What are we to make of them, these tough and proud old men? George Foreman is fat and funny and 44, but when he steps under the hot lights dressed in short pants, the laughter stops and younger men have to fight to survive. Now there's Larry Holmes, a 42-year-old grandfather who's rounder and softer than he was when he ruled the heavyweights between 1978 and '85 but who's as proud and fierce as ever. Last Friday night in Atlantic City, Ray Mercer, a rock of a man, was no match for Holmes's cunning hammers, which battered Mercer's 30-year-old body for 12 rounds and produced a lopsided, unanimous decision.
From 1973 until '88, when he retired after getting knocked out by Mike Tyson, Holmes won 48 of 51 fights. Against Mercer, an '88 Olympic gold medalist and a 4-to-1 favorite after building an 18-0 record against eminently forgettable opponents. Holmes called on all of that experience to turn their 36-minute fistfight into a brilliant demonstration of courage and ring con.
"I'd like to fight him again," said Mercer a few minutes after leaving the 20-by 20-foot classroom, "after I learn how to box."
For most of his career Holmes was an artist walking in the shadow of the legend he was destined to follow, Muhammad Ali. And when he emerged from his dressing room to fight Mercer, some fans booed him. Once, such a reception would have infuriated Holmes, but now he only smiled. It was as though he was thinking, You want Ali, I'll give you Ali. And he did.
In an exhibition that called to mind the rope-a-doping Ali of Zaire, Holmes, who came in at 233 pounds, about 11 more than he weighed as champion, often backed into a corner and stayed there. While saving his aged legs, he punished Mercer as the younger man tried to break through a thick forest of pawing arms. The 228¾-pound Mercer is a ferocious puncher, but he became discouraged as the rockets he hurled against Holmes's head failed to produce the expected effect.
Holmes appeared to be in serious trouble only once, and that was in the first round when Mercer stung him with a jab. Holmes quickly recovered and was soon banging right hands against Mercer's head. After the fourth round, Holmes told his cornermen, "It's a party." In the seventh round the crowd began chanting: "Lar-ry! Larry! Lar-ry!" At times it almost sounded like "Ali! Ali! Ali!" Holmes had never before heard this chant, and it only made him better.
Mercer was Holmes's sixth victory in a comeback that started last April. "I came back because I honestly feel I can beat [heavyweight champion] Evander Holyfield, but if Mike Tyson comes back to win the title. I'm gone." said Holmes on Friday, three days before Tyson was convicted of rape in Indianapolis (page 22). "There's no way I want to fight him again. There are fighters I know I can beat, and there are fighters I know I can't beat. I may be older, but I'm not dumber."
After Holmes's demolition of Mercer, it was announced that Holmes and Foreman had tentatively agreed to a bout, probably in mid-June, that will surely be billed as the Battle of the Ages. The ages of the two fighters who climb into the ring for that bout will add up to 86 years.
To Tell the Truth
NHL fines Mario Lemieux for criticizing officials