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BGS: An Advanced Game of Tag

And so, here is the fourth of Pete Dexter’s columns on the Cobb-Holmes fight. It appears here with the author’s permission.

(Click here for Part One, Two and Three.)

“An Advanced Game of Tag”

By Pete Dexter

Monday, November 29, 1982

HOUSTON – The tap on the door came at 6 o’clock in the morning. I knew it was 6 o’clock because there was a clock on the dresser, next to a copy of the Bible, and I’d been lying in bed since 2 o’clock looking at it.

The phone had rung all night, friends from Philly and Montana and Tennessee telling me that Howard Cosell had painted Randall Cobb as some kind of a freak of nature on national television.

I didn’t know what to say, except it would catch up with Howard later. I did mention that it was a measure of Howard’s depth that he has no trouble enunciating the bravery of television actors who compete, despite pulled muscles, in a tug of war in ” Battle of the Network Stars,” and couldn’t see any of that in staying in the ring with Larry Holmes for 15 rounds.

Yes, Randall took a pounding.

No, he didn’t quit. The only other man Holmes has failed to knock out since he became champion was Trevor Berbick, but – as Holmes would tell me later in the day – Berbick wasn’t fighting, he was just trying to survive. “Fifteen rounds, after all the shots,” Holmes would say, sounding like he was remembering it from a long time ago, “Cobb was still tryin’ to win the fight. He fought me harder than anybody. ”

I got up off the bed and opened the door. “I knew an ambitious young businessman like yourself would be an early riser,” he said, coming in. “All of us are early risers.” One of his eyes was swollen half shut, there were six small stitches in the lid of the other one. He sat down on the bed and looked out the window at the Astrodome. It was still raining in Houston, as far as I knew it always had been.

“Are you hurt?” I said. I’d walked with him back to the dressing room after the fight, but I left when he and his trainer George Benton started talking about the next one. I think a lot of George Benton, but I didn’t want to hear about any more fighting then.

“It looks a lot worse than it is,” he said. “I don’t know why, usually it’s worse than it looks. No, I’m fine, except my ears. “Randall always gets an ear infection after a fight. He hit himself on the side of his head, like a kid who has been in a swimming pool.

I said, “If something comes dripping out of there I’m going to lock myself in the bathroom.”

He smiled and looked at the television. I’d left it on, trying to sleep. It was a Kung Fu rerun, David Carradine remembering the advice of his old dime- eyed teacher on how to disarm a troop of drunk and insensitive American cavalry troops. “You must listen to the color of the sky,” he said,” and see the sound of the hummingbird’s wing. ”

“You think I need a blind trainer?” he said.

“He did have a right hand,” I said, meaning Holmes.

“I didn’t think it was that fast,” he said. He looked out the window again. “I didn’t think he was that good. It was like an advanced game of tag in there. “And then a few minutes later, “Larry is a bad bitch in a game of tag.”

There was a tiny, unstitched cut about an inch under his left eye, where so many of the right hands had landed, and as he spoke it leaked watery blood down his cheek. The cut must have gone all the way into a tear duct, and his face, on that side, was streaked with two long, bloody tears.

“Did I tell you about Hagerman, New Mexico?” he said. “Me and my brother Marty dug ditches there for the high school gymnasium one summer. The dirt was so hard you couldn’t dig it without a pick, the hottest dirt in the world. You couldn’t walk on it with bare feet. I know, I tried and Marty had to come save me, pick me up.

“And every morning three members of the city council were out there, looking down into the ditch where me and Marty were digging. It would be 102 degrees by 8 o’clock, going to 114. And the first one would always say, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the second one would say, ‘Whatchu doin’? ‘

“And me and Marty were so competitive, we’d stand out there all day, tryin’ to see who could shovel more dirt, watchin’ each other so you could say, ‘Ha! I shoveled four of these while you only shoveled three. ‘And the water had the worst taste of anyplace I ever been. It was something in the ground, gave everybody in town gas. You can imagine what the town smelled like.

“And when me and Marty complained about the water, they always said, ‘You keep diggin’, and it’ll taste good.’” He dabbed at the blood on his face. ” The city council’s probably still there,” he said. “Gettin’ together right now over at the gym, and one of them says, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the other one says, ‘Whatchu doin’?’ And they all stand around, passing the worst gas in North America, wondering how come the town doesn’t grow. ”

He looked back out the window again. I got some coffee and Cokes from room service, and we sat like that in the room until noon, talking about Larry Holmes’ right hand and Hagerson, New Mexico, and what could have been underneath it to make the dirt so hot and the water so bad.

At noon I had to leave to get a plane back to Philly. He said he was thinking of taking a look at Australia.

“Are you hurt?” I said.

He shook his head no. “It was just an advanced game of tag,” he said, “and Larry won.” A fresh bloody tear came out of the cut underneath his eye and worked its way down his face.

He said, “Damn, I wish he’d wanted to fight.”

BGS: Randall’s Serious

Here is third of four Dexter columns on the Cobb-Holmes fight (you can find the first two: here and here). This story is reprinted with the author’s permission.

“Randall’s Serious”

By Pete Dexter

Friday, November 26, 1982

HOUSTON – Howard Cosell came through the hotel lobby yesterday morning, complaining about being away from his family at Thanksgiving. Randall Cobb’s fight with Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world was clearly an inconvenience.

The news of Howard’s inconvenience was relayed to Randall through one of the national reporters also here to cover the fight. “Howard’s upset to be away from his family,” one of them said.

Randall looked up from under the hood of his boxing robe and nodded. “I know,” he said,” I got a thank-you note from his wife this morning. ”

That night, one of those reporters came to me in the hotel bar and asked when Randall was going to get serious. “He’s funny,” the reporter said,” everybody loves him, but when does he get ready? That’s Larry Holmes he’s got to fight, and Larry’s serious…”

Randall is serious.

He is as solid as I’ve ever seen him before a fight. There are no questions left in him, about himself or Holmes, and a kind of peace has set in that lets him smile at the distractions.

And the distractions aren’t just the prospects of fighting Larry Holmes. As Randall has become more valuable, more and more people have become interested in guiding his career.

As far as I know, there are two basic factions trying to eliminate each other from his affections, and factions within the factions trying to eliminate each other too. There are rumors of bugged rooms and spies and thieves.

The thieves, of course, are not rumors, they are facts.

There is serious trouble with the contract, which promoter Don King has amended because Randall showed up in Houston a week late – not for the fight, for publicity. King, of course, has been concerned enough about publicity to spend, oh, $20 on promotion, and allow the month of November to start without having set a final date for the fight.

His amendment is going to cost Randall several hundred thousand dollars.

Then there are reporters and television interviews and hundreds of people who want to touch Randall, or tell him something, or take pictures of their 3- year-old sons sitting on his lap. Everybody wants something.

And Randall sits alone and holds babies and signs autographs – and no matter how many times the people around him say, “We’re ready,” or ” We’re going to kill Holmes,” Randall is still going to step into the ring by himself – and he handles it.

Yes, he is serious.

And watching it happen, it occurs to me that I want something, too. I keep going back to the mornings at Mickey Rosati’s gym. Two or three mornings a week, Randall and I and Arthur Bourgeau used to meet there, and Randall would work three or four rounds with Arthur and then three or four rounds with me.

Work may be a little strong. He’d play with both of us, keeping enough pressure on to make it serious. In the end, I’d be too tired to take my own gloves off.

He’d wait until I felt better, and then we’d go over to the little coffee shop at 18th and McKean and read the newspapers or talk with Mickey, and for an hour or two nobody wanted anything from us. For an hour or two, it was peaceful.

And after that, everything else seemed easier. It was like a fresh start.

And sitting here on a rainy Thanksgiving Day in a hotel across the street from the Astrodome, I could use a fresh start. It’s all slow- motion now.

The old men and the sparring partners are always in the lobby, waiting forever. The line of people following Randall into the weigh-in seems longer than it was when he came in for interviews yesterday afternoon, more reporters come in by the hour. And across the street, the Astrodome is as gray as the sky, and it seems to hover there, always on the edge of your vision, like the fight itself.

And I wish that somehow we could go to Mickey Rosati’s gym tomorrow morning, and afterwards to the coffee shop, and sit there for an hour or two reading the papers, and have nobody wanting anything from any of us again.

And maybe then I could tell him what I have on my mind, that it doesn’t matter what happens against Larry Holmes, that the people who care for him don’t depend on him or what he does for who they are.

He already knows that, of course, but I wish I could say it anyway – not blurt it out, but just sit around until it came out – and let him know once, before it all changes, how happy it made me, the way it was.

[Photo Credit: Marco Rubio Jr.]

BGS: Gifts Aren’t Everything

Here’s the second of four columns by Pete Dexter on Randall Cobb’s championship fight against Larry Holmes. (The first one is here.) Reprinted with the author’s permission…

Dig in.

“Gifts Aren’t Everything”

By Pete Dexter

Wednesday, November 24, 1982

HOUSTON – On the last day of work before he meets Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world, Randall Cobb sparred three rounds with a light heavyweight named Charlie Singleton and then spent 10 or 15 minutes jumping rope.

I can’t tell you exactly how long because Randall jumping rope is something I can’t make myself watch. I don’t know why, but rope doesn’t fit under his feet.

As Charlie Singleton says, “Maybe Tex don’t have all the natural gifts. He didn’t get no fast left hand like Larry, he didn’t get no bouncy legs. ”

But as Charlie Singleton also says, “Maybe he got some gifts that was more subtle, and maybe he got some gifts that he give himself.”

For natural gifts, all you have to do is look at the undercard for Friday’s fight. Greg Page versus James “Quick” Tillis. Leg speed, hand speed, reflexes. You can’t help thinking of the destruction Randall could do with that stuff. Tillis, as a matter of fact, not only jumps rope, he does rope tricks. In fact right after the workout, he lassoed Randall’s trainer and then Inquirer sports writer Thom Greer.

Quick Tillis always carries a pink lasso.

But impressive as that is, Quick Tillis gave away his shot against WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver last year when he got in the ring and refused to get close enough to Weaver to throw punches.

And Page took himself out of consideration for a championship fight about the same time, saying he wasn’t ready, and then proved it by losing to a Canadian named Trevor Berbick on the undercard of the Holmes/Gerry Cooney fight earlier this year.

Berbick doesn’t have even as many natural gifts as Randall.

So in boxing, like anyplace else, gifts aren’t everything, and the kind you give yourself are the ones that matter most, at least at this level.
Which is not to say Randall Cobb doesn’t have physical tools. He does, but – as Charlie Singleton puts it – they’re subtle. He is stronger than any heavyweight in the top 10, and he may have the best chin in the history of boxing. And while he doen’t have a single big punch, he is what is called heavy handed.

“Sometime you box with him a round or two, the punches don’t stun you,” Charlie said,” they just feel heavy. I mean like somebody put a weight on you every time they land. It don’t matter if it’s on the arm or the shoulder, it still has that weight.

“And you don’t think he’s hurt you, and then after ’bout four rounds, suddenly you can’t move no more. He throws that nice relaxed way, it don’t look like nothin’, and then suddenly it’s broke you up inside. ”

The reason Randall is fighting Larry Holmes, though, isn’t his chin and it isn’t his strength. He’s gotten where he is because he tries. “He got that heart,” Charlie said.

Holmes has some of that too. And one of the best jabs in history, and a good right hand. He doesn’t have anything that can take Randall out, though, and Randall won’t be waiting for him to set up and throw his punches. And Holmes has always needed time to set up.

And in the end that’s what it will come down to. Time and heart. And those aren’t things that you’re given, they are things that you make for yourself.

Holmes doesn’t believe Randall can throw 100 punches a round for more than four rounds.

Randall does believe it. And that is something he has given himself too. He believes he will win this fight, and he believes in things harder than other people do. I have known him a long time, and that’s the way he is.

He believes it now, and he will believe it going into the 10th round, or the 12th, or however long the fight goes. By that time Larry Holmes will have hit him with everything he can hit him with, he will have tried every trick he knows, and most of them will have worked.

And someplace in the fight – maybe deep into the fight – Holmes will begin to feel the weight of that belief, and finally, as Mr. Singleton says, he will realize he’s broke up inside.

And someplace in the fight, Larry Holmes will come to believe it too.

BGS: Cobb Refuses to be the Retiring Kind

We’ve got a special week of Dexter for you–four columns he wrote about his friend Randall “Tex” Cobb when Cobb fought against Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship. Each day for the rest of the week we’ll feature a column and next Monday there’ll be a long Q&A with Pete to celebrate the paperback edition of his non-fiction collection, Paper Trails.

Originally published in The Philadelphia Daily News this piece appears here with the author’s permission.

Enjoy.

“Cobb Refuses to be the Retiring Kind”

By Pete Dexter

Tuesday, November 23, 1982

 

The first time I ever brought up the subject of retirement, Randall Cobb had just stopped Earnie Shavers in the eighth round of a fight that ruined appetites all over Detroit. He’d broken Shavers’s jaw with a short left uppercut, but before that happened he and Earnie had stood in the middle of the ring 7 1/2 rounds throwing punches. There could have been six or seven that missed, but I didn’t see them.

We were sitting in the dressing room; Randall was sucking down Coca-Colas. His face looked exactly the way a face is supposed to look after Earnie Shavers has been beating on it half the night, and the sound of the inevitable throwing up afterward still hung in the air.

The dressing rooms in Detroit have the best acoustics in the world.

He looked over at me with that one eye he could still look out of and said, “You feeling better now?” And, while I’m admitting here that it wasn’t Randall who threw up, I would also like to point out that it wasn’t Randall who had to watch the fight.

His body was rope-burned and turning black and blue, and the end of his nose was red like he was four days into a bad cold. I said, “I wish you wouldn’t fight Earnie Shavers anymore.”

“I absolutely promise,” he said.

But I meant more than Earnie Shavers, and later that night, back at the hotel, he tried to relieve me of my obligations. He said, ” I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but if you can’t watch it, then don’t.”

I took that the wrong way, of course. I’d only known Randall a year then, but it could have just as soon been my own brother in there, as far as not watching went. He said he understood that. “I know it isn’t easy watching somebody you love fight Earnie Shavers,” he said.

I said, “It’d be a damn sight easier if somebody would keep his hands up.”

And that’s as much talking we did then about retiring. Randall had made $75,000 or $80,000 for that fight, and he was on the way up. He’d taken Shavers on short notice after Gerry Cooney had backed out of the fight – if Cooney hadn’t backed out, by the way, he never would have ended up in the ring with Larry Holmes earlier this year for $10 million. A lot of people saw Randall that night, and liked what they saw.

And a lot of people didn’t.

In the bars, they told me Randall couldn’t fight at all. Guys still bragging about five amateur fights 20 years ago went out of their way to tell me all the things Randall couldn’t do. They said any decent South Philly street fighter would kill him, they said he better get a job driving a truck while he still could.

I never said much back. When they talked about him getting hurt, I thought about it. The difference was, they didn’t care.

The first fight he lost was against Ken Norton, a split decision in San Antonio, Texas. He walked into the hardest single punch I’ve ever seen that night, a straight right hand that Norton threw from the bottom of his heart.

I can close my eyes and still see Randall’s face in the half-second after it landed. For that little time, he was lost. He was coming forward when it hit him, and for half a second he stopped.

Then he went back to work, and in the dressing room afterward I heard Norton tell him, “You beat the bleep out of me, man.” Norton had fought his best fight since the night he lost his title to Larry Holmes. He’d been braver and stronger than he’d been in four years.

It had been that way with Shavers, too, and later it would be that way against Bernardo Mercardo. I have seen Mercardo quit in his corner when he was winning, but against Randall he stayed there 10 rounds, taking one of the worst body beatings I’ve ever seen.

We talked about that after every one of them. After Mercardo I said, “You know, you’re giving them something out there. You spend the whole round proving they can’t hurt you, you throw 150 punches to their 25, and then at the end of the round, just when they’re sure you’re not human, you pat them on the ass and give them something to come out with in the next round. You’re taking away their fear. ”

“It’s a bad habit, all right,” he said. And in his next fight, at the bell ending the fourth round against Jeff Shelburg earlier this year – a round in which he landed at least 100 punches – I heard him say this: ” Hang in there, Jeff. After this is over we’re going to go out and get drunk. ”

Between Mercardo and Shelburg, of course, there was supposed to be a fight with WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver. That fell through in December, when a kid with a tire iron broke his arm. He was standing over my body at the time, fighting off a lot of kids with tire irons and baseball bats.

I was already unconscious – hit five or six times square in the head – and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what would have happened if he’d left me. And it doesn’t matter how good you are in a fight, if you see 25 or 30 people coming at you with bats and crowbars and reinforced iron, you’ve got to think about leaving.

When I woke up he was shouting, “If he’s dead, every one of you is dead, too.” And it must have scared them off – it scared me – because the next thing I knew he was picking me up.

He said, “Pete?”

I said, “Any time you’re ready to leave . . .” They’d broken one of my hips and the leg attached to it wouldn’t move. I said, “Randall, this leg won’t move.”

He said, “We don’t have time for that leg not to move.” And somehow he got me in the truck and drove me to the hospital. He never said anything about his arm.

On the way, we talked things over. There was blood and swelling everywhere. It was a lot like a dressing room. I said, “You know, we could of planned this better.”

He said that Gen. George Pickett had planned it better at Gettysburg.

There is one other thing he said that night that stays in my mind. It was when the place was filling up with baseball bats and tire irons, and all of a sudden you could see how many of them there were, and what they meant to do, and how bad the night was going to turn out.

He leaned over to me and said, “I hope that’s the softball team.”

He lost his first chance with Weaver over that, and his second chance when Weaver hurt his back, and his third chance when he got cut in training a few days before the fight.

And I was sure he would beat Weaver, but the fight scared me. I was in Knoxville the night Weaver took the title from John Tate, and 10 minutes after Weaver had knocked him out, they brought Tate out of the ring, hidden in the middle of 10 or 15 of his people.

Tate’s eyes were open, he seemed to be talking, but then I looked down and saw the toes of his shoes dragging along the floor. John Tate was never the same after that fight, and I wasn’t interested in seeing Randall prove he could take the same shots and beat Weaver anyway. And that’s what he would have done.

And that’s what he’ll do against Holmes. He’ll take the jabs and the right hands, and then he’ll throw jabs and right hands back, mostly to the body. Two and three punches to one. And in the eighth or ninth round, I think Larry Holmes will lose his title.

And Randall probably will be cut, and I’ll be throwing up in the dressing room, and the guys still bragging about five amateur fights from 20 years ago will turn away from the television set at the bar and tell each other he still can’t fight.

I guess it doesn’t need to be pointed out here that the damage a punch does comes partly when it lands and partly later, when it accumulates with the other punches. The accumulation goes on as long as you keep getting hit, and sometimes it catches up with you and sometimes it doesn’t.

I don’t want to be there if it ever catches up with Randall Cobb. I remember that fractured moment when he was lost after Norton hit him with the right hand, and the only thing that saves me from that moment is remembering that half a second later he was all right.

I don’t want to be there to see him lost again, but I will be if it happens. As long as he wants to fight, I’ll be there. Not because he didn’t leave me one night last December, not because he needs me there – he doesn’t.

I’ll be there because it can’t be as bad watching him fight as it would be, being too afraid to watch.

[Photo Via: The Minimalisto]

The Banter Gold Standard: The Impression

On Monday, we ran Pete Dexter’s Inside Sports piece on Larry Holmes. Here is Dexter’s short article on the Holmes-Ali fight, reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“The Impression”

By Pete Dexter

When I heard Ali had agreed to fight Holmes, the first thought I had was that Ali would be killed. The punch was five years gone, his hand speed had been mediocre over his last half dozen fights, and he’d been getting hit by people like Leon Spinks.

I didn’t see that two years in the pasture could have helped any of that. What figured to be left to him, at almost 39 years old, was the chin. Enough to keep him up a long time after he should go down.

The second thought I had was that I didn’t want to see it happen, and even if there was enough grace in that night to make me wrong once, there was nothing in it to make me wrong twice. And if the talk afterwards’ about thyroid pills and a fight with Mike Weaver is more than talk, I won’t be there. Ali might take the chance again. I won’t.

I couldn’t watch it again. Ali without his talent, growing old in one long night, people everywhere without words, growing old with him. In the casino you see Ray Robinson posing in pictures with people who remember him—you can’t imagine Ali like that.

YOU WOULD not imagine Ali like this either: standing in front of Larry Holmes all night, eyes swollen, throwing no punches and once, after catching a terrible right hand, turning away in the ring.

Holmes had come into the fight in the best shape of his life—maybe he had believed the talk of a miracle a little bit, too. He began with energy and something close to hate, but after the second round he walked back to his comer wearing a different expression. “I knew what that look was,” Richie Giachetti would say later. Giachetti is Holmes’ trainer/manager. “We’d found out he didn’t have nothin’ left, and he was too old, and Larry was askin’ himself, ‘Do I really want this?’ All this time he was talkin’ himself into fightin’ Ali and now it’s here, he knows he’s got it won and the look on his face, it was just no expression at all. Usually he’d be happy or excited or somethin’, but the second round on. it was no nothin’ there.

AFTER THE fifth round, Angelo Dundee threatened to stop the fight. It is the eighth round, though, that keeps coming back. It was like a dream that wouldn’t move. Ali lost in ringside smoke, leaning deep into the ropes, moving his hands in slow motion. The rinse washing out of his hair, going gray in front of my eyes … it seemed to last half an hour. Ali without his speed or a punch or his legs, without his mirrors, clearly without his miracle. Nobody to tell him he was pretty; nobody left to believe it could happen.

Standing because he would not let himself go down.

When Dundee finally stopped it after the tenth, Holmes came across the ring crying and hugged Ali. “I love you,” he ‘said.

An hour later he went to Ali’s suite and found him lying face down on his exercise table. “Please promise me,” Holmes said. “Promise me you won’t fight no more.”

It ‘was quiet, then Ali spoke, “Holmmm-z,” he said, “I want Holmes.”

The next morning Dundee was sitting in his room, answering the phone, drinking coffee. “I didn’t do good business last night. It was a horrible night. I seen an Ali, couldn’t do nothing. He just wasn’t there.”

He shook his head. “I hope he don’t fight again, but you know I don’t tell him what to do. Nobody does.”

In the end you have to admire that. He had an extraordinary talent. He had a talent as rare, in a way, as Robert Frost’s or Picasso’s. And a talent like that, I think, is always ahead of the man who has it. It leads him, it takes him places other people can’t go. And even when he understands what it does, he doesn’t necessarily know what it is.

But he had the courage to use it, to follow it, and when it left him standing in the ring, alone with the best heavyweight fighter in the world, he had courage for that, too. And one way or another—unless you’re Robert Frost or Picasso—that happens, because growing old is losing talent.

For a long time, Larry Holmes didn’t want the fight. Giachetti never wanted it. Don King, who would pick Joe Louis out of his wheelchair and feed him to Roberto Duran if the money were right, talked Holmes into it.

King told Holmes that he had been living in Ali’s shadow too long. Giachetti told him the shadow was there, and as shadows go it wasn’t bad.

“Nobody who really knows Ali can say anything bad about him,” Giachetti said. “Nobody wants to see him hurt. We knock him out, they say he’s an old man. We don’t, Larry’s a bum. It’s a no-win situation.”

Holmes listened to King. And in the way you sometimes do when you’re unsure, Holmes denied the part of himself that said he cared about Ali. And as the fight got closer, he came to believe Ali had taken something from him. “I don’t care. if he gets hurt,” he said. “He been denyin’ me my just dues all this time. The man hypnotizes everybody, he don’t hypnotize me. I know him better than he knows himself. There’ll be no mercy in there for him. He either gets knocked out or he gets hurt.” And there was hate in that.

GIACHETTI FORGOT his reservations and got Holmes ready. “It’s comin’ down to a head job now,” he said. That was two weeks before the fight, and from then until the fight itself he kept Holmes away from Ali. “Nobody beats Ali at talkin’,” Giachetti said. “It’s his game. He says the same old things, but everybody still loves to hear it. It’s like ‘Moon River.’” So he brought Holmes to the weigh-in early. He refused to let his fighter pose with Ali for pictures. But Ali was always there.

After. his afternoon workouts, Holmes would take the microphone and ask the audience to believe he would beat him. “The old man has made a mistake. Porky gone crazy, fightin’ me. I could kick his ass back in 1974 when I was his sparring partner, and he never gave me my just dues….” It would go on too long, get awkward. Holmes being Ali, at the same time saying things from his heart.

“If I lose, I’ll retire. People will say I wasn’t ever nothin’ if this sucker beats me I’d have to go hide.”

On September 15, a kid named Gary Wells tried to jump over the water fountain at Caesars on his motorcycle, the same jump that almost killed Eve! Knievel.

AN HOUR before the jump, Ali was sitting in bed, watching the Holmes-Weaver fight on the Betamax. As it moved into the later rounds Ali walked into a closet. There was a tray there with 30 different kinds of pills—that and a scale. He sorted out eight or 10 to eat with breakfast. He said, “I will tell you something. I believe I am on a mission from God. I pray five times a day, it’s 60 per cent of my power. Holmes out drinkin’ wine, gamblin’, how can he beat me?”

I asked if he had liked Holmes when he was a sparring partner. Ali looked at me to see if I was serious.

“I like him now,” he said.

By the time Ali got out of the closet, Holmes had knocked Weaver out, and Truman Capote was bragging to Phil Donahue that he’d ruined Jack Kerouac’s career. Ali watched a few minutes. “This is a messed up world,” he said.

He stood up and looked out the window. The crowd was already waiting for the kid on the motorcycle. Ali had met him earlier. He had shook the kid’s hand and said, “You crazy.” The kid had liked that. A reporter asked if Ali would watch the jump.

“I don’t want to see nobody get his head ripped off,” he said. “They encourage him, but I know what people want to see when they watch somethin’ like that.”

He looked at himself in the mirror again and then laid down. On some unspoken signal, the old Cuban who rubs him down closed the curtains and the room was as dark as the night, and the reflection—the proof of the miracle—was gone with the sun. “As sure as you hear my voice,” Ali said, “you and l will both die.”

An hour later I was lying in my room when I heard the crowd and knew the kid hadn’t made it. The crowd, then the sirens. I thought of Ali, alone in his room.

The Banter Gold Standard: Seven Scenes From The Life of a Quiet Champ

This week gives Dexter because, well, do we really need an excuse for more Dexter?

Let’s start with this 1980 Inside Sports profile of Larry Holmes written before the Holmes/Ali fight.  It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“Seven Scenes From The Life of A Quiet Champ”

By Pete Dexter

“I don’t ever want to fight Ali. Ali’s a legend, I’m hoping he retires. It would be a lot of money [for an Ali fight], but money isn’t everything. When Ali dies, people going to remember him being more than a fighter…”

“To me, Ali’s a great man. I can’t say anything bad about him. When I was his sparring partner, he paid me and took me al over the world. I was a kid sparring with Ali in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he gave me a black eye. People tried to put ice on it, but I was going to knock them out. I was proud of it…”

“Ever since people known who I am, they been comparing me to Ali. They say I stole his style. It used to bother me, but now it doesn’t. I just smile and thank them and take it as the compliment it is.”
–Larry Holmes in various 1978 interviews

Easton, Pennsylvania. The sandwich is hurt bad but will not go down. It is a turkey sandwich—turkey and bacon and lettuce with rusty edges, leaking mayonnaise everywhere.

Larry Holmes is having trouble with the style. He checks one side, then the other, cuts off the escape routes with his fingers. He bites down, the meat slides out the back. The champion pulls away, his mouth full of mayonnaise, A terrible welt shows on the sandwich. “God-damn,” he says, “this is the kind of sandwich you think the heavyweight champion of the world be eatin’?”

I have to admit it, no. I’ve seen better looking lettuce coming out of a rabbit. Larry peels back the bread and scrapes the mayonnaise with his straw. “A world champion,” he says, “scrapin’ mayonnaise off his own sandwich.”

A month before the sandwich, there was 254-pound Leroy Jones, who presented the same problem. Too much mayonnaise to find the meat. Jones was Holmes’ 34th win without a loss, his 25th knockout, his sixth straight in defense of his WBC title.

The phone rings. Holmes manages to get it to his ear without using his thumb and first three fingers. It is Charlie Spaziani, his lawyer, with news of a woman in Cleveland who is saying that her four-year-old child has a heavyweight champion of the world for a daddy. The wet fingers wrap around the phone.

“What? In Cleveland? And she just comin’ around now? … Well, I’d like to keep it to maybe two dollars a week, ’cause I don’t know nothin’ about it.”

Holmes hangs up and looks at the sandwich. “I never heard they had sexual intercourse in Cleveland. I’ll tell you the truth, a man can’t win when it comes to the system.” He looks at his watch. “Right now it’s  quarter to one on Wednesday afternoon. If the woman go to the judge and say, ‘Pete got me pregnant at quarter to one, Wednesday afternoon,’ they goin’ to believe her. So you get me and nine witnesses to go down to the court with you, say you was talking to me at quarter to one, and nine times out of ten they ain’t goin’ to believe you anyway.” He thinks it over. “You wasn’t in Cleveland four years ago, were you?”

Which brings the champion’s attention back to the sandwich. He picks it up and decides it isn’t something he wants to eat after all. It isn’t something he wants to look at either. He moves it to a far spot on the desk, covers it with a napkin. In the end, all you can really say about it is that it lasted longer than Leroy Jones.

Larry picks up the rest of the napkin to wipe off his fingers and a cashier’s check for $100,000 comes up off the desk with them. It is the check that he and Richie Giachetti went to New York for the day before. The check that says his schedule fight with Ali will happen.

Ali, the man Holmes had said he never wanted to fight. He had been Ali’s sparring partner, and he had watched him and learned from him. He had called him his idol for the newspapers. He had been on the undercard in Manila, had seen the act of will Ali—who was already beyond his prime—past Joe Frazier. And as Holmes developed and Ali’s skills faded, a point had to come when Holmes knew he was the better fighter. But it was still Ali, and there was still something there that Holmes didn’t have, and never would.

Richie Giachetti is Larry Holmes’ manager and trainer. He is his friend. He has been with the 30-year-old Holmes eight years, and he doesn’t like the Ali fight at all. “I’ll do my job,” he will say later. “It’s $4 million, but anyway you look at it, Ali gets knocked out or hurt. [Don] King keeps talkin’ to Larry about gettin’ out of Ali’s shadow. Did Marciano get out of Joe Louis’ shadow, knockin’ out an old man? The shadow is there, and as shadows go, it’s not too bad….”

The way it comes out all at once, you know it’s something Giachetti has said before, probably to Holmes on the way to New York. Holmes shuts it off.

“Ali was yesterday, I am today. I been in his shadow too long, it’s time to come out. No, the fight don’t bother me. A fight is a fight. I don’t care if he got hurt, I can’t care. You care, that’s when you get hurt your own self.” It is as deep a disagreement as he and Giachetti have had, and something between them now feels wrong and unsettled.

Larry walks the check down to the bank, waving at every other car on the street. A school bus stops and the children pinch the windows down to yell they saw him on Channel 6 last night. Later, in the car, he drives past the project where he grew up, into the part of town he calls high society. He lives there, one of three or four black families in a white neighborhood. He says; “I understand where I’m from, and I wouldn’t live nowhere else.”

The car is a long, white Cadillac with silver buckles over the trunk and a gold-plated nameplate built into the dashboard. Forty-eight thousand dollars list price, but Larry says he got a deal. The tape in the stereo is a song about the champ and it sounds like there must be 40 speakers. “They sendin’ a guy up from Philly to paint my name on the door,” he says.

At the parking lot outside St. Anthony’s Youth Center, where Holmes learned to box and still works out, a middle-aged woman carrying a bag of groceries stands at the window two minutes, taking it all in. “My,” she says. “My, my.” Larry is talking economy to a television cameraman, saying he looked at the car for a year before he bought it, and doesn’t hear what the woman says before she leaves. She says, “That’s real cute.”

In the car again. Larry is talking about the old days, 11 brothers and sisters, no father to support them. He and his friends took gloves into the bars and fought each other so the men there would buy them hamburgers.

He talks about his mother, Flossie, and it makes you remember how deep worries went before you were old enough to understand what they were about, worries you couldn’t talk about then because you didn’t understand, and can’t talk about now because you understand them too well.

“Larry Holmes is a survivor,” he says. “No matter what happen to me, I’ll get by. I go back to work in the steel mills or to Jet Car Wash if I had to, I’d make out. My wife love me, my babies love me—what can happen to that?

“When I was a kid, I wasn’t tight with nobody. I’m still that way. I liked to stay home, just be in the house.

“George Foreman, they say he was scared to be alone in the dark. People say, how could somebody big and strong like that be ‘fraid to stay in his own house with the lights out? I could understand that. I know how it is, you got to have feelings with people.” He looks over and smiles. “I
ain’t scared of the dark….”

And a few minutes later, “I heard George got religion now, bought him his own church.”

Late afternoon. Earnie Shavers has flown into Easton to be part of tomorrow’s second annual “Run With the Champ” five-mile race. Eight years ago, Holmes was Shavers’ sparring partner, and they have been friends through two fights with each other.

Everybody in the Holmes’ camp is wearing Sasson jeans. They are dark jeans with white stitches, officially endorsed by the champion, who can’t wear them because they don’t come with room for his thighs.

They don’t come with room for Earnie’s thighs either.

Giachetti and Holmes and Shavers and two carloads of people—lawyers, trainers, brothers—head over to a shop called New York Tailors to find Earnie a pair of jeans.

“Whatever he wants, put it on my bill,” Larry says.

The shopkeeper shakes hands with Shavers. “You don’t look as big as you do on television,” he says.

Earnie tries on one pair after another, starting with all the 34s, and is working into the 36s now, trying to find something with thigh room. “Try them 38′s,” Larry says. Earnie disappears into a dressing room with a pair of 38s. When he comes out, they are still skin-tight around his legs and he has gathered a handful belt loops at the waist.

“These are close,” he says.

The man from New York Tailors hands him another stack and Earnie goes back into the dressing room. Giachetti says anybody who works out all the time and doesn’t drink can’t expect to fit into clothes. Years before Holmes, he managed Earnie Shavers.

“When me and Earnie was fightin’ last year,” Larry says, Earnie was taken a terrible punishment and I tol’ him, I said, ‘Earnie, Earnie, don’t be takin’ all these shots.’ All says is, “C’mon man, fight.” He had blood comin’ all down his mouth, and I was still thinkin’ about that when he hit me the right hand….”

The right-hand knocked Holmes down it—would have knocked anybody down—and almost ended the fight.

Earnie comes through the curtain carrying a pair that he says fit him. He isn’t the kind to want people waiting.

“Right here, y’all, Earnie Shavers. Come shake the hand that knocked down the champ. Hey, get us a drink. Get everybody a drink….”

Richie Giachetti is standing on a chair at the door of an all-black bar in downtown Easton, pointing at Earnie Shavers’ shining head. Earnie is still dressed in the three-piece suit he was wearing when he got off the plane. Women first, the bar comes over to shake his, touch his arm, ask for autographs. Earnie will spend all night signing autographs.

“The thing is,” Giachetti says, “every fighter comes to the point where he wants to do it all himself. They watch you five or six years and figure they can do the same thing. They all do it, it’s part of boxing.”

It is three or four drinks later, and Earnie and Larry are in the back of the bar, listening to the stories of Easton. Richie blows his nose and says as soon as this fight is over he’s getting his sinus cavities burned out. “They been killin’ me for years,” he says.

“Anyway, a fighter’s got to have somebody to tell him the truth. Larry’ll look bad, he’II line up 15 guys and ask them, ‘How did I look?’ And every one of them will say, ‘Fine, Champ,’ and he’ll look at me and I’ll say, ‘Who do you want to believe? You looked like hell.’ It’s like a marriage. He don’t want to hear that but he knows I’ll tell him the truth. Damn, I got to get my sinuses fixed….”

I say I have heard they do that operation without an anesthetic.

“That’s right, they can’t put you to sleep ’cause they don’t know when to stop burnin’.”

The fighters have worked their way to the front of the bar again, and Holmes hears the last of that. “You need help goin’ to sleep?” he says. “I’ll put you to sleep, Richie, be glad to.”

Giachetti gets back up on the chair and rubs his knuckles into Holmes’ scalp. Holmes says, “He jus’ love to do that to black folks.” Giachetti reaches around Larry’s head and finds his far ear, pulls it until the champ is square in his face. Then be puts a thumb as thick as a farmer’s in Larry’s nose! They look at each other a long minute, Giachetti kisses him on the cheek.

Holmes says, “Earnie, I know why you got rid of him now.”

The thing about Richie, no matter where we go he always takin’ me out to see somethin’.” The party has moved twice and is in a Chinese restaurant now. Richie is standing on a chair near the door, talking to a waitress, Larry is remembering the last time they were in San Francisco.

He says, “All I want to do is stay in the hotel room, but Richie, he says we got to go get somethin’ for his wife. The next thing I know, he got me out on a boat, going’ to Alcatraz prison. It’s cold and rainin’, and he takes me out there, walking all over to show me work Al Capone shit. You believe that? ”

There is a noise from door. Giachetti has grabbed the waitress by the head. “Richie,” she says, “you know how long it took to fix my hair?”

Giachetti speaks to the ceiling, still keeping his hand flat on her hairdo. “Forgive this sinner, O Lord,” he says. “Heal her, cleanse her. A woman weak of the flesh, gone astray, but nonetheless one of Your flock….”

The waitress says, “I’m Jewish, Richie.”

He says, “You? You don’t look circumcised.”

The whole town is out for the race the next morning. Giachetti and his wife and Larry’s wife and brother and Steve Sass, a sometimes cornerman, have all shown up wearing sneakers and Pony jogging suits to watch the race. Larry endorses Pony.

Nancy Giachetti and Diane Holmes are together at the finish line, Nancy holding the baby. Kandy Larie Holmes, seven weeks old, yawns pink. Nancy is hard and soft, a woman whose own kids are almost grown. She misses holding babies, she calls her husband Giachetti.

Giachetti himself is wearing sunglasses and drinking unnatural amounts of coffee. He says he feels fine, and the only consolation in that is it’s exactly what’ he said a few years ago after he’d been stabbed 20~odd times in a street fight in Cleveland, a fight, by the way, that he won. He said he felt fine and then went to sleep on the sidewalk.

The race is five miles, mostly downhill, and about 40 minutes old. The serious runners are already sitting in the grass sipping fruit juice and having their legs rubbed when Larry and Earnie come around the corner and start up the long hill to the finish.

Giachetti watches them finish, and while they sign autographs and pose for pictures he goes back to the Sheraton. Five men, early 20s, come into the lobby behind him. Holmes’ limousine is parked outside and one of them has read the name on the door. Coming in, he says, “Fuck Larry Holmes.”

Giachetti steps in front of them all. “Who said that?”

The biggest one says, “I did.”

Giachetti walks into his chest., The desk clerks have stopped breathing, everyone in the lobby is frozen. “What, you got somethin’ to do with Holmes?”

Giachetti looks up into the man’s face. He says, “I’m his friend:” The man looks at Giachetti, half a foot shorter, twice as wide. A cannon barrel.

“Well, excuse me,”he says. Giachetti keeps staring. “I said excuse me. What else do you want me to do?”

Steve Sass pats him on the ribs then. “C’mon Richie.” And Giachetti lets him go. The clerks are breathe again, people begin to move.

In the elevator, one of the me laughs. “I think he really meant it,” he says. The one who had looked into Richie Giachetti’s face doesn’t laugh. He knows he meant it.

The party after the race is at Jake’s house. Jake is Larry’s brother. Italian food, beer, fried chicken. Richie is holding Kandy Larie, and he and Larry are insulting each other. (Holmes has two other daughters who live in Easton with his first wife.) Nancy and Diane are sitting at the kitchen table. Larry looks at Nancy. “I can’t believe you don’t dye your hair,” he says. “Any woman been married to Richie 18 years got to have a head of gray hair.”

“I never understood it myself,” she says.

He thinks it over. “Richie,” he says, “I ought to kick your ass once for every time you done that woman wrong.”

Giachetti nods to Diane. “I ought to kick your ass for every time you done that woman wrong.”

Nancy and Diane look at each other. “Sounds like a whole lot of kickin’ to me,” Nancy says. Diane guesses about a month’s worth. The house is full of kids and noise. Larry’s brother-in-law is drunk in the corner, showing Earnie Shavers his fist. “When this lands, nobody gets up,” he says.

Earnie smiles, nods. “I can see, man,” he says. That is when Flossie Holmes comes in. She lives in a new house Larry built for her, 200 feet from Jake’s back door.

Giachetti hands Nancy the baby and leads Larry Holmes’ mother into the living room. “Here he is, Flossie,” he says, pointing at Shavers. “Here’s the one that knocked your boy down.”

Earnie puts up his hands. “Wait a minute, lemme explain….”

“He’s the one?” She takes a step toward Shavers.

“That’s right, Flossie, that one right there without any hair.”

Shavers says, “Please, it was just business, lemme explain….”

“You don’t look as big as you do on television,” she says.

The champ is in the kitchen, talking about Ali. “Back when I was sparring with him I thought I could’ve beat him then, but I never tried to hurt him or make him look foolish. Him or Joe [Frazier] either. They was the champions, and I respected them for that. But Ali’s mind made a date now that his body can’t keep.

“It don’t bother me that he’s gettin’ more money, $4 million is enough for me….”

Somebody asks if he thinks Ali will get hurt. Holmes turns loud, the way you sometimes do when you don’t want to hear yourself. “I don’t care,” he, says. “I don’t motherfucking care. I been in the man’s shadow too long, it’s time to come out. I will destroy him, I goin’ out there to take his head off.”

A tiny nephew—four or five years old—stands dead still in the doorway watching.

And out in the living room Earnie Shavers is explaining it again to Flossie Holmes. “It’s nothin’ personal in fightin’,” he says. “It’s just business.”

Business.

Two days later, on a Monday morning in April, Don King and a man named Murad Muhammad, who says he is destined to become the promoting star of the ’80s, sit down in front of 40 photographers to announce the fight. They have rented the Belvedere Suite, 64 floors above Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, and are serving their guests wet eggs and cocktails.

The band arrives in a helicopter.

On either side of the promoters are the fighters. Holmes smiling, uncomfortable Ali looking at the table in front of him, maybe realizing what a bad and dangerous fight this is.

Murad introduces himself as a man about to promote one of the greatest fights of all time. A fight that will “set all kinds of records.” The most money, the most people, the most stadium. It will be the first heavyweight championship fight he and Don King promote together, the first heavyweight championship fight in Brazil. Murad says he has suffered to get where he is, he has toiled in the vineyard. He says the fight will settle one of the great mysteries of our time.

Ali wipes at his forehead.

The kid lasts 10 minutes and hands it to King, who is wearing a mink tie. “These are two great gladiators, as in Rome in their sparkling glory,” he says. “The champion is today, Ali is yesterday. This is the last hurrah, the song is over but the melody lingers on.”

And he says the fight will put the issue of heavyweight fighters to the “quiet solitude of oblivion of which it was to be.”

That’s what he says. Then he gives the microphone to Holmes, who is still thanking people five minutes later when Ali begins to snore. He tries to ignore it, Ali snores louder, pounds the table. “I can’t stand it. I tried to be quiet.” He stands up. “I tried, but you killin’ these people. You borin’ all these smart white folks to death….”

Holmes tries to stay in it. “You sayin’ our people is stupid because you got to be white to be smart.”

And that is all Ali needs. He calls Holmes a peanut. He calls him a silly nigger, he calls him stupid. “I’m your daddy, I created you, I goin’ come out the rockin’ chair and whup your ass. Go whap, whap, whap….” He throws jabs, short right hands into the air.

Holmes says, “What I goin’ to be doin’?”

Ali does an impression of a man being hit on the chin six times.

It goes on too long, and in the end neither of them wants to be there.

A day later it will develop that King and the man destined to become the promoting star of the ’80s have forgotten to tell the talks down in Brazil they are coming. It will develop that a previous contract has been signed for Ali to fight Mike Weaver, who is the WBA champ.

But that’s tomorrow. For now, King and Murad Muhammad stand together, smiling for pictures. “This is what sports is all about,”‘ King says, “one hand helping the other.”

A man as gentle as Earnie Shavers might say it’s just business. But this time it’s more than that.

The promoters won’t understand it, but serious people have made commitments it hurt them to make. Commitments they will live with a long time past July, whether there’s a fight or not.

The promoters won’t understand it—they have no way to—but they are playing around with something that matters.

More Dexter:

Dying for Art’s Sake (LeRoy Neiman)

No Trespassing (Jim Brown)

The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb (Tex Cobb)

Two for Toozday (John Matuszak)

LeeRoy, He Ain’t Here No More (LeeRoy Yarbrough)

The Old Man and the River (Norman Maclean)

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver