Most grownups find it difficult to take seriously a boxer who weighs less than they do, Smoking Joe Frazier included. "Well, miss," said the former heavyweight champion, resplendent in red suspenders, "big men's what makes the world go round."
Joe Frazier's gym is on the sullen side of North Philadelphia, the wrong side of the Amtracks. It is a red brick building with a pair of boxing gloves on the facade.
Inside, Joe and his son, Marvis, were doing a one-two combination on the heavy bag while another would-be champion stalked the ring. Derrik Holmes, 5-foot-7 -- "Well, maybe 5-6" -- and 122 pounds, was preparing for his WBC super bantamweight championship fight Friday against Wilfredo Gomez.
"Psst, psst," went Holmes, his blows spritzing his sparring partner like a can of Raid.
"Thump, thump," went Smoking Joe. "Thwack, thwack," went his son.
A beefy kid with a ponytail stopped shadow boxing; trainer George Benton turned his back on Holmes in the ring to watch the father-son routine. It's like Joe says: "Big men is exciting no matter what they do." r
But Holmes is nothing if not quick on his feet. "Tell Joe," he said later, "I'm big enough to make things exciting for the little guys."
Little guys do not always command much attention, especially when they are 25 pounds lighter than Sugar Ray Leonard, the big man in Washington.
Holmes, who is from New Carrollton, "came up" with Leonard in the suburbs of Washington. They went to school together, double-dated together and trained together. They did everything but go to the Olympics together. Things then were not so sweet for "Holmes Sweet Holmes."
But this week, on the NBC "Friday Night Fights," the other fighter in Washington will be the main event. Sugar Ray Leonard will be the color commentator. Leonard says, "I hope like hell he wins."
Leonard says Holmes "has a good chance, a better chance than most people think, and I'm not just hyping him because he's a friend. He has speed and power. He knocked out Gomez in the first roung the last time."
That was eight years ago in the North American Boxing Championships and it was the only time Gomez has ever been knocked out. The week before the fight, Holmes says, "Gomez was always walking around in a muscle shirt, showing off."
The night before the fight, Holmes said, "Ray and I -- scratch that -- I was socializing with a young lady I met on campus. I was in her room chatting and drinking ice water when there was a knock on the door. She opened the door and it was Gomez. We had met the same young lady.
"He started grabbing on her . . . and kissing on her. I left. I wanted him to be happy."
Gomez arrived at the fight with the girl on his arm. "He got the girl," said Holmes. "But I got the trophy."
Holmes is expecting a repeat performance. He vows to knock out the champion between the fifth and eighth rounds.
When he's not fighting, Holmes works with his business manager, selling insurance. Holmes once told him facetiously that he would sell his first policies to his opponents beacause they would need them the most.
What kind of policy would he recommend for Gomez? "A retirement plan," he said.
That may be a bit premature. Gomez is 29-0-1 as a professional with 29 straight knockouts. Not for nothing is he known as the Bazooka. Holmes has had just half the number of professional fights, but also is undefeated, 14-0-1.
"Gomez is supposed to move up a class but he wanted to settle the score first," said Holmes. "I'm very fortunate to get the opportunity."
The question is whether he is ready for it. Frazier said, "He looks great. But he's got a lot to learn. A lot to learn. He's got to learn to box a man. He's got to learn to hit him a shot."
Benton, who once was one of Frazier's handlers, said, "All fighters got a lot to learn."
Benton and Gilbert Ware, Holmes' manager, have been working on improving his stamina (he has gone 10 rounds twice; this is a scheduled 15-rounder) and his defense.
In the past, Benton said, "Derrik's speed was his defense. We had to slow him down. Now he's blocking and slipping and catching punches."
But is he ready for a shot at the title? "It's something you can't turn down," Benton said. "You'd always prefer more time but it's a different era. dWhen I was boxing, you needed 100 fights to get a shot at the title. Derrik's good enough to win it and he's good enough to hold it."
Benton was less effusive about what Holmes will have to do to win it because, he said, "the other guy may read English."
The robe Holmes will wear provides a hint. It says "I'm Coming Out," as in, "after you," Holmes said.
Leonard said, "Everyone thinks Derrik is going to run. But he's got to go straight to him."
If that strategy sounds familiar, it should. "This is the little Leonard-Duran fight," said Holmes. "But I sure am glad I saw them fight first."
Gomez, like Duran, is a bullish fighter, who will come in, come in and come in some more. Holmes, like Leonard, is a dancer, a boxer, with a quick left jab that Holmes says "made Gomez very mad" eight years ago.
Holmes says you can't run your way to the title. But, "you don't want to just stand there and brawl with them, either. That's Duran's backyard. That's Gomez's backyard. I'm not going to do that. You come and stand there after you're hurt."
All fighters shadow box. But they don't all have to box with the shadow of Sugar Ray Leonard.
Leonard said, "I don't consider him a shadow. I consider him a friend."
Holmes said, "I was in his shadow." And that's why Holmes leaves him out of stories about things they did together.
But it is impossible to leave him out. Leonard is the man who brought little fighters, like Holmes, out of the shadows, back into prime time. And besides the two are so much alike: the same smooth cheeks, the same smooth talk, the same soft smile and intelligence. "I know, I know," Holmes said, smiling. "People say I could be his younger brother. And I'm older." Holmes' 25th birthday is the day after the fight.
Holmes and Leonard do their roadwork in Greenbelt Park. "In the mornings, I'll be jogging and a whole carload of little kids will go past and say, 'Hey, Ray, Sugar Ray Leonard.' They're still mistaking me for him. I'd prefer for them to say Derrik Holmes. But I just wave right back and run faster."
Holmes has a 20-month-old daughter, Veronica (no, he never wore her pictures in his socks), and a fiance he intends to marry sometime after the fight. How does he feel when he sees Ray Jr. and Ray Sr. doing 7-Up commercials? "I can do that," he said. "Any soda will do."
Holmes says there is no resentment, no bitterness. The comparison with Leonard doesn't rankle, it inspires. "It is a pleasure to be compared with a fighter like him," Holmes said.
But surely, it could not have been easy to see Leonard get there first, when it was Holmes who was the first to get started.
Holmes' mother, Charlene, said she knew her son was destined to become a boxer one day 20 years ago when Derrik tried to punch out a bad guy on the TV screen who had beaten up his favorite cowboy.
There is a scar on his hand that marks the day he learned the difference between illusion and reality.
And surely, it was destiny that one of the two boys who beat up Holmes when he was 12 was a boxer at the Kentland Boys Club. When Holmes followed him there "to get revenge," he discovered the future in an 18-foot ring. Years later, when the boy turned up at Holmes' front door after seeing him on television, Holmes said, "Thanks for jumping me."
At age 14, he made his way to the Palmer Park Recreation Center, where Dave Jacobs was starting a boxing team that included Roger Leonard. Ray's brother. Ray joined several weeks later.
"In the older days, Derrik was the better fighter," Jacobs said. "Derrick was our first national champ. In 1972, he qualified for the Olympic Trials, while Ray lost in the semis."
Two years later, the two fighters earned scholarships to the University of Maryland. Holmes got a full-time job and enrolled; Leonard kept training. "Derrick didn't pay his dues, and in 1976 he found himself at the bottom of the totem pole," Jacobs said. "I told him he was trying to do too much."
"But I was bullheaded," Holmes added. "I wouldn't listen."
Holmes finished two years at Maryland while working as an assistant director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center and fashion modeling. Later he did two years of study at the RCA computer training school at Goddard Space Center.
Sometimes Holmes went into the ring unprepared. Still, he was unprepared for the loss to Charles Mooney in the finals of the 1976 Olympic Trials, that ended the dream he and Leonard shared. Mooney, also of Washington, had beaten Holmes twice before, decisions that Holmes still feels were unfair. He went into the third fight, he says, "with defeat in my heart."
His mother said, "I think the judges saw the same lack of enthusiasm I saw."
His brother, John, believes there were also political implications. Mooney was not only in the Army, he was "the man in the picture for the posters that say 'uncle Sam Wants You'," John said.
The poster boy went to the Olympics. Holmes quit the ring. His amateur record was 129-10, including 75 knock-outs.
Holmes watched Mooney win a silver medal and Leonard a gold. "I don't know if I cried," he said. "But there was water in my eyes."
"I guess it is kind of hard to say (how much it hurt)," he added later. "It hurt then. It cut through my heart. But I don't want to look back.Everything is beautiful now."
Holmes stayed away from boxing for almost 1 1/2 years. While he shadow-boxed in the privacy of his bedroom, Sugar Ray Leonard became a hero. s
Once I turned professional and was making a dollar here and there, the money changed a great deal in our relationship," Leonard said. "People started putting trash into his head, saying, 'Ray is making all this money, how come you're not.' Being human, it's natural to say, 'Why not me, too, to question yourself, instead of making things happen."
Holmes, an intensely religious man, believes that what happened to him was "a tribulation" he was meant to go through.
"During the time I quit and Ray was still going, I felt like a quitter. I was trying to hide. I was immature . . . I couldn't face anything. I turned my back on everyone. I was less than a man."
And then in 1977, Wilfredo Gomez became world champion. That was too much to take. Holmes turned pro in June 1978. He hid his new trunks and robe from his mother until the night before the flight when he finally told her of his decision. "She told me I had my head screwed on backwards," he said.
And once he was a professional, Holmes said, there still were people trying to "get us (Holmes and Leonard) up as enemies. We talked about it. There were people telling me to take no less than a certain amount of money to fight on his card, a $50,000 payday. I said, 'I'm Derrik Holmes, not Sugar Ray Leonard.'"
Holmes will receive $40,000 for the Gomez fight.
In the second round of Holmes' second fight. Robert Matos staggered him with an overhand right. "It hurt, too," he said. "But the spirit moved me to go down for the count, to slow things down."
As the referee counted to eight, Holmes "realized I had to get my act together" he said. "Up until then, I had been taking my ability for granted."
Soon after, he had a "man-to-man" talk with Jacobs, and realized that he would be overshadowed by Leonard as long as he continued training at the same place. He needed more attention. He left.
Holmes never wanted to be dependent on Leonard. So when Leonard told him, "I wanted him to come along with me because I had the name and could give him the exposure," Holmes said no thanks. "Derrik wanted to be his own man, not a shadow." Leonard said.
"I remember I ran into Ray at a party and we talked about it," Holmes said. "I never said yes or no. But I knew what was in my mind. I wanted to be my own main event."