When Michael Spinks won the favor of all three judges after busying himself to good purpose at Las Vegas the other night, there was a welcome spinoff to his defeat of Larry Holmes. Whether aware of it or not in the battle's heat, Spinks was performing a distinct public service with his elimination of Holmes from the boxing scene.
For most of his seven-year reign, Holmes presided over a heavyweight division blighted by his own presence at the top.
For a champion who had won all of his 48 career fights, and had such known virtues as a non-smoking, non-drinking, family man, Holmes' degree of unpopularity was difficult to attain, but he was equal to the task and even exceeded it.
Particularly in his later years, he was an insufferable braggart; not the impish kind of boasting that Muhammad Ali affected, but with his incessant and boorish bragging about all the money he was making -- "I made me 60 million . . . and I've got 99 million in the bank" -- and how much of his hometown of Easton, Pa., he owned.
His racist mentality, in the form of us versus them, surfaced again after his loss to Spinks when he told a news conference, "There will never be a white champion as long as black champions are fighting the way they are."
The heavyweight division used to dictate the public's interest in boxing. But under the dead hand of Holmes, who handpicked his opponents, mostly a dismal collection of culls, and made it plain he was in it for the money only, the heavyweights retreated to substatus. They gave the spotlight and the TV ratings to the middleweights (Marvin Hagler) and the welters and lightweights (Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns).
Holmes, a good fighter who had decent skills, already had fought beyond his time when he lost to Spinks, an overgrown light heavy. It was suspected he would lose to the first opponent who could fight a little bit and Spinks was that man. Holmes had become known as an escape artist, somehow extricating decisions over Tim Witherspoon and Carl (The Truth) Williams from myopic and intimidated judges unwilling to rule against a still standing champion who had been licked.
It is not hard to say good riddance to Holmes, citing one more distinction to which he is entitled: first heavyweight champion in history to lose his title to a light heavy champ.
Holmes' last act on fight night after losing to Spinks was an utterly graceless one. He flung insults to three members of the family of Rocky Marciano, whose 49-for-49 record he failed to reach, and then he contributed another indelicacy: "Rocky Marciano couldn't carry my jockstrap."
Later, Holmes apologized for his anti-Marciano remarks, but in these matters the effect always lingers. It may be said, paraphrasing one aphorism, "The insult is halfway around the world before the apology gets its boots on."
The memory of a Rocky Marciano should be the least vulnerable to attacks by Larry Holmes. Marciano fought with simple honesty, never knocked an opponent until the bell rang and never afterward, and was one of the hardest-hitting heavyweights in history despite his mere 188 pounds. Realistically, he ranks up there among the great heavyweight champs.
Marciano's modesty was unlimited. When, in his retirement, he was asked if he would lick Sonny Liston, then the seemingly invincible champ after two one-round knockouts of Floyd Patterson, Marciano said he didn't rightly know if he could beat Liston. His choice of words was: "I've never said I could lick Liston, but I've never said I couldn't, either."
Rocky admitted that he was limited, with only certain things going for him in the ring. "I got this good chin that lets me get inside with my short arms," he used to say. "I got that good uppercut and I don't mind tall opponents. They can't punch down. No power doing that. My short arms do me better inside than their long arms.
"Those uppercuts I throw, you gotta throw them by instinct because going in you're looking down. Charley Goldman told me the only thing I had good was my uppercuts and for two years I worked on them in the gym. There ain't no bag you can use to practice uppercuts. The light bag is too high, the big bag too low. For two years I shadowboxed throwing uppercuts by instinct, and here's a secret: I knocked myself out twice."
Could Marciano hit? Well, it took Joe Louis four punches to knock out Joe Walcott. Rocky needed only one right hand.
Marciano's style, as it was once written here: "He can't box a lick, his footwork is what you'd expect of two left feet. He throws his right hand in a clumsy circle and knows nothing of orderly retreat. All he can do is knock your head off with his left, or right."
And he was probably the best-conditioned heavyweight ever to step into a prize ring -- a physical culture nut. What was good for the body, Rocky wanted. What was bad, he rejected.
At Grossinger's, during one Marciano training camp, two sportswriters who stole off for a round of golf complained of the 51 steps to the next tee. Then they were told by their caddy, "Mr. Marciano goes up those 51 steps at 7 o'clock every morning and on one foot."
On that last day of August in 1969, Rocky never made it to that birthday party they were throwing for him in a Des Moines steak house. The end came for him in a small plane that plunged out of the overcast into an Iowa cornfield. It was written here in a final tribute to him: "It had to be factors beyond his control. Rocky's single-motored heart would not have let him down."
There is a memory that some champions were great ones.