By all accounts, the idea of regaining the heavyweight title was just not there at first. But with Spinks unavailable and Tyson in prison. Holmes became ambitious. After all, look what George Foreman, several tons past his glory years, had done in his comeback. Why not a title fight?
Arum proclaimed the whole idea a "joke." Then he noticed the ratings Holmes was getting on cable's USA Network. Holmes was laboring through decisions against stiffs, and still the people tuned in. USA had done just as well with the early fights of Foreman's comeback. It was no secret what was going on. "It's simple," says Rob Correa, USA's vice-president of sports programming. "People recognize him. It's like when you dovetail a theatrical movie into a TV series. Holmes is presold."
Arum stopped laughing and signed Holmes to fight the winner of the Morrison-Mercer fight. Arum didn't have to believe all that much in Holmes to sleep well at night. "Let's face it," he says. "I was in a win-win situation. I promote them all." Either of Arum's two young prospects would only increase his drawing power with a victory over Holmes. And if Holmes did, through some miracle, happen to win...there was Holyfield, there was Foreman. "The third fight for Larry is Morrison," says Arum. The last time Holmes fought a white hope, the accountants could barely count all the money, and that was before pay-per-view. "Then we all retire," Arum says. "For good."
Anyone who decries Holmes's comeback as a risk to his personal safety ought to take a ride with him on his boat. He can't possibly be more at risk in the ring than at sea. As Holmes skippers the boat through the Verrazano Narrows, between Brooklyn and Staten Island, and into open sea, there are tremendous concussions of craft against ocean. Holmes, crashing into waves at 35 mph, never throttles back. There is a sudden whine of the engine as the screws lift free of the water, a sickening "uh-oh" from someone who realizes the depth of the trough the boat is about to descend, and then a terrific slamming of boat into water. People are hanging on to rails with both hands and still buckling on impact. Only the Holmeses remain unperturbed. Cap'n Larry stares out to a point some 17 miles distant that certainly harbors fish, while Diane curls up next to him and sleeps. Occasionally she lifts entirely free of the chair as the boat crests a wave and drops.
"Isn't this relaxing?" Holmes asks. He has always enjoyed going fast. When he turned 16, he dipped into that flowerpot and bought a brand-new Plymouth Road Runner and tricked it out for the local drag strips. "It was street legal," he says, "but I could drop my headers in a couple of seconds. I won a lot of races, got that thing up to 110 miles per hour in no time at all." What could be more relaxing than that? However, maintaining the car could be tense. Apparently, in the same way that there is believed to be one fruitcake that recirculates in the mails every holiday season, there was in Easton just one high-performance carburetor. "I could rip one off in 30 seconds," Holmes says, "and I'm in business. Then the next day someone rips it off of me."
These days the point is not to go fast but to get somewhere. Holmes digs a black logbook out of the cabin and consults his notes. He has written down the exact coordinates of shipwrecks, places where he believes schools of fish feed. "I get seasick," he says, "so I'm not out here for a cruise. This is all about fishing." Every once in a while he slows the boat, punches some buttons on his loran to get his latitude and longitude and then examines his depth finder to locate his prey. There is none. Everybody but Holmes is relieved. The prospect of wallowing in six-foot waves while Holmes trolls for bottom fish does not please everyone aboard. Driver Ben, for one, is the color of his pale-yellow fedora. Holmes suddenly wheels the boat around and begins his high-speed pursuit of shore. "I just remembered," he says. "I'm almost out of gas." The boat slaps its way back to New Jersey, 35 mph in rough water, and his passengers grip anything chrome.
Get this man into the ring.
In his comeback Holmes has become the one thing he never figured to be: beloved. At the end of the Mercer fight there were shouts of "Lar—ree! Lar—ree!" It was a surprise. He was never popular before. In his prime he revealed his charms privately. He was a favorite of the fight writers who would visit him in Easton between title defenses or spend time in his room the night before a big fight. But they were inevitably compelled to betray him to the public when he said something stupid. The writers cringed when he slammed Marciano ("Marciano couldn't carry my jockstrap," Holmes said after the first Spinks fight) but were obliged to fashion headlines from it. And they knew Holmes wasn't doing himself any good with the public by conducting himself as a self-styled "boxing executive." The way he reduced the game to capitalism—the Tex Cobb fight was significant to Holmes only in that the $1.5 million purse bought him his hotel—rubbed people wrong.
But now if he is no less mercenary, he is at least comfortable with everybody. "He's at peace with himself," says Abraham, who once watched Holmes on HBO tell fight fans to "kiss me where the sun don't shine." Abraham was surprised to see Holmes rigged out in a cap and gown (Dr. Holmes) for a recent press conference to promote the Holyfield fight. Fourteen months into his comeback, Holmes was enjoying himself. "He's finally comfortable with his role in boxing history," says Abraham.
The only problem with Holmes's comeback is that many in boxing believe that history is exactly where he belongs. Rock Newman, who manages Riddick Bowe, has seen his fighter sidestepped twice by Holyfield so that Holyfield could earn huge dollars against 42-year-old heavyweights. Newman is, of course, disappointed to see Holmes taken seriously. "He was washed up six years ago," Newman says. "He's slow as molasses, his jab is not what it used to be, and he packs little if any power at this point. That he beat Ray Mercer is not a great victory but an exposure of how awful a fighter Ray Mercer is. This is an illegitimate challenge if ever there was one. I would not be surprised to hear that, following Holmes, Holyfield will be holding strong negotiations with Floyd Patterson and Jersey Joe Walcott."