As announcer Chuck Hull read off the first judge's score—it had the champion, Michael Spinks, winning last Saturday's IBF heavyweight title fight at Las Vegas—Larry Holmes turned to his trainer, Richie Giachetti, and moaned, "Oh, no, I've got a big mouth." This was the same Holmes who had publicly questioned the sobriety and integrity of Nevada boxing judges and then had apologized. Sort of. "When I said they drank before fights and accepted payoffs," Holmes had said, "I didn't mean to offend anyone."
Holmes would have been better off asking for a change of venue. If this fight had been staged in a saloon, where the only judges are a man's fists, Holmes surely would have regained the title he lost by decision to Spinks last September. Unfortunately for the 36-year-old ex-champion, while the judges in the Hilton Center presumably were sober and honest, two were more impressed by Spinks's popguns than by Holmes's cannons—and they gave the 15-round fight to Spinks on a split decision.
Fighting with a broken right thumb from the third round on, Holmes hurt Spinks with solid rights in the fifth and ninth rounds, had him wandering around the ring on rubbery legs in the 14th and landed a devastating right in the final round. If judges Frank Brunette (144-141, Spinks) and Jerry Roth (144-142) were giving the champion bonus points for a stout heart and a strong chin, then one would find it hard to quarrel with their verdicts.
Taking the minority view, judge Joe Cortez thought Holmes won handily, 144-141. To judge by the jeers that greeted the result, so did the vast majority of the 8,328 spectators.
After the fight, Holmes was taken to Valley Hospital, where his thumb was put in a metal splint. But before departing, Holmes tarried long enough to tell an HBO audience: "I can say a lot of things but I'd probably say the wrong thing, then end up apologizing." After which he proceeded to say a lot of things, including this: "The judges, referees and promoters can kiss me where the sun don't shine—and because we're on HBO, that's my big black behind."
By the time he returned from the hospital to his suite on the 27th floor of the Hilton's north tower, Holmes's anger had apparently ebbed. "I'm not bitter, but I am retiring," he said quietly. "I don't need the aggravation. I'm gone. I got a big mouth and they slapped me on the hand. They hurt me. For the first time in my life I cried. I didn't even cry after I won the title. I don't regret what I've done, only the things that I've said. I never wanted to hurt anybody. I just wish I could have gone out clean."
"Clean" would have been 49-0, matching Rocky Marciano's career mark, the best ever by an undefeated heavyweight champion. Holmes was 48-0 when Spinks upset him to become the first light heavyweight champion to win a heavyweight title. "Clean" would have been 48-1, but Holmes sullied that when, after losing to Spinks, a 6-to-1 underdog, he snapped at members of the Marciano family at the postfight press conference that " Marciano couldn't have carried my jockstrap."
"Big mouth," Holmes kept repeating after Saturday's loss to Spinks. " Marciano was a great fighter. I regret what I said. I hurt a lot of people with that. I just didn't want to put myself down. And this fight, I wanted to change my image."
Before the rematch with Spinks, Holmes had tried to put his mouth on hold. He stopped talking to the media. If he stayed out of verbal dark alleys, he reasoned, he wouldn't get mugged.
"I'm just going to try and stay away from the critics," he had said. "I'm going to stay away from the postfight press conferences because I take my anger into press conferences and say things I don't want to say."