It is late in the evening after a long day in New York; New Jersey is just a blur beyond the headlights, a gray smudged mystery composed of exit signs that lead nowhere and the sound of tires humming in the night. Larry Holmes is lost. He hunches forward in the long white limousine and directs his chauffeur: pull into that gas station, he tells him, stop at the fast food chicken stand, slide up next to that man washing his car. Each time he gets directions, he has to sign an autograph. Each time he gets directions, he finds himself going somewhere else he hadn't bargained on. "Passaic," he reads off a highway sign. "Where's Passaic?"

Most of the time, though, he simply stares out the window, tired now, the gritty glamor of the day behind him. Boxing is like the moon in its phases, it waxes and wanes, and so do its champions. "Everybody loses, except (Rocky) Marciano," Larry Holmes had said earlier that day. "And in the end, he lost, he got killed. Everybody loses in the end. Death says to you, 'Come on in this hole, boy,' and you say, 'I ain't goin', and he says, 'Oh yes you is, boy!'

"I got in this game for the money. I didn't get in to beat any records. I do a job and I give it all I've got. When I'm in the ring, I reach in that pocket and I pull out what's there and if there's nothing there, well, that's it, baby, that's all there is. You fight to survive. Every time, it's like facing death, and fighting it, and winning."

Somewhere beyond the Meadowlands, it all gets straightened out, he knows the way back home now, and he relaxes, sinking back in the limousine's plush red velour. The heavyweight champion of the world turns on the television, puts a James Bond movie on the Betamax. He picks up the telephone and dials a number. Finally it answers. "Hi," he says. "It's Larry, and I'm lost in New Jersey.

"What's happening?"

Larry Holmes has been the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion since 1978, when he beat Ken Norton in Las Vegas. Since then, he has defended his title 14 times and nursed his grievances for at least that long, never getting the recognition, he says with a monomaniacal insistence, never getting the respect. He is a classic fighter with a fundamental finesse, but it has never been enough.

For the first two years of his championship, there was the possibility, if not the prayer, on the part of those he had entranced, that Muhammad Ali would come back. And even after Holmes had ended that delusion in the 11th round of an $8 million madness in Las Vegas, there was still the memory of Ali's beauty and Ali's grace, and the way in which he made boxing as much an act of the imagination as a triumph of the necessary skills. Ali had lit up the space occupied by the heavyweight champion of the world in the restless seas of public fascination, made it so much bigger and brighter than it had been, that when he was gone, it was impossible not to look around and make a few comparisons.

It was a hard act to follow, and Larry Holmes never seemed to make anyone forget that fact, possibly because he has never forgotten himself.

When he was poor, he was very poor, one of Flossie Holmes' 12 children. He grew up in the cold red buildings on the south side of Easton, Pa. He hung out on the street corners and fought in the streets for the pride it salvaged, fought in barrooms with his brother Lee for the dinner it would get them, fighting amid the whiskey and the laughter of the working men in a town where pity had no legal tender and the picture drawn at an early age was drawn in black and white. Easton is an old, dying town, built on the backs of the men who worked in the steel mills and the women who worked in the silk factories, a town where the rich never bothered with the poor and whichever side of the line you were born on was the side where you were expected to stay.

"It's hard being black," Holmes says behind a poker face. "You ever been black? I was black once--when I was poor."

The heavyweight champion of the world is sitting in his office in Larry Holmes Enterprises in downtown Easton, in a building that also includes his restaurant and disco and his sportswear store, although the restaurant and the disco are closed now, and the store is empty, for the moment, of customers. He is signing checks for a payroll that includes several members of his rowdy and irascible family, brooding about his recent fight with Lucien Rodriguez and talking about his career from the perspective of its approaching end. In the front office, the telephone rings constantly; everybody's got a deal, it seems, that will make Larry Holmes some money.

He is a large man with narrow eyes, fleshy features, a thin mustache and large hands, but he carries himself gracefully and so seems smaller than his 220 pounds. He talks with a slight lisp. "People have suggested speech therapy, they say, 'Champ, you got to work on your image.' But I like the way I talk. People want to listen they can listen. They want me to be articulate like Sugar Ray Leonard. Everything he says, he says correctly. But if I feel like saying sho nuff, I'm gonna say sho nuff."

Larry Holmes is a nice guy, a softspoken man who takes care of his family and who was named one of the 10 outstanding young men of 1980 by the Jaycees, in part for his work with handicapped kids. He is also a street-smart millionaire who still sees the world through the eyes of a poor black man, because it is the only perspective he trusts. But to get a sense of that perspective requires wading through the alternating currents of defensiveness and braggadocio, which is the way Larry Holmes defends his title before the world.

"I wasn't supposed to be heavyweight champion," he says. "I didn't go to the Olympics. They said, 'Holmes doesn't have the heart,' they said I would end up a truck driver. When I was coming up, there was (George) Foreman, (Joe) Frazier, (Jimmy) Young, Ali, (Ken) Norton. Who was paying any attention to Larry Holmes? But I knew my day would come. Now they say Holmes is slipping, that I was playing around because I didn't take Rodriguez out. Well, you can't take 'em all out. That fight was a no-win situation for me; if I had taken him out they would have said that he wasn't any good anyway. I'm in my prime, I'm not over the hill. I'm going to get in my best shape and fight my heart out (in his May 20 title bout against Tim Witherspoon).

"I'm blessed by God," he says. "I'm a seventh grade dropout but I'm a Ph.D. in common sense. I've got millions. How many? I don't know. As long as you're not asking for anything, you can say any number you want." Always it comes back to the money: "It still drives me. I don't want to spend what I have, I want to make more. It's always there."

The way Larry Holmes sees it, life is a matter of paying dues. You pay and pay and pay some more, you take what little accident and luck have to offer and you don't look back. When Boom Boom Mancini delivered the blow that ended the life of Korean boxer Duk Koo Kim, Larry Holmes sent him a telegram. Just thank God it wasn't you, was the message that he sent.

He is 33 years old. He says this is the last year he's going to fight. He said it before: after the Ali fight, after the Gerry Cooney fight. Heavyweight champs have to say it for a while before they do it, a long windup on a slow pitch and then, usually, the retiring is done for them, by someone younger, faster, stronger, better. Only Marciano retired undefeated.

Won't be long now. It never is. The tradition is forever, but the dynasties are so short, young men still young when it's all over, when the body breaks or the will bends, all before the dream dies. A dangerous time, says Larry Holmes, when "your mind makes a date your body can't keep."

The chauffeur, an elderly gentleman of grave dignity, brings the limousine around and Holmes takes a tour of his home town, down Larry Holmes Drive as it follows the river and then to the south side, where the young men hang out on the steps of the low red buildings just as he once did, looking up with blank eyes as the car cruises by. "You see that hill over there, I own that hill," he says, and points out the other parcels of land as they fly by, the houses he's built for his brothers, the one he bought for his mother.

As he drives by his mother's neat brick home, he calls her on the limousine telephone, and when she answers he decides to stop. Flossie Holmes answers the door wearing a Larry Holmes T-shirt, a grandchild in one arm. She is asked if her son has changed much since he became the champion, and she says, "No, he's still a kid." Of the old days before the tide of money turned, she says, "The little bit I had, I bought groceries first and paid the rent next."

Back in the limousine, he says, "I'm a boxing expert and there's nothing out there that can do a thing to me," and of course that is part of it, that there is nothing in the way of a beating that he has to be afraid of, and so he is asked what does make him afraid. "I'm afraid of not having a family, of not having someone to love who I want to love," he says. "I'm afraid of things I don't understand. I don't understand people. They are the hardest thing to understand that God created. You can understand a tiger, you know what his instincts are. But I don't understand why a man would shoot the Pope, who only talks peace and praises the Lord."

He tells the driver to take him home, to the spectacular white mansion that surrounds the indoor swimming pool in the shape of a boxing glove, to the house whose cathedral ceilings and other architectural inspirations were derived, he says, from Liberace's home and Caesars Palace. He will point out the oversize television screen, the trophy room full of the testimony to his own magnificence, he will tour each of the vast and elegantly decorated rooms, but first he will mention that someone wrote the words "you stink" on the wall that surrounds the house, someone blew up the mail box, someone painted black the face and hands of the little white lantern boy that stands in the courtyard.

"They're just jealous," he says, as he walks through the house, his daughter Kandy trailing after him in quiet adoration, his son Larry Jr., 6 months old, in his arms. But he worries about the crazies; there is a closed-circuit televsion on the house, and his wife Diane and his brothers all carry walkie talkies, so that they can stay in constant contact.

"I had plans," he says of the town in which he grew up. "I was going to do a lot of things--an office complex, a health spa, but I didn't have the support here, from the people, from the politicians." His discotheque is closed--he didn't get the clientele he wanted, he didn't get the respect--and he is talking now of the Kentucky Fried Chicken stand he wants to build, and of getting deeper into the hotel business.

"We had the nicest, classiest disco in the Lehigh Valley, with the lights going and the big-screen TV. I fixed it up myself. I did it because this is my home, because I wanted to ride down this street in Easton and say, 'That's mine over there.' But I understand now why people get out when they make it, because they don't treat you bad if you leave. But if I had left they would have said, 'Larry Holmes has forgotten where he came from.' "

For that to happen, he would have to stop breathing. His whole sense of who he is can best be found in Easton--it is the place where he can measure how far he has come, and look back and remember where he's been.

"If you can get the little guy approving of you, then you've accomplished something," he says. "You'll be all right with them, those are the people who stick with you. Rich people don't count, because they're just like you, they'll sell you out for the next six million. Let me tell you, I'm streetwise. I could have pool parties and cocktail parties, I could have wined and dined mayors and senators and they'd come. But I don't go for that. They're not real, they'll only use you. You know what it's like, going to the White House? It's like going to see Santa Claus. You sit on his lap, you get your picture taken and you leave. But you can't put anything over on a guy who's got nothing."

Next: Measuring respect