He sits with his back to the view. He used to sit with his back to a better view, but he gave up the top floor of his building—gave it up pronto—when he found a tenant willing to pay the penthouse price. Of course, Easton, Pa., being what it is these days, the tenant left just about as pronto. The top floor became empty, and the lost income so far amounts to more than $1 million. To remind him of it invites a terrible petulance. He hates Easton. He won't so much as swivel to take in the scenery beyond his executive suite. It's pleasant scenery, too. Some men in row-boats are bobbing about in the Delaware River, competing in the 10th annual Forks of the Delaware Shad Fishing Tournament. He fished there as a kid, but that was a longtime ago.
"It's the best building in Easton," Larry Holmes says. "If you owned it, all 48,000 square feet would be occupied." Seriously? The L&D Holmes Plaza (for Larry and his wife, Diane) has prime tenants—the Lehigh Valley Bank and the Federal Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (including three jail cells)—and 40% unoccupied or not, it appears to be the most prosperous piece of commercial real estate in Easton's largely shuttered downtown area. Holmes thinks people are choosing dilapidated rentals over his? Because he's Larry Holmes, because he lost his heavyweight title seven years ago? He doesn't push the premise too far. "That could just be me talking," he finally admits. Sometimes his petulance amuses even him.
The phone rings from time to time, but no call is sufficiently promising to engage his attention. One headache after another, actually. There seemed to be a point to all this at one time: Holmes, a seventh-grade dropout, is now the town's most successful landowner and entrepreneur, with $13 million in real estate holdings. He owns the 130-room Commodore Inn, the John Henry restaurant, the Round One nightclub, apartment buildings, a parking lot and, of course, the five-story L&D Holmes Plaza. "Not bad for a seventh-grade dropout," he says again. He has said that a million times. Now he would like to get out from under everything but this building, the one on Larry Holmes Drive. Nothing but headaches.
His wife's on the phone. It's her birthday, her 35th, or "whatever one she wants it to be," he says. But at the moment he is without good wishes. "Now don't be asking me all these questions," he barks at her. The next pressing business is his mother, Flossie, for whom the Commodore Inn's restaurant is named. Flossie raised 12 children by herself. Even as a teenager Holmes was mindful of her sacrifice. If he saw that his mother was short a few dollars, he would reach into the flowerpot on the kitchen windowsill and withdraw his secret stash. But today she's pestering him for the whereabouts of his driver, and enough is enough. "Now don't be asking where Ben is," he barks. "Now don't be calling up and drilling me."
He sinks into his executive chair, his back to Easton, and glances through a program that's being produced for his fight with heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield on June 19. The bout will be the seventh, the most amazing and, some say, the most ridiculous in the 42-year-old Holmes's comeback, but the event, and the $7.5 million payday, still seem distant to him. He says he may use the money to build a city hall for his hated hometown—the tax advantages to the leaseback are otherworldly—and, then again, he may not. Easton is asking him to do it. But it's a long way off. He tosses the program aside, sinks deeper into his chair. His head slumps onto his chest, the bill of his cap hides his face, and time passes.
"I'm bored," he says.
What's it like to be heavyweight champion? The advantages are otherworldly. You are surrounded by supplicants, even if they are your brothers, you are paid tremendous amounts of money, even after Don King takes his cut, and you are given respect and attention and opportunity well beyond what any seventh-grade dropout could expect. And Holmes was heavyweight champion for more than seven years.
Looking back, we may not remember it as the happiest of spans. There was petulance aplenty—some of it justified, probably. It was not Holmes's fault that he came after Muhammad Ali and lacked Ali's charisma. "Everything I did," Holmes once said, "was not enough." In comparison with Ali, Holmes was merely workmanlike. Beginning with his fight against Rodell Dupree, which produced a purse of $63 back in 1973, Holmes made boxing seem strictly an act of commerce. Toward the end of his reign, when he neared Rocky Marciano's career record of 49 victories without a loss, Holmes said, "It's the money I want. I ain't in it for the record." That was never popular among fans accustomed to Ali's showmanship.
Perhaps in time his work ethic will be appreciated. These days contenders are invented, sprung upon us by the Olympics, by cable TV or even, as in the case of Mike Tyson, by video-cassette. But for five years Holmes was merely a sparring partner, somebody Eddie Futch might call upon to drive down to Philadelphia and work with Joe Frazier. During this overlong apprenticeship Holmes took fights in Scranton, trying to size up his sudden opponents by looking them up in old Ring magazines, and generally just scrabbled along. Can you imagine a heavyweight of today with a 21-0 record who is not aggressively promoted as a contender? Holmes was 21-0 in 1976 and could not afford to pay sparring partners. He was just there.
His promoter, King, was not aggrieved by Holmes's stagnation. On the eve of Holmes's first light with Earnie Shavers, in 1978, King told Holmes not to worry—if he lost he could still work as Shavers's sparring partner. Holmes didn't feel slighted. "I didn't care about making it," he says. "I just wanted to make a living. The reason I boxed was not to become heavyweight champion but to have something so I could survive, to live comfortably. Don't you know that's why marriages don't work—when-people don't have anything? Money's what causes problems. I just wanted to make a living."