Larry Holmes and a Requiem for the Heavyweights
The occasion was the 40th anniversary of Larry Holmes’ winning boxing’s heavyweight championship. The location was Easton, a small town in Pennsylvania along the Delaware River in what is now sadly referred to as The Rust Belt due to the once thriving steel mills, now closed, in the neighboring towns of Bethlehem and Allentown. The latter was made famous by a Billy Joel song.
Forty years ago, in June of 1978, Larry Holmes and Ken Norton gave one of the greatest rounds in history to boxing fans. The two men were even on the judges scorecards going into the 15th round. With pure determination and the best jab in heavyweight history, Holmes prevailed and became the new heavyweight champion of the world.
Holmes, known as The Easton Assassin, is the son of a one-time Georgia sharecropper who moved his family from the deep south to the industrial northeast is hopes of a better life with more opportunities. His reign as heavyweight champion, the longest in the sport’s history, made his hometown famous the world over.
As luck would have it, the biggest opportunity for Larry Holmes came when Muhammad Ali set up his training camp in another Pennsylvania hamlet, Dear Lake. A young Holmes drove there in hopes of getting regular work as a sparring partner for The Greatest. He got the gig…and a black eye his first day on the job. He refused to have it treated by Ali’s staff so he could show his friends.
Ali taught Holmes about boxing and from observing Ali’s continually troubled finances, Holmes, who dropped out of school in the seventh grade to help support his family, learned that protecting the money earned in the ring was maybe more important than protecting yourself while in it.
In a beautifully restored hotel’s ballroom, friends, family and members of his entourage from over the decades came to celebrate and honor Larry Holmes. There were speeches by friends and speeches by politicians and Holmes was presented with the actual belt he won back in 1978. Traditionally, the vanquished champion is allowed to keep his belt with a new one issued to the new champion. It was a grand evening but something was lacking.
There was almost no talk of boxing as a sport today. A video was played with champions of many weight classes of yesterday and today wishing Larry well. Old familiar faces like Evander Holyfield and Sugar Ray Leonard resonated with the audience, but current champions were unknown to most in attendance. Like the shuttered steel mills nearby, boxing has become a relic of the past, to some. At a time when sports are overly concerned with the damage inflicted upon the human brain in helmeted collisions, a sport with a goal of punching the other guy unconscious is, well, unconscionable in the eyes of many.
The high point of the evening was a surprise appearance by none other than boxing’s greatest showman, Don King, a man who once stomped a man to death but rose to fame by promoting several Ali fights. King got a firm hold on boxing on all levels with Holmes’ stranglehold on the greatest title in sports.
The 86-year-old King made a grand entrance, wearing a denim jacket with the American flag on the back, waiving a handful of flags from random countries for reasons unknown. After posing for photos with Holmes, he took to the microphone and gave a rambling speech to and about no one in particular. Midway through, the noise from talking in the room grew louder and the thrill of his presence diminished.
As the evening wore on, Don King sat by himself at a table in the ballroom. Like the sport he had been the face of for decades, he too had become a relic of the past.
The next day began with a parade led by Holmes from the mayor’s office to The Larry and Diane Holmes Plaza, an office and retail complex built by the champ. A large crowd greeted the champ along Larry Holmes Drive, a beautiful roadway along the scenic Delaware River. Before Holmes’ development of the area, it had been derelict. Now it stands as a hub of business and a place locals are proud to show off.
Across Larry Holmes Drive from the plaza is a public pavilion and bandstand surrounded by lush greenery and blooming flowers with amazing views of the river gently passing by. The highlight of the area is the giant bronze statue of Larry Holmes, The Easton Assassin, throwing his iconic jab.
More speeches were given and Holmes sang. The party lasted until sundown when thousands gathered around a giant screen to watch highlights of his epic battle with Ken Norton four decades before.
As I looked around, I noticed that most in attendance were not themselves forty-years-old. They had not come this night to remember and commemorate a boxing match. They had come to honor and spend time with a hometown hero, a friend. Holmes never left Easton, nor did his money or his devotion. He has invested and reinvested in the town and the people who were and always have been there for him.
It may not be that long before the sport of boxing seems as absurd as gladiators do to us now. We certainly can hold out hope, otherwise, including with New Orleans native Regis Prograis. But in this little town, along this river and in this corner of the world, for ages to come, there will be a statue of a man with his arm reaching out.
The sport may become forgotten to some, but Larry Holmes, the man from Easton, will never be.
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