"Their daddy would come back to see us about every three weeks," says Flossie Holmes, whose sad eyes brighten only when she speaks of her children. "He didn't forsake us. He just didn't have anything to give." Which is why, just one year into his teens, Larry gave up education for employment.
"It wasn't much of an education anyway," says Dan Radogna, a close friend of Holmes' and a teacher of mentally retarded children at Leibert School in the Easton area. "When Larry was in school, he was in special-education classes, and they weren't much. It was more like baby-sitting. Making sure the kids didn't get into fights. There's one teacher Larry had; I know him well, and he's still afraid to face Larry to this day. He says Larry didn't do anything, but...you know. They had to beat on all the kids a little bit. Coming from where Larry did to where he is now, well, I would call it a miracle."
As the champion remembers himself then, "I was crazy. I gave my mother a bad time. I gave everybody a bad time. Nobody could tell me anything. I was no angel. I'm no angel now."
"He gave me a bad time?" says Flossie. "What he gave me was money. He'd see I was short of money and he'd say, 'I have a couple of dollars.' He used to hide his own money in a flowerpot on the kitchen windowsill. He'd go and get it, and he'd give it to me. No, he wasn't a bad boy, but out on the streets he was mean. He called himself a street fighter. He was something. He didn't take nothing from nobody. Nobody pushed him around. He'd never start a fight. But if someone wanted a fight, he'd give them one. Larry was a good boy; he just never would take no stuff from anybody. He was stubborn."
"I used to knock out a guy every weekend," Holmes says, shaking his head. "There was always somebody to challenge you. I had streaks. Once I went 40 straight weekends, knocking out some guy every one of them. That's when I used to think about being a fighter. But growing up, I didn't have time. I always worked."
DiVietro, the car-wash owner, is a former Tulane football player who has made it a practice to hire the toughest kids he can find, and then—as well as paying them a salary—he tries to help them straighten out their lives. Even today Holmes occasionally goes back to him for guidance.
"Larry was typical of my kids," DiVietro says. "When he first came, he was insubordinate. He used foul language. Always had a chip on his shoulder. His was the natural animosity that comes from his background. I've got a kid like that now. He'd just as soon bust your tail as look at you. But I'm here from 8 a.m. until midnight and that kid is right with me. Larry was like that. Guys like that are looking for discipline, and when you give it to them they do one of two things: they go back to the streets for good, or they come back. Larry always came back. I knew then that there was a sliver of light. He wasn't going to wind up in jail or on welfare. He'd work. Always, he'd work."
Another who helped greatly in the shaping of the future world champion was Father Francis Barbato, a priest from Naples who founded the St. Anthony's Youth Center in Easton 25 years ago. The center is located in a predominantly Italian neighborhood, but Father Barbato opened it to everyone. By the time he was 10, Holmes had become a regular, primarily interested in learning to wrestle. Father Barbato often found the skinny black kid sitting on the stoop, waiting for the center to open. "The center was his second home," Father Barbato says. "He never gave trouble to anyone. He showed a willingness to be somebody, to do something with his life. It was clear he wanted to learn."
By the time he was 14, Holmes was trusted with turning out the lights and locking the center at night. At times it was an unpleasant chore.
"There were always guys who didn't want to leave," says Radogna. "Larry couldn't have been more than 14, and he was thin and not very tall. I remember one night he went up to turn out the lights and there was a bunch of guys playing basketball, big guys, football players, seniors in high school. Larry asked them to leave, and one of the guys hit him and knocked him down. Larry got up and turned out the lights. The guy knocked him down again. It went on like that: Larry turning off the lights, the guy knocking him down. He took a hell of a beating. But he never quit. In the end he got the lights off."