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Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson & Larry Holmes: Greatness on the Brink

By Mike Plunkett

Sometime ago I was asked to fill-in for a co-worker on a courtesy call to a much valued account in the hopes that we could continue the process of damage control after the relationship had hit a few unforeseen bumps. Typically somebody else I work with would take care of this sort of thing, however on this occasion I was asked to pitch-in at the last minute. After having reviewed the account file in order to acquaint myself with the task at hand I was off and on my way after a quick call ahead to the pre-arranged point of contact, a fellow by the name of Eddie.

Upon arrival at the intended destination, and after briefly perusing an array of dated industrial magazines that opened my eyes to the vast universe of snap rings, reamers, retaining rings and shims, I was greeted warmly by a surprisingly affable non-corporate type that seemed more genuine than what I had envisioned given what I had read in the file beforehand. Ushered quickly into an office that more resembled a sports memorabilia outlet, it took mere seconds for me to recognize no less than a dozen glass-encased autographed pictures of various former world champions and fighters spanning what looked like several different eras amongst other token items associated with hockey and football.

Having remarked on the beauty of Leroy Neiman’s energetic, semi-abstract interpretation of Lennox Lewis versus Michael Grant, Eddie paused and nodded at my instant recognition of both the artist and his depiction of the combatants. At this point he asked how long I had followed the sport and from there I took the queue and worked towards winning him over from the dark side with the intention of realigning his thinking to that of my organization, perhaps just enough so that my agenda of “patch work” would be a success.

After an hour of dry conversation that focused on a go-forward strategy and departmental accountability, our talk eased into a relaxed review of the sport of boxing. Before long the discussion shifted towards our personal perceptions of past great heavyweight champions, the illusion of invincibility and that special something that was a part of the unique character of these former greats, something not easily recognized or even proven until such a fighter found himself at the edge of the abyss, and how laymen or the casual fan simply didn’t understand the need or value for such moments of duress.

Eddie and I both agreed that in order to be able to demonstrate marked greatness, a fighter had to get dirty and be either taken to the brink by another great fighter or simply slip-up just enough so that it would take that special something, call it the fusion of pride, desperation and practiced composure, to see him through the rough waters of certain despair. What I refer to is much more than obvious extraordinary athletic talent or fearsome punching power. It goes beyond surgical ring technique, the aura of malice or an undefeated record and impressive stats. It’s something that today is often in short order but an attribute we saw from time to time from past heavyweight greats such as Muhammad Ali, Larry Holmes and more recently Evander Holyfield.

Taking matters a step further I pressed him on giving me examples of where the aforementioned demonstrated greatness. Starting with Ali, he pointed out that he always saw Ali as special from a go-forward, fighting-his-fight type of way, but only acknowledged Ali as being one of the truly great ones after watching a rejuvenated and hell-bent Joe Frazier press him to the brink of capitulation in their rubber match in Manila. “I saw that Ali really had nowhere to go. He was faced with gutting it out when he and everybody else figured he didn’t have to. He was no longer what he had been and he wasn’t all that he could be even at that later point of his career. He basically took everything he had left, at that stage of his career and at that moment in the ring in Manila, and threw it at Joe, not certain of how it would end up. A quitter wouldn’t do that.

The older Klitschko quit against Chris Byrd telling everybody his shoulder was out. Ali wouldn’t have done that and he didn’t with Frazier. The idea of quitting just did not occur to him. The way he bared all for the world to see underlined what the heavyweight championship meant to him, and that where it was concerned, there was no tomorrow.

Pressing Eddie further on the demonstration of greatness, I asked him to give me an example of it from Larry Holmes. “Holmes wasn’t taken seriously by the mainstream until he beat remnants of Ali, but I knew he was for real after watching him slip up with Mike Weaver. I don’t think Holmes was as keyed-up for Weaver as he needed to be. He figured it was just a tune-up and that “Hercules” was just a journeyman that would fall around the halfway mark in the bout. He was also sick for that bout, to hear it from him, but he looked fairly sharp and at 215 wasn’t far off the mark. I know he was in shape physically, probably at about 95% that night, which is better than most today at heavyweight. Mike Weaver fought beyond himself in the bout and hurt Larry multiple times throughout. Holmes was chin-checked and staggered badly in the eleventh and I figured him to be seconds away from losing the title when out of nowhere he caught Weaver with an inside, beauty of a right uppercut. The replay shows that Larry’s legs were gone and that off the ropes he was measuring Weaver for the shot. He gambled and it paid off. When he saw Weaver come out for the twelfth round, he let it all go on the guy as if it were his last chance. He knew that where the heavyweight title was concerned there was no tomorrow. Three months later he faced Earnie Shavers, perhaps the most devastating one-shot puncher in heavyweight history. Many figured him to fold after what happened with Mike Weaver, a far less decorated fighter. But Holmes had done his homework and looked to be in the best physical shape I had ever seen him in. When Earnie caught him in the seventh with that huge right hand, I again thought Holmes was dead, but he did something the old timers did. He bounced around, cleared his head and kept moving. He showed he was smart and determined to gather himself in order to go about the business of getting his challenger out of there. Once he cleared the cobwebs, he took Shavers apart and battered a very dangerous fighter to the point where he was utterly helpless. Larry’s supreme confidence and sense of desperation ensured he’d do all he could to keep the title, and he did. His superior conditioning on that night saw him through the inevitable rough patches….and he has Mike Weaver to thank for waking him up and forcing him to get to that point”.

Going over Eddie’s last choice the subject of Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield was brought up. “You know, everybody had their eyes on Mike Tyson back when Holyfield won the heavyweight title from James “Buster” Douglas, so much so that mostly people were missing the actual excellent fighting Evander was doing. The fact of the matter was that although Evander was more systematic than explosive and destructive, he had terrific range and the ability to switch gears, not to mention the heart, composure and ability to really dig-in and suck it up when things started to not go his way. I saw him as old school in that sense and he reminded me of Ezzard Charles. I was impressed with the way he struggled with Alex Stewart in their first fight and of course George Foreman in his first title defense. He switched gears back and forth for Foreman and used his head to gut it out, not letting his ego get in the way. The media wondered about him as a long term proposition after he out-pointed Big George, but the fact was he fought back and didn’t get discouraged when the tough moments came; he adjusted. His next match against “Smokin’ Bert Cooper was golden. He was dropped early and he looked to be a punch or two away from losing everything. What did he do? He collected himself and took it right to Cooper. He did this over and over until Cooper wilted. Again the media criticized him and fans kept talking about what would have happened had Tyson faced him on that night, his original opponent. What they forget is that Holyfield went into that match over trained in my opinion, and he had to prepare for three different styles leading up to it, taking into account he had at one point been preparing for a tall boxer-type in Francesco Damiani, only to have to adjust his preparation for a short slugger known for applying constant pressure. Fans and the media completely missed what Holyfield did, which was literally will his opponent into the ground despite many factors playing against him leading up to the match. The guy was being basically forged in the fire whereas others were explosive but used to having things go their way. Holyfield could fight back – and that is an attribute every great had to have in order to become great. When he and Mike Tyson finally met years later, the difference in seasoning became obvious. Holyfield was used to fighting back whereas Tyson was not, and Evander prevailed by willing himself on his opponent”.

Eddie and I have kept in touch in the weeks since our memorable meeting. The aforementioned discussion just so happened to greatly reflect my thinking on Ali, Holmes and Holyfield and that casual fans and laymen often miss the point on what determines the greatness of a heavyweight champion, or any fighter from any weight class for that matter. It was most refreshing to spend the time exchanging notes, view points and recollections with a knowledgeable fan with some serious years of following the sport. Eddie was clear that the very best would sometimes screw-up, that they weren’t invincible. It’s what they did to pull themselves out of the fire that determined the measure of what they were as a fighter and champion. Perhaps that’s why I almost never fully buy into a fighter until I see him climb off the deck. The demonstration of true championship character is a rare and beautiful thing.

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