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Following in Ali's wake has served to diminish Holmes' star, to deny him the recognition he feels is his due. Holmes has been the World Boxing Council's heavyweight champion for more than two years, ever since June 9, 1978, when he took the title from Ken Norton in a stirring, bitter tight in Las Vegas. Yet even today, 28 months and seven straight knockouts later, Holmes still suffers from lack of recognition, even of respect, and that hurts.
There was the morning Holmes walked through McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, and a man, spotting him, said to his girl, loud enough for the champ to hear, "Hey, there's Ernie Holmes." It wasn't the first time that Larry had heard himself confused with the former Pittsburgh Steeler lineman. Turning, he shouted in mock menace at the man, "You watch your mouth, you hear? I don't play football." Wheeling about, managing a laugh: "Did you hear that? Did you hear that?"
And there was the girl, backstage in the Good Morning America studio, who introduced him to a colleague thusly: "This is George Foreman...." Holmes smiled, but the comment brought Holmes' interviewer, Tom Sullivan, to his feet, aghast and apologetic. "What a horrible thing to say," said Sullivan.
And there was Sonny Simmons, the promoter of the Allentown (Pa.) Fair, who introduced Holmes to his daughters as "the next heavyweight champion." "I am the world heavyweight champion," Holmes said.
Earlier this month, during a promotion held at a movie studio in Burbank, Calif., Holmes boxed a few rounds with sparring partner LeRoy Diggs in the ring where some of the fight scenes in Rocky II were filmed. During the session, there was an annoying hum in the air as members of the audience conversed, drifted over to a beer-and-sandwich table and walked on and off the set. The sparring done, the sweating Holmes paced about the ring. "I think I deserve a little respect," he shouted to the crowd. "I don't put on airs. I am me. I don't go around bragging and boasting. Give a fellow his just due and respect. I shouldn't have to be here telling you who's the best heavyweight in the world today. You should realize it when you see it. If you don't see it, you should wear glasses, because I'm telling you like it is, in living color. I'm for real.... Ali has fooled all you people so long, for so many years, and you've got so addicted to his trickerations that he plays on all of you, on all your minds. If you bet on that fool, you're just throwing your money away. Bet on me and support me because I'm the heavyweight champion of the world...whether you like it or not!" Holmes seemed to be expressing the frustration and anger he had felt since he became a contender, since he first beat Earnie Shavers in 1978, since he won the title only 2½ months later. "He wants to be known," his brother Jake says. "It hurts him when he isn't. The anger continues in Larry."
Most of whatever else Holmes ever wanted is now his. Money and a family are his, and so is a sense of permanence and place. With all that has emerged a feeling of independence, a growing confidence that he can be his own man. "I worked at being heavyweight champion of the world," Holmes says. "I worked at being me, being myself. I truly worked at it." In fact, since he first turned pro and began his climb to the top, Holmes has been determinedly building for himself the kind of life that he had dreamed of having.
The center of his world is Easton, Pa., a working-class city of 29,450 people at the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers. During the Industrial Revolution the railroads, factories and mills turned the Pennsylvania Dutch farming community into an ethnic melting pot, drawing to its hills the Irish, Italians, Scots, Germans and Lebanese. Most of the valley's blacks didn't come there until after World War II; among them was the family of John and Flossie Holmes, up from Cuthbert, Ga.
Larry was five at the time, the seventh of 12 children. His father, unable to support the family, left home when Larry was a boy. His mother raised all of them. A hell-raiser and school-yard ruffian, Holmes made it to only the seventh grade. "I had a choice," he says, "quit or get thrown out." He was 13 when he left school and has been working ever since. At first he shined shoes for 15¢ plus tips. "I'd start at five in the morning and end about 11 at night, make 10 bucks and be happy with it," he says. Then he worked in a car wash and later in a rug mill, and played a lot of blackjack and poker at night. Holmes grew up in a hurry. At 16 he was living with a woman seven years his senior, and at 17 he was the father of a baby girl. At 18 he was the father of another. He worked in a foundry, first sweeping floors, then pouring steel and making shell casings. And he played. He bought himself a Plymouth Roadrunner convertible, drove it stock during the week and on weekends opened up the pipes, slapped on fat tires and went racing. "Fastest convertible in town," he says. He learned to fight at St. Anthony's Youth Center in the heart of Easton. By 1972 Holmes was almost good enough to make the U.S. Olympic team. Duane Bobick beat him in the finals.
Holmes turned pro in 1973 and soon found himself under the care of Don King and his Cleveland associate in the fight game, Giachetti, a tough citizen who ran an auto-body business, owned and operated a bar and often hung out around the district attorney's office and police department, fixing traffic tickets for wayward drivers. "I had connections," Giachetti says. King didn't know much about the fight game, at least as a sweet science, but Giachetti did. He was a veteran of 80 amateur fights and had been the Cleveland Golden Gloves open novice welterweight champ in 1961. When King later became a big-time promoter, he and Giachetti broke their formal business relationship. Giachetti drifted away from the auto-body business in Cleveland—leaving his brother to run it—and increasingly devoted himself to Holmes.
"He was a kid who needed somebody to understand him, to be with him," Giachetti says. "He needed a friend at that time more than anything else. He needed somebody to have confidence in him and who cared about him."