If Larry Holmes is fighting for his place in heavyweight boxing history Friday night against Gerry Cooney, where does he rank now? Surprisingly high.
"Top 10 all-time," said Angelo Dundee. "I think he's suffered the same stigma Rocky Marciano had after Joe Louis. But the whole thing with Larry is he's never gotten over it (being in Muhammad Ali's shadow). He has to kick that, because he is a very good fighter.
"But he'll never kick it. He'll be known, to me, as a very good heavyweight champion, but he's gotta get to the point where he respects Larry Holmes and says: 'Hey, I'm the best in the world. Come and get me.' What drives me up a tree, outta my mind, is his worrying about every little slight."
"Top five," said Sugar Ray Leon- ard's trainer, Janks Morton. "Behind (Joe) Frazier. I would say: (Joe) Louis, Ali, (Jack) Dempsey, Frazier and then Holmes. He's much, much better than the public believes. Got a lotta negative press, part of which he brought on himself by talking about things he wasn't aware of.
"But he's good. Real good."
"Larry realizes that you very seldom become great while you're fighting," said the Associated Press' Ed Schuyler. "Good fighters look great 20 years later. So if he wins (Friday), people'll say: 'Beat nobody, an amateur.' But 20 years from now, if he stays unbeaten, you gotta mention him and Marciano in the same breath.
"He's much bigger and faster than most of the others. At 205, Louis was considered a big man. I think the Ali of the '60s could have beaten him; Marciano and Frazier might have beaten him. (Joe) Walcott might have beaten him, because he had that kind of style. Louis you have to give the edge to.
"But nobody else.
"If he loses to Cooney, though, he's a mediocre heavyweight champion--and that is it."
So Holmes still is fighting something even larger than the 6-foot-6 Cooney: Ali's shadow. And for a prize as important as $10 million: his self-worth.
"First seven," said Ray Arcel, recently hired as a consultant by the Holmes camp. "When he was Ali's sparring partmer, he could have beaten most of the guys Ali fought. But he never was given the chance. Why, I'll never know. But you form a sort of mental block.
"It's a hindrance. Always a hindrance, because they're trying to break your spirit, and you lose confidence in yourself. You feel: 'What the hell's wrong with me?' But I've always admired him. I remember when Cassius Clay came along he used to flick his left hand. Then, after Holmes got through working with him, he snapped it.
"So they learned from one another. But you never heard him (Ali) give Holmes the credit that was due him. You never heard: 'Holmes made me better.' All everything for himself, with his big mouth."
The major Holmes dissenter is the immensely respected Cus D'Amato, who told Inside Sports: "He doesn't measure up, and I'm going all the way back. He's not a sharp puncher, and his elusive properties are nonexistent . . . Any fighter who is competitive, who is not afraid to throw a punch and get hit with a punch, can beat Holmes."
A career-long clod named Reynaldo Snipes floored Holmes, and we know Cooney can throw a punch. The Washington Monument might quiver in fear if Cooney cocked that left fist. But that's all we know about this appealing giant who has fought just six rounds in the last 26 months. Of course, it's not his fault that Jimmy Young was ready to be knocked out in four rounds and Ron Lyle and Ken Norton in one.
But the more Cooney is seen at work here the greater the rush to abandon his bandwagon. He seems frighteningly awkward, and about as slow right now as the General Belgrano. I'm also skipping off. Once I thought Cooney would clobber Holmes senseless inside five rounds; now I'm picking Holmes inside 10.
Sentiment may be knocking logic groggy here; I simply don't want Cooney to win. He might deserve to be heavyweight champion of the world on ability, but he certainly has gotten more notoriety on less performance than anyone in recent memory.
Poor Holmes. He's already had to share so much with Cooney. Money. Billing. This week he was decisioned out of half the Time cover by Sly Stallone, who could be seen preening off to one side during the final Cooney workout Wednesday.
If Holmes loses, it very well may have happened before he steps into the ring. If Cooney knocks him out, it will be in part because comanagers Dennis Rappaport and Mike Jones turned Holmes's mind to mush with their tick . . . tick . . . tick, your-time-has-ended talk.
To win, Holmes must be the patient, clever matador against this snorting bull of a hooker. He must keep his wits, and if he does Cooney will be embarrassed inside seven rounds and prone inside 10.
"The great tragedy today," said Arcel, 82, "is that none of these guys have learned their trade, as Larry did. He was an accomplished fighter by the time he became champion (four years ago this week). But you take these other kids: (Michael) Dokes, (Greg) Page, even this fella. Who did they fight?"
"All the money coming in," he said. "If Cooney wins, he might make so much money not fighting he won't even defend his title."
Then his face turned sober.
"Could you imagine in your wildest dreams," he said, "that a guy like Snipes could have been heavyweight champion of the world?"