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Finally, a Champion Who Will Wear His Crown With a Smile

The sad thing about Larry Holmes is, he never really was the champ. Not in the sense that Jack Dempsey was. Or Joe Louis. Or Muhammad Ali.

He was one of the others. You know. The guys who held the title in between the great ones--Tommy Burns, Marvin Hart, Ezzard Charles, even Jess Willard. The whozits.

The world never forgave Larry Holmes for supplanting Muhammad Ali. But that’s all right. Holmes never forgave the world, either.

The world never forgave Gene Tunney for beating Dempsey. But Tunney didn’t care. He never wanted to be a hero to his bartender or his shoeshine boy. His stockbroker, maybe. Tunney was a snob.

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He treated his pugilistic career as if he were slumming. He sat in a corner and read Shakespeare. He didn’t date floozies and he thought Texas Guinan was vulgar.

He was an immigrant’s kid from Greenwich Village but he never cared for the sensation. He courted aristocracy. He wore the most conservative clothes, drank the finest whiskies and was never seen at a lunch counter or a subway in his life. He went by yacht or private car whenever he could.

But he was a great fighter, Tunney was, the most underrated of his time. He lost only one fight but he avenged that four times over, and on his good nights he never even got his hair mussed.

Guys who fought him weren’t sure what he looked like. He engineered a fight like a guy building a bridge. People only remember Dempsey had him down. They forget Dempsey was down when that fight ended.

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Larry Holmes was a good fighter, but he never added the grace note. I used to think his trouble was that he tried to imitate Muhammad Ali but didn’t have the background for it.

The name-calling, the boasting, spouting and outrageous comment that came from Ali with a twinkle in the eye and was forgivable and seemed like good clean fun sounded sour and mean-spirited from Holmes. Ali was a lovable con man. Ali could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge. Holmes couldn’t sell you bread in a famine.

Holmes made his graceless exit on a typical down note the other night. He fingered the late champion, Rocky Marciano, whose record he just missed breaking but who never did him a bad turn in his life, and he turned on Rocky’s brother for saying some things he said when he was just trying to do what he was paid to do, hype the gate. Holmes doesn’t always understand things.

He isn’t a bad man by society’s lights. He’s good to his family, he has saved his money, he is not a barroom bully. He just never got the hang of being a champion. He had none of the bigness about him that the part requires. Dempsey was Champ till the day he died. So was Louis. Ali fit the role like Barrymore doing Hamlet.

Holmes wasn’t a bad fighter. He couldn’t really hit. He could take it. He made his fight with his left hand, his reach was ballistic, and the opposition was just a bunch of truck drivers and stevedores who would have had trouble getting out of the way of a glacier. Still, he got cuffed around plenty. He was as easy to hit as the ground.

His 49th fight looked like a soft touch, even for a guy who has fought the likes of Lorenzo Zanon and Randy (Tex) Cobb, of late, not to mention David Bey, who was just more formidable than Turhan. It wasn’t.

Michael Spinks, the new champ, is a nice enough young guy who would probably help old ladies across the street, start a fire with two sticks and take his hat off in crowded elevators. History is never going to resent him as the man who beat Larry Holmes, or the champ who isn’t Larry Holmes. He’s not going to go down as the man who shot Santa Claus.

The first thing Michael did was not attack the memory of a past champion and his family but to thank God. He’s a genial man with a warm sense of humor. He is one of the five young Olympians--the others are his brother, Leon, and the lighter boxers, Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis and Leo Randolph--who did so much for boxing, and for America, with their deportment and success at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where they won hearts as well as medals.

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The champ who isn’t Larry Holmes isn’t Muhammad Ali, either. And, in the ring, he isn’t Joe Louis. He not only hasn’t supplanted a legend, he won’t be one, either.

He’s a scuffler, Michael Spinks. A workingman’s champion. A nice kid who smiles a lot. You’re hard put to put a finger on what he does best in the ring. Stay alive, I guess. He’s without pretensions. He wasn’t even supposed to be the best fighter in his own family. He was the other Spinks. Leon’s brother. Now, Leon is his brother. Michael thinks it’s kind of funny.

He may not last any longer than paper plates. But he’s not a fistfighter locked in a cage of his own sour hostility. The crowd rejoiced for him Saturday night. “Michael! Michael!” they cheered, as if he were a cleanup hitter hoping for a fastball.

He’s a champion who’ll enjoy the title, wear it with a smile, not a scowl. That’ll be nice for a change. Michael Spinks will never be that sad character, the man who beat the good old champ. But the guy who beats Spinks may qualify.


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