Larry Holmes is 28 years old, 6'4" and 210 pounds, one of those heavyweights who seems vaguely familiar. For six years, he has been fighting pretty much out of sight against mediocre opponents, men going nowhere or coming back from there. There are those who insist that Holmes has it all: style, speed and a jab that can drive rivets. He has the moves of a Muhammad Ali, his fans say, and the left hand of a Sonny Liston. It was the left hand that knocked out 19 of his 26 opponents; the others he had decisioned. Only one question about him seemed to remain last Saturday in Las Vegas. If he already had class, when Larry Holmes finally got into the ring with somebody of stature, would he also have heart?
No one can remember when the whispers first began, questioning the size of Holmes' courage. As a matter of fact, when pressed, no critic could say why the question was asked. Mostly it was: Who has Holmes ever fought? Let him fight someone tough, then we'll see if he has a ticker.
Finally, last February, Don King, the promoter, asked, "Do you think Earnie Shavers is tough enough?"
"Beautiful," said Larry Holmes.
The match was made, a 12-rounder at Caesars Palace, nationally telecast over ABC. It was billed as an elimination bout for heavyweight title contenders—Shavers No. 3 and Holmes No. 4—with the winner meeting Kenny Norton, the newly ordained WBC champion.
Two days before the fight Shavers sat in his suite at Caesars Palace and admitted that he had wasted little time wondering about the degree of Holmes' courage. He waved a large powerful hand toward a video-tape machine and a stack of film cassettes piled nearby. They were all of Holmes' fights. Shavers had looked at one or two; the rest had been studied by Frank Luca, his trainer.
"I'll see him when we get in the ring," said the man many claim is the most feared puncher in boxing today. "I've heard the questions, but I didn't train to fight a guy with a faint heart. If he's got one we'll find out Saturday quick enough. But I trained as if I was going in with a young Joe Frazier. I can't afford not to. I'm not going to fight that much longer. I can't afford a setback."
At 33, Shavers is indeed running out of time. After winning 54 of 61 fights, 52 of them by knockout, he figures there are only four or five more fights left in his body. He hadn't fought since losing a 15-round decision to Muhammad Ali last September. Shavers was in the best shape of his career to fight Ali, and for Holmes he had driven himself even harder. For Ali he had weighed 211; for Holmes he would come in at 210. For Ali he had sparred 215 rounds; for Holmes 245.
" Holmes is a lot younger and a lot hungrier," Shavers said. "It's his first big test, and he wants to beat me and move on. I can't afford it. I'm gonna have to punish him. I'm gonna break his ribs. Every time it rains and those ribs hurt he's gonna think of Earnie Shavers."
That same day Holmes wandered into the Caesars Pavilion, where the fight would be held, and soon picked up a crowd of admirers. He is flamboyant enough outside the ring to cause some to say that he has made himself a carbon of Ali.