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Slipping punches as he moved to his right, Holmes retreated gracelessly across the ring until his back hit the far ropes. "Tie him up," Futch screamed from the near corner.
Instead, Holmes, his head cleared, fired a right that caught Witherspoon on the forehead. Then Holmes launched a savage attack of his own. Witherspoon met him gamely. Suddenly, as though a switch had been thrown, both men stopped firing. In center ring, they leaned into each other, left arms locked. Each was waiting for the other to budge and, at the first sign of movement, to fire a savage counter right. Both seemed to decide to break at the same instant, but it was Holmes who got there first with the right, and then two more before the bell. It was a champion's round.
After that, Witherspoon hung in gamely, but mostly it was all movement. "He was trying to con the judges," Futch said.
He didn't. Judges Chuck Hassett (118-111) and Chuck Minker (115-113), who seemed to have the fairest score of all, voted for Holmes. Herb Santos gave it to Witherspoon 115-114.
On the morning after the fight. Holmes was hard-pressed to explain his performance. "Maybe it's an indication I've gone down," he suggested. "Maybe he's too strong. Maybe I overtrained. In the last two fights I put together so much so fast it took a lot out of me. I was capable of doing what I wanted to do, but I was always a second off. I just left my damn fight in the gym."
Make that a hotel, the Larry Holmes Commodore Inn in Phillipsburg, N.J., to be exact. He purchased the hotel last year and has been fighting to pay for it and its renovation ever since.
Even at 33, Holmes is, or could be, every bit as good as he was. But he'll always be "a second off" unless he can separate the fighter from the hotel owner. There are too many young gun-slingers out there waiting, people like Page, whose unanimous decision over Snipes on last week's undercard puts him in line for a shot at Holmes's title, and Michael Dokes and, yes, Witherspoon again.
"I'm not ashamed of my fight," Holmes said. "I'm 43 and 0, with 15 title defenses, and I'm the champion of the world. Now maybe that's enough. I don't know. I'm going to go home and think about it. I've been thinking about retiring for a long time. Now I'll think about it some more. I'll let you know."