In 1978, after he survived Shavers's murderous right hand, Holmes beat a favored Ken Norton to win the title. Holmes got the title shot because he had simply been available. And he finally began making a living.
Can you possibly understand what it was like for Holmes to be heavyweight champion? The day he walked out of Easton's Shull Junior High, just 13 years old, he began to work at the Jet car wash. A dollar an hour was all the money in the world for a kid who had been making 15 cents per shoeshine, his tip a pat on the head. Later he got jobs in the steel mill. He made good money, $200 to $300 a week. All the while he boxed, of course. He and his brother Lee and buddies like Pooch Pratt and Butch Andrews would show up in the bars Saturday nights and fight each other to a draw, always a draw, and be allowed to go back to the kitchen and consume their "purses" of hot dogs.
So can you understand what it was like for Holmes to make $1.5 million every four months, or even $10 million against Gerry Cooney, simply by standing up and demonstrating his earned skills in front of the world? Well, it was never boring.
At the mention of that word, boring, things begin to happen. There is suddenly a spontaneous quality to events. The driver, Ben Sampson, materializes in Holmes's doorway. He's a slight man with a gold tooth, a feathered fedora and the puzzled expression of someone who has just made a quantum leap. Why is it, he seems to ask, that he's here? Right behind him comes the white part of Holmes's rainbow coalition, rumpled Charlie Con-over. He's scratching his head. Last and least suspecting is Diane Holmes, who wanders into the office at almost the exact same time. "Ben," says Larry, examining the group, happy for the first time that day, "get the limo. We're going fishing." Diane affects the same poleaxed look her husband wore when Shavers hit him with a ring post. "Happy birthday, Diane," somebody says, laughing.
This is what it's like to be retired. You can fish whenever you want. Once he caught the fever, Diane says, her husband fished every day until last year, when he began his comeback, and then the fishing slowed to almost every day. He started in the river behind his executive suite, noodling about in a 17-footer with Dick Lovell, his publicist/man-about-office. "We weren't too good," Lovell admits. "That first time the boat just started sinking on us. Luckily Charlie was standing by." Now Holmes has two identical 33-foot boats—one in a New Jersey marina off the Hudson River, the other at his second home, in Jacksonville—both called The Easton Assassin. Each is rigged for fishing and is surprisingly easy to get to. Lovell has a stack of boarding passes on his desk, from Holmes's day trips to Jacksonville during the winter. He would wake up, feel the cold, ring the driver, and off they would go. Jacksonville is just a couple of hours and "20 degrees" away, Holmes says. But it's easier to assemble the gang for the boat in New Jersey.
The white stretch limo wheels through Easton, stopping at Joe's Steak Shop on the way to 1-78. In his comeback Holmes has not been spartan; he expects to weigh about 230 on June 19, a bit less than he weighed in March for his stunning victory over '88 Olympic hero Ray Mercer—the one and only fight that has lent credibility to his campaign—but it's clear that Holmes intends to wait for that final month of work in Jacksonville before going on any liquid diet. "Don't you think I know how and when to train after all this time?" he says. "It's not a beauty contest." Indeed, Holmes in his prime was nobody's picture of a heavyweight champion. He was pear-shaped, with spindly legs. In his comeback, he is...pear-shaped, with spindly legs. But could Mercer, one of the so-called young lions, take advantage of all that ripeness? Holmes lured him into a corner, stood against the ring post to rest his aging legs and proceeded to steal the fight. "I'd like to fight him again," said Mercer, "after I learn how to box." Steak sandwiches all around.
Driver Ben steers the white beast, purchased for $57,000, onto the interstate and suffers a barrage of directions from the boss: "Left lane, Ben. Left lane, Ben!" Holmes tells Ben not to drive like a limo driver. Then, "Don't be getting any speeding tickets, Ben." Ben, newly released from entourage exile (he had been out of Holmes's employ for 581 about a year after telling Holmes he didn't know anything about boxing), mutters to himself the entire 45-minute drive. "What's he saying?" Holmes keeps asking. "What'd he just say?"
It is interesting to see the authority that Holmes now exercises, and not just with driver Ben. Emancipated from King, who controlled his career for more than a decade, Holmes is independent and confident. He gives everybody orders. "I'll never forget watching Larry on TV," remembers Seth Abraham, president of Time Warner Sports and TVKO, "and seeing Don whisper into his ear the words that would come out of Larry's mouth. Don told him what to say, what to do, what to think. But now Larry's a grown man. He's nobody's puppet."
Holmes has orchestrated his comeback entirely by himself. Former boxing promoter Harold Smith, who did five years for bank fraud, is at Holmes's side as a consultant. And Bob Arum, King's longtime adversary, is doing the actual promotion of the pay-per-view Holyfield bout. But there is no manager. Out of King's shadow, in fact, Holmes is newly recognized as a shrewd and able operator. "Very few guys know as much about boxing as Larry," says Arum, who for years was a bitter enemy of Holmes because of his association with King. "These last few years, when I make a fight in the heavyweight division, I always call Larry. An example: One of the guys I want to develop, big marquee potential, is Tommy Morrison, and before I make a Morrison fight, I check with Larry."
Holmes admits he was intimidated by King all those years. "But I was insecure. Here I was, a seventh-grade...." Mamas, don't let your sons grow up to be seventh-grade dropouts.