WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Larry Holmes has clashed with Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Ken Norton yet admits his own verbal jab at an American icon was ultimately more painful than anything he endured inside the ring.
It has been 22 years since Holmes lost to Michael Spinks in a controversial decision and afterward uttered the words he would live to regret.
“If you want to get technical about it, Rocky Marciano couldn’t carry my jockstrap,” bellowed Holmes, who was frustrated at losing to Spinks and being unable to match Marciano’s record of winning 49 professional fights without a defeat.
Holmes, now 58, said he is still feeling a nation’s wrath.
“All these years later, people just can’t forget that,” Holmes told Reuters in a telephone interview. “It still haunts you. After all these years, people won’t let go.”
“I didn’t mean for it to be derogatory. What I meant was that he couldn’t walk on the same sidewalk that I was on. And that’s probably the way I should have said it.”
Holmes said the remark against one of America’s most revered athletes cost him endorsements, sullied his reputation and “probably put a black eye” on his remarkable career.
“People always bring it up,” he said. “It’s cost me.”
Holmes, who was heavyweight champion for an impressive seven-and-a-half years, still boasts a quick laugh, unparalleled self-admiration and a mouth that has a mind of its own.
He won the crown in 1978 with a 15-round split decision over Norton in a fight many hail as one of the all-time greatest. “I thought I won bigger than I did but they gave it to me anyway so that’s fine,” he said.
One of the most active fighters of his generation, Holmes did not relinquish the title until losing to Spinks in a 15-round unanimous decision in 1985.
He laughs when discussing today’s boxers.
“These guys can’t fight,” Holmes said from his office in Easton, Pennsylvania. “After six or seven good rounds, they’re tired. And today, they’re only going 12 rounds. We were going 15.”
Holmes possessed a lethal jab that wore down his opponents and set them up for the inevitable fight-ending flurry. After winning his first 49 fights, the “Easton Assassin” finished with a 69-6 record with 44 knockouts.
At age 45 he came close to upsetting WBC champion Oliver McCall. His final fight at the age of 52 was a 10-round unanimous decision over lightly regarded Eric “Butterbean” Esch.
He has no regrets about fighting so long.
“I had fun trying to get away from Butterbean, which I did,” he said. “He was a young guy, strong, punches like hell. I wanted 75 fights and that’s what I got. I didn’t do it for the $250,000 they gave me. I wanted to go out with 75 fights.”
Among those 75 fights was an easy victory over an aging Ali, his former sparring partner. Eight years later, the tables were turned when the 38-year-old Holmes came out of retirement to fight Tyson for the title.
Tyson scored a fourth-round knockout, the only time Holmes would be knocked out in his career. He said promoter Don King made him fight sooner than he had originally been told.
“After two years of retirement, I was not ready for the fight,” he said. “If I had two more months to get ready for the fight, it would have been a different story in that ring.”
Holmes, unlike many boxers, invested his money well and remains an influential businessman. He also stars in a local television program, “What the Hell Were They Thinking?” a forum for Holmes to air his views on political, social and others issues of the day.
The burly, six-foot-three-inch (1.9-metre) Holmes said he was perhaps not as popular as some other boxers because he had saved his money. During the final stages of his career, when his skills and his weight went in different directions, Holmes continued to invest.
“A lot of boxers are broke,” he said. “They don’t have anything. Sometimes people get jealous of you saving your money, having things, when you’re in a high position.
“If a guy at NBC makes $500,000 a year and I’m getting a $1 million fight, he’s kind of pissed off.”
Editing by Clare Fallon