ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- The punch that turned out the lights on Larry Holmes' long and occasionally glorious boxing career was a debilitating Mike Tyson right, as thick as a brick, and delivered with thunderous intention with one minute 18 seconds left in the fourth round. It slammed Holmes to the canvas like a fallen oak, and though he rolled over and bounced up quickly, from then on Holmes was on borrowed time. "When he went down that first time, I knew it was over," Tyson would say later. "He wasn't going to finish the round."
Tyson bore in on him and quickly dropped him again, this time with a right to the top of Holmes' head. There was still one minute left in the round, and Holmes was unsteady, listing on wobbly legs. Joe Cortez, the referee, might well have stopped the fight as Tyson wailed away. But given the opportunity, Tyson ended it himself, dropping Holmes with another chilling right. "He's better than I thought," Holmes said in the understatement of the '80s.
Holmes, who'd never before been knocked out in 15 years of fighting, fell flat on his back -- like something from a Road Runner cartoon -- and spent the final seconds of his career staring semiconsciously into space. It took all Don King's horses and all Don King's men to lift him. If this was a referendum on Tyson's punching power, the verdict is in: He's the Real Deal.
"As we go along, eventually someone gets us," Holmes said, reflecting on his career and, indeed, the careers of almost all boxers. "For me, it came tonight." Holmes' strategy had been to keep Tyson off him by deploying his jab as a football stiff-arm, and to tie Tyson up on the inside. But it was ungainly and only briefly effective. "He wouldn't fight," Tyson said disgustedly. And in the fourth round Holmes made the mistake of getting cute with Tyson, dancing around like it was Swan Lake. "How can you play with dynamite like that?" asked Michael Spinks from a front row seat. "If I'm Tyson, and I think he's playing with me like a pretty boy, I'm going to kill him for sure."
We bring up Spinks' name because as Tyson cuts through the heavyweight division like a chainsaw, the fight people want to see -- maybe the only one people want to see (other than Dexter vs. Ditka) -- is Tyson-Spinks. For all the millions Tyson can make without Spinks, that is the fight that stands between Tyson and acclaimed greatness. Matching Tyson against Holmes made financial sense and catered a bit to nostalgia and romance, but now we see why Holmes trained in seclusion: He didn't want anyone to see how little he had left.
Both boxers exhibited disdain for each other, paring the pre-fight hoopla to maybe one hoop, two hoops at best. Holmes, before he clammed up, called Tyson "a dirty fighter," and ridiculed the class of Tyson's previous opponents: "They say he hits hard, but I don't know how hard, because he never hit anybody." (My guess is he knows now.) In return, Tyson refused to shake Holmes' proferred hand when they signed for the fight, and more recently said of Holmes: "His insults and arrogance have really stuck a pin in my backside."
But beyond this posturing, it was hard to get a handle on this fight because Holmes was sequestered at home in Easton, Pa. Holmes' trainer, Richie Giachetti, said this was done "to keep everyone from bothering us." But people wondered if Holmes was boxing or studying to be J.D. Salinger? When he showed up at the weigh-in Thursday, it was the first time the boxing press had seen Holmes in months. Many remarked favorably on how good Holmes looked when he finally took off his shirt, which reminded British promoter Mickey Duff of "the three stages of life: youth, middle age and isn't he looking good?"
And Holmes did look good for a 38-year-old, but a 38-year-old has never won the heavyweight title. The last one who tried was Muhammad Ali, against Holmes in Las Vegas in 1980. "I knew in about the second round that I couldn't do it, I didn't have it," Ali told Elmer Smith of the Philadelphia Daily News on Thursday night. "I could see the opening, but before I could throw the punch it would be gone. And when I would think I was blocking a punch, I'd be late, get caught before I could get my arm up. Thirty-eight is too old. You don't have the reflexes you had."
Maybe Holmes was influenced by Ray Leonard's magical resurrection. But Leonard was 30 when he fought Hagler, two years younger, in fact, than Hagler. Holmes is 17 years older than Tyson. Not even Retin-A can smooth out those wrinkles. Holmes surely suspected as much. If not, he could have refreshed his memory by looking up what he himself said after beating Ali: "When I'm 38 I'm going to have better things to do than getting punched in the head. I'm going to be sitting around watching other guys get punched in the head on TV."
Given the long odds against him winning, the consensus was that Holmes took this bout for the money; $3.1 million was an offer that Holmes, as an acquisitive entrepreneur, couldn't afford to refuse. And Holmes admitted as much, saying after the fight, "I'm laughing all the way the way to the Lafayette National Bank." In the past he's taken fights to pay for construction work. Possibly in Holmes' mind, fighting Tyson meant three floors of an office building or a new parking lot. For a maximum of 36 minutes of getting belted around -- and a chance at immortality should he win (to say nothing of two or three more big paydays) -- Holmes might have concluded he'd struck a great bargain.
But in the fourth round, the agonizingly long and tortuous fourth round, Holmes found out the hard way that you get what you pay for.