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Holmes has been running his affairs out of a two-room office a block from the square. He laughs at the thought of the operation. "I'm playing big shot on the seventh floor of the Alpha Building," he says. He has a secretary, Dawn Lahr, brother Jake takes care of security, old pal Luis does the P.R., and a childhood friend of Holmes', Eddie Sutton, comes by to do whatever else needs to be done. "I'm creating jobs," Holmes says. "I go in there and say, 'Hey, anything happenin'?' 'No, Larry, not today.' Know what I mean? But I need it in a way for a tax writeoff, and they need jobs. Playing big shot—that's all I'm doing. I ain't on cloud nine. I'm down here on earth."
Which is where he intends to be come Oct. 2, when he climbs into the ring at Caesars Palace to defend his title against a 38-year-old man who needs the money. In a way, Ali's return is testimony to the problem that has been tracking Holmes since he won the title. Only in the heavyweight division—except for Holmes one devoid of real talent—could the prospect of Ali's comeback be taken all that seriously. With the retirement of Ali, Frazier, Foreman and, for the time being, Norton—Holmes' last worthy opponent—the champ has taken on fighters such as Ossie Ocasio, Lorenzo Zanon, LeRoy Jones and poor LeDoux. Holmes so outclassed the last two in his most recent fights that the bouts amounted to hardly more than public floggings.
"It's not my problem, not my fault, that I'm the best right now," Holmes says. "I fight the top people that there is to fight. I knock them out as soon as they bring them to me. I'm not going to say I'm going to be here forever. I'm not; I'm no fool. I go with what's real today. When I was a kid, I believed in Superman. I used to dream I'd be the strongest man in the world, bend steel and all that. All dreams, man. It ain't real. The only thing real is what you can touch, see, feel, hear. I'm real. I'm here for now. Ali was yesterday. This is Larry Holmes' time: 1980."
Considering how much Holmes wants to be recognized and respected, to be admired as a fighter, there is sad irony in the fact that this fight, the one for which he probably will be best remembered, can gain him nothing at all in terms of esteem. He will get ignominy if he loses, shrugs if he wins. Holmes didn't want to fight Ali, he says, but the money was more than good, and there was no way he could refuse the match. "If I don't fight him, I sound scared of him, like I'm ducking him, and he'd go fight someone else," Holmes says. "And I'd live the rest of my life not fighting Ali. If I don't fight him, it kills me. Can you see my kids going to college a few years from now, and someone says, 'This is Lisa Holmes; Larry Holmes is her dad. Remember Holmes, the heavyweight champ? He was scared to fight Muhammad Ali, the old man.' "
Holmes laughs, pondering his fate. "If I thought for one minute that Ali could whip me, I wouldn't fight him. I don't need the embarrassment. My kids are growing up, and they don't need it at school. But I'm in a no-win situation. This fight is to shut people up. But it's a no-win. People are going to downgrade me for beating up on this old man. But there's a lot of pride involved. A lot of pride. When I knock this sucker out, I'm going to be happy, but I'm still going to lose. They're still going to hate Larry Holmes."
The dilemma is unresolvable. Holmes understands it perfectly and deals with it well. It's as if he's fighting a ghost haunting the house the ghost used to own. "He's real," Holmes says, "but he ain't there anymore." Yet Ali is wherever Holmes goes these days—on the telephone beside a thundering road in New Jersey, in a TV studio, in Holmes' dreams. During a recent TV interview, in New York, a tape of an Ali harangue was shown over Holmes' shoulder as he talked. There was Ali, the consummate clown, vowing to win the title a fourth time, shouting "Holmes! Holmes! Four times, Holmes! I eat Holmes, I sleep Holmes, I need Holmes!" And then putting a hand to his eyes as if weeping, Ali starts crying about how badly he needs Holmes and how much he wants Holmes, finally, in a feigned sob, saying, "I get so emotional." It was a hilarious performance, vintage Ali, and Holmes laughed all the way back to the hotel. "I'll tell you, man," Holmes said. "I really think he's funny. Honest to God, I do. I really like him. What he does is funny, man. I don't care what anybody says. It's funny."
A short time later, Holmes was standing on Central Park South when up the street, coming toward him, came the old ghost himself, materializing right there in front of the St. Moritz Hotel. Holmes saw him coming far away, but he waited because he wanted to hear the act once more, wanted to hear Ali say what he knew Ali would say. "Holmes!" Ali shouted. "Four times, Holmes! Holmes! I want Holmes!" A crowd gathered as the two men met. The Ali fight may not be the one the champion wants, but it may carry compensations beyond the purse. When all is said and written, Holmes may have heard himself called Ernie for the last time. Ali had it right, as usual. Surrounded by the crowd in front of the St. Moritz, he turned to Holmes and quietly said, "We're stoppin' the world, ain't we?"