Larry Holmes was 17 when he decided to become a boxer. It was either that or working in the steel mills or driving a truck. "Nobody believed he could make it except for me," says Charles Spaziani, a former district attorney who has been Holmes' financial and legal adviser and surrogate father since he began boxing. "But he was well-coordinated, he had quick reflexes and a burning desire to succeed. You never had to tell him anything twice."

Spaziani was with Holmes as he went up the hard way. "These Olympic guys didn't have to go through the brawls for $200, $150, the club fights," says Spaziani. "Can you imagine Leonard and Spinks fighting up in Scranton at the CYC?"

Holmes worked his way up the ladder, fighting anywhere he could get a fight. He fought nine fights for $9,000 in 1975. He fought in Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, supporting himself first by driving trucks and working in the mills, then by working as a sparring partner for Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. He fought on Ali's undercard, he waited for his time to come.

"Everytime we selected a fighter (an opponent) we selected one with a talent he could learn from," says Spaziani. Gradually, it all came together--the jab, the hook off the jab, the left uppercut, the right cross. He learned the strategy, too, the psychological counterpoint to the physical battering--how to break the other fighter's resistance and his desire to take a punch.

The big fight came in 1978: 15 rounds against Ken Norton in Las Vegas for the World Boxing Council championship. He won the title and $500,000. After that, the poor kid from the south side of Easton, Pa., was a wealthy man, the challenger was the champion. At least that's what the record books said. In the mind of the public, there was someone else: Ali. Ali, who had come back so many times before and who might come back again.

Two years later, Ali did come back, or at least he tried, and the spectacle was embarrassing even by Las Vegas' savage standards. Ali at 38, with his strength gone, and his moves gone, an imitation propped by the $8 million to be had and the mirage that what he had done before he could do again.

"Everything happens for a reason," Holmes says of that sad circus, which ended with an 11th-round technical knockout of Ali and brought Holmes approximately $3.5 million. "Our destiny is written out, but we can change that destiny. Ali didn't. In the beginning, it was all hype--'I'm the baddest, I'm the prettiest.' But then he got to believe it. I believe nobody in the world can whip me. Now. Not forever. Because somebody will."

What will it be like when he is no longer champion? "I'll always be a champion," says Holmes. "They said I couldn't do it and I done it. I done it, I done it, I done it."

"I can see where he'll really miss it, and I don't want him to make the mistake of retiring and then coming back six months later," says Spaziani. "They miss being in the public eye, the attention, it's no longer news when you're not the champion."

"You've got to let go of the dream, boy," says Larry Holmes, as if it were himself he was boxing now. "I can't chase the ghost. I know where I'm at. I know where I'm going. I don't want to be no punch drunk fighter, who hears the bell--bing!--and starts talking about 'when I fought Norton, bing! I hit him with a right and bing!' When a fighter's out there, and he's doing something and it's missing, then it's the end and he knows it."

The next day the heavyweight champion of the world was due at a press conference in New York City and he was running late, leisurely, casually and deliberately late. He was dressed to announce his status--besides the four diamond rings, a diamond bracelet glittered on his wrist, a diamond-encrusted gold watch gleamed on the other and around his neck hung a heavy gold chain on which were suspended the letters LH, spelled out, of course, in diamonds. He spent a little time talking business with his brother Bobby, the executive vice president of Larry Holmes Enterprises, and tried to track down his brother Jake, who was to accompany him as his bodyguard on the trip and who was nowhere to be found. "I give 'em raises yesterday and today I can't find anybody," he grumbled. "Then they wonder why I get mad."

Finally it was time to leave for the ride to New York and with a satisfied smile he settled back into the red plush velour and peered out the smoked glass as the automotive equivalent of Moby Dick headed down the highway. Ahead was the press conference at the Plaza Hotel, where Don King planned to announce Holmes' May 20 title fight against Tim Witherspoon. Neither the fight, however, nor the press conference will be limited to these two opponents. There will also be an elimination bout between Greg Page, the No 1. contender, and the No. 2-ranked Renaldo Snipes, a WBA heavyweight championship rematch between Michael Dokes and Mike Weaver, not to mention a a world junior heavyweight championship between Osvaldo Ocasio and Randy Stephens. The lineup at the press conference was to include as many of these worthies as Don King could corral and it is this infringement on the dignity and respect due the heavyweight champion that Holmes was now protesting.

"I'm the show," said Larry Holmes, "They wait for me. I planned it this way. We're gonna be late. If it's just me and my opponent, I'm on time."

Larry Holmes was stoking himself, turning up the juice, assuming the mantle, becoming his conception of the heavyweight champion of the world. The voice got louder and more truculent as he turned his thoughts to the men waiting for him at the Plaza Hotel, all the young contenders, hungry like he was, waiting for their chance.

"If I get whupped by these guys, there ain't no sense in me coming back and get whupped again," he said. "But they're going to have to get down to the bone to whup me. They say I have a chance to retire undefeated, but to hell with that, I just want to retire with all my faculties."

The car came to a halt at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. "I can say I got stuck in traffic," Holmes said to his public relations man, Dick Lovell.

"You don't have to say anything," Lovell replied. "You're the champ."

When Holmes walked into the Plaza, he was besieged by reporters each wanting a five-minute interview. In the room where the press conference was to be held, he caught sight of King, wearing a purple ruffled tuxedo shirt and the annual output of at least one diamond mine.

"I was late on purpose," he said to King.

"I know," said King.

King had dubbed the upcoming fight the Crown Affair, and everywhere there were oversized boxing gloves painted gold, and gold paper crowns and silver and gold balloons. At the back of the room, Holmes ran into Tim Witherspoon, dressed in a blue warmup suit, and his trainer, Slim Robinson. The two fighters stopped to have their pictures taken together and to begin the hyped up hostility that is, post Ali, part of the show and part also of what they have to do to psych themselves.

"You send your soldiers at me, now I'm going after the general of the army," said Witherspoon, brash and confident, trying to get under Holmes' skin. Robinson, a wiry old ex-fighter, threw in a few verbal punches of his own. "I didn't get the breaks you got," said Robinson. "I was a better fighter, but I didn't get the breaks you got."

It was just the talk of an old man letting his anger betray his old dead dreams, but it drove Holmes crazy. "Nobody made me!" he said and he advanced a step on Robinson. "That's just what Don King tells you. You're just a yes man, a two dollar man. I don't have to take this stuff, and if you keep it up I'll leave." There was something embarassing about it; Holmes getting in his own way again.

Finally the fighters took their seat at the head table, and Don King introduced them, Dokes, Snipes, Page, and . . . "the ultimate in heavyweight champions, the undefeated Larry Holmes."

"I'm bad Don," yelled Holmes, leaping to his feet.

"Ain't no question about it," said King.

Each of the fighters then got a chance to say a few words into the microphone and to take questions from the press. They looked uncomfortable in this element, straining to make a good impression. This, after all, was a long way from the bloody beauty and the exclusive nature of the relationship between two men in a ring. They all seemed both nervous and bored with the exaggerated claims and the boisterous proximity.

But no matter what they talked about, they all got around to Holmes.

"One thing I've learned," said Greg Page, "is not to be a champion like Larry Holmes. I will treat everyone as a fighter and as a gentleman."

"I'm gonna put a sign over his eyes saying, 'closed for the weekend,' " said Witherspoon.

"It's gonna be a war, you can see that," exulted Don King. "You can already see the hostility is so thick you can cut it with a knife. It's one of the greatest cards I ever put together--nobody likes nobody."

And as the noisy quarrelsome taunts flew back and forth, it was Terrible Tim Witherspoon who voiced the collective thought behind all the other cuffs and jabs. "Give it up," he said to Holmes. "You had it long enough."

Then it was Holmes' turn. He began by welcoming the other fighters; he wound up with a declaration of his own identity, the aging lion throwing back his head and roaring back at the presumptuous, inevitable heirs to his throne. "I respect what they're saying. I respect the show they're trying to put on-- it's the same show I put on when I was coming up . . . I realize I'm going to be defeated, but right now this is my day . . .

I am one bad dude, baby. My kids can eat, man, they can go to the best school, and if they don't want to go there, I'll buy them a school of their own!" He lowered his voice as he came to the end. "I'm not afraid of anything on God's green earth that I can see," he said. "I just wanted to shed a little light on Larry Holmes, the human being."

After the press conference, Holmes, King, former junior welterweight champion Saoul Mamby and a publicist named Joyce Ali went to lunch in the Edwardian Room of the Plaza. They talked about the fighters they knew, about who was hearing the bell ring when the bell wasn't ringing, and who was getting flashbacks these days, seeing blood and the canvas coming up fast whenever he stepped inside the ropes. A small platoon of waiters hovered around the table.

After one of the frequent silences Holmes turned to King and said, "I was nice DK, wasn't I nice? I shook hands, and everything." King looked up for a moment, and curled his lips back, launching his eyebrows toward his steel wool hair. Then he went back to his lunch, eating as relentlessly as a beetle on a rose leaf. "You know I'd walk on water for you, DK," said Holmes, "if you'd give me the skis."

When he was finished, Don King tried to pay the tab, but the waiter said, no, it was all right, "the champion has already taken care of me."

Holmes smiled sweetly. "I learned everything from you, Don." Don King threw his head back and laughed loudly as he left the Edwardian Room and the laughter followed him out, crashing into the studied decorum it met along the way.

After lunch, the big white car took him to the dentist who makes his mouth pieces and after that he headed to Newark, to a small bar tucked into an old office building, a dark shadowy place where the small-time promoters and matchmakers and fighters gathered around a long table, hanging out and shouting out their schemes and dreams about making it to the big time.

Holmes walked in and they buzzed around him, taking his picture, checking him out. One man stood staring for a long time at the gold and diamonds around Holmes' neck. "America been good to the bro'," he said in soft approval.

The music got louder and the laughter more hilarious; he was introduced to the local heavies, most of whom had a deal they wanted to talk to him about. The air was thick with smoke and calcified expectation; Holmes proceeded in the same loud voice to define himself for the last time that day. "The heavyweight champion of the world!" he shouted. "I fought 41, I won 41, and I ain't afraid to lose! I'm rich, I'm filthy rich! I made all the money I need to make; I'm quitting this game, I'm getting out."

Around the table they all nodded their heads and murmured their approval of this confirmation that it could be done.

At last he was ready at last to go home. Half the bar trooped out with him to say goodnight, and after they were gone, there was just one passerby left who had a question. "Who you gonna fight next, Larry?"

"I'm gonna fight Terrible Tim Witherspoon on May 20," Holmes answered, as if he were simply repeating something someone had told him.

"Ah, Larry, when you gonna quit practicing, Larry, when you gonna fight someone real?"

It comes with the territory, but still he winced.

Larry Holmes closed the door of the white limousine and told the driver it was time to go home.