’t get a shot.”

Spinks didn’t do much better, but he at least did it more often. Flashing furious on occasion, he managed to win eight rounds on the cards of Dave Moretti and Harold Lederman, and 10 on judge Larry Wallace’s. His aggressive flurry in the final round actually won him the fight. Moretti and Lederman had it even until then.

Spinks said: “I rolled, and whenever he was close, I went off on him. What do you call it? An athletic fit. He likes to say he gets you drunk and then mugs you. He never got me drunk.”

Although Spinks seemed to think that he fought according to a game plan with his rolling and bobbing--"I hypnotized and mesmerized him; he must have thought I was having a fit"--he never planned such a conclusion. “I know what happened,” he said, “It just doesn’t feel like I did it. I never saw myself winning the fight.”

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Nor did Holmes, who at least went down fighting in almost every respect. There was more than his 15th-round combination, in which the familiar snap of leather evoked memories of a younger Holmes. There was his bitter and familiar tirade afterward. Responding to comments from the Marciano family, Holmes ripped into the legend, saying: “I don’t want to put him down, though I could do it easily. But I’m an old man fighting a young man, and he was a young man fighting an old man.” This was in reference to Marciano’s record-setting victory over Archie Moore, then in his late 30s.

Then Holmes attacked boxing fans, who he feels have denied him affection and respect. “Sometimes people light candles and pray for your defeat,” he said, shrugging. But, as usual, he eventually backed off the bitterness, praising both Marciano and Spinks. Of course, he respected Marciano. “You should see how many pictures of his I have hanging in my hotel,” he said. And of course, Spinks was a great fighter. “I lost my title to a great light-heavyweight champion,” Holmes said. “I’m not ashamed.”

One thing Holmes did was accept the fact that retirement from this sport was mandated. “It’s my last fight--I’m going to quit,” he said. “There will be no rematch, unless it’s with my wife. I don’t need no more boxing. I’ve made $65 million, have two Rolls-Royces paid for, I have a $6-million hotel and $99 million in the bank.”

Is that enough? Maybe if some small amount of maturity is factored in, it is. Maybe Holmes will retire to his office, to repay his family for 18 years of boxing. Maybe he can accept defeat. “I’m sorry,” he said later, “but defeat is something that comes to everyone.”

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