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Larry Holmes relaxed in his hotel suite Saturday morning and spoke wearily of the possibility of retirement. The evening before, in a parking-lot stadium behind Las Vegas' Dunes Hotel, he had spent his every reserve in eking out a split decision and preserving his WBC heavyweight championship against a young turk named Tim Witherspoon. The fierceness of the 12-round struggle against the 25-year-old Witherspoon was written in braille upon Holmes's 33-year-old face: a sizable swelling under the right eye, a pinkish and raised abrasion across the lid of the left.
This was expected to be one of the easier of the 15 championship defenses Holmes has had in the five years since he won the crown from Ken Norton. Although eight years younger than Holmes, Witherspoon had had only as many pro fights as Holmes had had title fights, which helped to account for his status as a 6-1 underdog.
Besides, Witherspoon, although ranked No. 3 by the WBC, hadn't fought since his dismal 10-round decisioning of Renaldo Snipes on June 5, 1982. A jaw fracture he suffered while sparring last summer with Lightning Bob Smith had kept him out of action. During those 11½ months Holmes had stopped Gerry Cooney in 13 rounds and won decisions over Randy Cobb (15 rounds) and Lucien Rodriguez (12).
In spite of his high ranking, Witherspoon was a relative unknown who hadn't launched his pro career until he was almost 22—which is relatively late for a boxer—and after only six amateur fights, the last of which he lost. Nothing in his short career gave any indication that he would be anything more than a bit player in another exhibition of Holmes's extraordinary talents.
In the rating of heavyweight champions, prime against prime. Holmes falls short of only Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston and Rocky Marciano. All of the rest of the best, from John L. Sullivan through Floyd Patterson, would have come up short, some for no other reason than that their antiquated styles would have been no match for the science of Holmes.
Against this came Witherspoon, a pleasant young man who only took up boxing because he was angry at the medical fraternity in his native Philadelphia. After a semester at Lincoln University in Missouri, where he played tight end, Witherspoon found employment as a waiter in the doctors' dining room at Pennsylvania Hospital, where his mother, Shirley, works as an electrocardiograph technician. "Those doctors treated me like dirt," he said. To work off his frustrations, he began punching bags at a local gym. From there, he fought in the amateurs, losing only to Marvis Frazier, son of former heavyweight champ Joe.
In his 15 professional fights, Witherspoon displayed remarkable power (11 knockouts); two of his four wins by decision were workmanlike if undistinguished performances. His absence from the ring while his jaw healed didn't figure to enhance his endurance. Nevertheless, Witherspoon was confident. "People are ignoring the fact that I have fought the best," he said before meeting Holmes. "After I sparred with Ali, he gave me the nickname Terrible, meaning I was a bad dude." Witherspoon also worked with ranked heavyweights Greg Page and Trevor Berbick as well as light-heavyweight champion Michael Spinks, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, a former light-heavy king, and James Scott. But the sparring he remembers most fondly was against Gerry Cooney.
"With him I lasted just three days," Witherspoon says. "Then they ran me off. He had 12-ounce gloves; I had 16s. He was nothing. He'd lean to his left to throw a hook and I'd step away, leaving him hanging there like a dummy. When I bloodied his nose they told me to take a walk."
Witherspoon's greatest asset besides the power of his punches is his veteran trainer. Slim Jim Robinson. A former bounty hunter—he worked for a bail bondsman—who had more than 70 pro fights as a middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight, Robinson was the strategist behind Mike Rossman's stunning victory over light-heavyweight champion Victor Galindez in 1978. Now he was sure he had the plan that would upset Holmes.
"You take away his jab and he's just another fighter," Robinson told Witherspoon. "You catch it, you slip it, you trap it. Step into it and smother it, then you can punch. And you bang right hands to his left ribs to slow the jab down. And I want you in so close to him it will look like you're chewing on his chest, and from there you'll bang to the body. Back him up, make him use his old legs."