Holmes Rises From Ashes and Glows : Boxing: After upsetting Ray Mercer, former heavyweight champion's comeback is no laughing matter.

WASHINGTON POST

Like a lot of famous fighters who retire, Larry Holmes has been gone, but not all that far. He remains fixed in memory by an unflattering sendoff and an outrageous return.

Who could forget the onetime heavyweight champion's last night in the ring against anyone of real consequence?

When last seen on Jan. 22, 1988, Holmes was lying flat in Atlantic City, knocked out for the first time in a career that started too long ago. Mike Tyson demolished him like a building. Sitting close, you heard the crash.

Anyway, when he was finally revived and able to put one word after another in order, Holmes told the assembled media: "As we go along, someone eventually gets us. For me, it came tonight."

It sounded like goodbye.

Next came hello.

It's last April. Like a bear from winter, Holmes emerged from his home in Easton, Pa.

He stretched, shed some flab in south Florida and returned to the ring against one Tim "Doc" Anderson.

Hardly anyone would have noticed that Holmes knocked out the "Doc" in two minutes. It was the "fight" outside in the parking lot afterward that attracted the attention.

Holmes ran across the tops of two parked cars to leap on Trevor Berbick, who had made some nasty comments about Holmes. Choreographed or not, Holmes' performance became a staple among TV repeats. He had people's attention even if four more victories came over more "Doc" Andersons.

Few expected Holmes to beat the supposedly "Merciless" Ray Mercer last month. But Mercer proved to have no more movement than the Joe Louis statue in the Caesars Palace lobby, so Holmes actually was able to combine nightclub antics with boxing, such as it was -- twice he turned to a cameraman stationed on the ring apron, gestured and started saying things. He had two acts, for what they were worth, going at once.

Improbably, they were worth a fortune. He got $3 million for coming back against Tyson -- this time even more. He will gross $7 million for yet another chance to win back the heavyweight championship, this time June 19 in Las Vegas against Evander Holyfield at a scheduled 12 rounds. Only in America, Don King would say, if he had a say.

Holmes may be the perfect opponent for Foreman: accommodating in the ring because of age and inactivity and out of the ring as the best-available promoter outside of George Foreman.

"Hey, hey, hey. ... "

Holmes laughed that little laugh the other day as he signed an autograph and chatted with reporters he hadn't seen for years.

"Let's face it, I never thought I'd be coming back to fight," he said. "You guys thought I was all gone. Guess what. I did too. So what."

Everyone laughed.

Like Foreman, Holmes is determined to have fun riding the seniors boxing trail. A seventh-grade dropout, he nevertheless has managed to save much of his money, and for years has invested in buildings and property. "What I used to do every time I fought was buy something," he said with a big smile. "Now every time I fight, I sell something."

Like Foreman, Holmes has gained acceptance only lately, realistically too late to have both the title and the affection that eluded him as champion.

At 42, he finally heard the cheers he'd hoped for when he was champion from 1978 to 1985, and when he won 48 straight fights. Near the end of the Mercer fight in Atlantic City, the crowd turned wholeheartedly for him.

Holmes' good fortune in surprising Mercer, his staying power that's a match for Foreman's, Mike Tyson's life gone wrong and the few worthy opponents for Holyfield have combined to let Holmes climb back to a ring even though it almost took a fork lift to remove him after his wreckage by Tyson.

So Holmes at odds of 6-1 isn't as much of a title-fight underdog as one would have thought if one had ever thought of seeing him in such a situation again. (Only Gerry Cooney looked longer gone before he returned to the ring, only to go once more with a loud thump.)

He insisted he is in better shape now than when he fought Tyson, and promised to do more against Holyfield than Foreman did last April in losing a lopsided 12-round decision.

"I'm sharper than Foreman. I'll use my jab. I'll use body punches."

He said he'll make his punches count -- "I used to throw 80-90 punches a round; now I throw 45-50" -- while avoiding Holyfield's.

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