It's time to retire the "underrated" tag for Larry Holmes. History's second-longest-reigning heavyweight champ takes his 69-6 lifetime record into the International Boxing Hall of Fame this weekend.
But let's send "underrated" off with a bang and 10 bells.
The reputation does seem past its expiration date. Oh, sure, Holmes rarely got his due as a fighter -- he even placed ninth in ESPN Classic's "Who's Number One?" list of the most underrated athletes ever. Few gave young Holmes a chance against Earnie Shavers in March 1978, but Holmes won. When he took a split decision to win the WBC heavyweight title against Ken Norton, almost exactly 30 years ago in June 1978, some said he just got lucky. Fans complained Holmes was no Muhammad Ali -- who could ever be? -- and Holmes was vilified when he beat a 38-year-old Ali in 1980. Many Americans even convinced themselves that the awkward Gerry Cooney had a chance against Holmes in 1982.
What were they thinking? Or hoping?
But more recently, Holmes made ESPN's top-10 list of all-time heavyweights. The Ring and Associated Press both rated Holmes No. 5 on their all-time lists.
Underrated? As he enters the Hall in Canastota, N.Y., Holmes is getting his props. Still, there's plenty about the Easton Assassin people have yet to fully appreciate:
1. The right hand
Holmes' left jab is considered one of the great weapons in sports history, up there with Randy Johnson's fastball and Tiger Woods' chip shots. But Holmes had a devastating right. He threw it straight or overhand from the far end of his 81-inch reach. When in close, he'd whip it in to the head and body. His right nailed Michael Spinks for 12 rounds in their rematch, it sent Cooney pirouetting to the canvas in Round 2 to begin that demolition and it dispatched lesser opponents like Marvis Frazier in early rounds.
2. His guts
Holmes' heart as a fighter got a bad rap early. At the 1972 Olympic trials, he was disqualified for clinching against Duane Bobick. Someone wrote that Holmes crawled from the ring, and legend grew that he'd been a coward. But Holmes weathered big trouble to prevail in his first big pro test, against menacing Roy Williams in 1976. Holmes got off the canvas to beat Shavers in 1979 and Renaldo Snipes in 1981. Holmes was stopped just once in 75 fights -- when he was 38, by Mike Tyson.
3. His stamina
Holmes was the last great 15-round heavyweight champ, and he often surged late. Judges had his fight with Norton even after 14, and Holmes battered Norton for the final 30 seconds to win. He knocked out Mike Weaver in 12, Shavers in 11 (in their rematch) and Cooney in 13.
4. His fight against the system
Jack Newfield called the heavyweights of the 1980s the lost generation. In a division controlled by Don King, fighters like Tim Witherspoon, Greg Page, Michael Dokes and Tony Tubbs were robbed of pride and pay, Newfield wrote. Holmes escaped the worst of it. He formed his own promotion company in 1983 against King's wishes. In 1984, he jumped at the chance to become the first heavyweight champ for the fledgling New Jersey-based International Boxing Federation, which was formed to break the grip of established sanctioning organizations.
5. His sense of humor
Ali was a tough comedy act to follow. A lot of boxing fans didn't find it funny in 1985 when Holmes, just after losing his chance to tie Rocky Marciano's undefeated record of 49-0, said that Marciano "couldn't carry my jock strap." But people forget the first part of that remark: "If you really want to get technical about the whole thing, Rocky couldn't carry my jock strap." If you really want to get technical -- about qualifying to carry a jock strap. Like there's an official way to measure it. Priceless.
6. A PG rating
Holmes often had a right to be outraged, but he wasn't crude. Many remember his bitter comments in the dressing room after his second rip-off decision loss to Michael Spinks: "I can say to the judges, the referees, the promoters, to kiss where the sun don't shine, and since we're on HBO, that's my big black behind." Yes, Larry, HBO lets you say "behind." There are Saturday morning cartoons that use worse language than that.
7. His political principle
Ali had been a leader in the antiwar and civil rights movements -- but Ali took money from a brutal dictator to fight in Zaire. Holmes spoke at protests against apartheid and says he turned down an offer of $30 million to fight Gerrie Coetzee in South Africa in 1984.
8. Ample ego
After Ali, everyone else's ego seemed small. But Holmes often called himself the greatest, too. And half of Easton, Pa., in Trump-like fashion, now has Holmes' name on it, including Larry Holmes Properties and Larry Holmes Enterprises on Larry Holmes Way.
9. His forgiveness
You'd think a guy who was so disrespected in his prime might stay bitter. It would be easy to hold a grudge against Cooney after the black-versus-white hype before their fight subjected Holmes to racism and insults. But Holmes and Cooney became friends and have worked together on efforts to help retired boxers. Living well is Holmes' revenge.
10. A golden throat?
Just kidding about this. Larry was horrendous performing "Let's Get it On" on VH1's "But Can They Sing?" On the mic, he's no Joe Frazier. He should have lip-synched, the way Pia Zadora did the national anthem before Holmes-Michael Spinks I.
Don Steinberg, a winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America's award for best column in 2005, covers boxing for The Philadelphia Inquirer.