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I wept as I gave Ali a beating; FACE TO FACE On a flying visit to Tyneside, former world champion Holmes speaks frankly about his fight with 'The Greatest'.

Byline: JOHN GIBSON

HE WAS finally accepted as one of the finest pugilists ever to grace the world's rings.

Yet for long frustrating years Larry Holmes was forced to exist in the considerable shadow of a living legend, Muhammad Ali.

Having beaten a far-too-brave Ali to pulp, Holmes was never forgiven by a public who loved "The Lip".

And, having followed immediately in the footsteps of Ali as world heavyweight champion, Holmes walked with the damned.

Only in recent times has Larry been rightly recognised for the great champion he was. Yet Ali still haunts him.

Because here he was, still following in the footsteps of The Greatest.

Ali visited Tyneside way back in 1977 - and now Holmes was amongst Geordies for the very first time on a promotional tour of the UK.

When we met back stage, talk inevitably centred round that thunderous night of October 1980 in Las Vegas when Ali was whupped by his one-time sparring partner.

Holmes literally cried at having to hand out such a beating in the line of duty.

"He was my buddy, man," explained Larry. "Way back in 1971, when I was only 22 years of age and an amateur, Ali employed me as his sparring partner and I worked with him for the next four years, even when turning pro.

"He gave me a job and paid me when I had nothing. He took care of me. It's hard to fight a man like that when you know you're gonna have to bust him up."

Many felt the fight should never have been sanctioned. Ali's speech had already begun to slow. He was a shot fighter, looking for the impossible. A chaser of dreams wanting to become the first man to regain the world title three times.

In comparison, Holmes was sleek and fit, with the skills and ring savvy to become one of the greatest champs of all time. His murderous right hand and signature jab were a model for future fighters to try and emulate.

"I was in a no-win situation," Larry told me. "If I beat him I had beaten an old man, and if I lost I had never had what it takes.

"I didn't want to hurt him but I had to do my job. We all knew the risks we took inside a ring, but we were trying to fight our way out of poverty and earn a crust for our family.

"Ali did all his usual in the build-up to the fight and during the early rounds calling me ignorant, ugly and peanut head. It was just his way. The public expected it.

"However, when it became apparent I was going to do a job on him, I said: 'Why take more of this, Muhammad?' He looked at me and replied: 'Shut up, I'm going to knock you out.' He was too brave for his own good.

"Angelo Dundee threw in the towel in the 11th round, but it should have been earlier.

"I kept asking for the fight to be stopped. At the end I went over to him with tears in my eyes. 'I love you, man' I said. Ali just looked up and said: 'If you love me why did you beat me up?' He was funny even in defeat."

Holmes refuses to accept that the Ali who had stood before him was a shell of a man.

"He was 38, but so what," said Larry. "He wasn't an old man. I fought when I was 52. Now that's an old man."

Holmes, the Easton Assassin, was world champion from 1978 to 1985, going within one fight of equalling Rocky Marciano's incredible record of 49 straight professional wins. He fought often, and well, but Ali haunted him.

"Following a legend ain't easy," he smiled. "My greatest fight was for respect.

"In the early days I had to keep telling myself I was good and would be a world champion.

Nobody believed, apart from me and my trainer.

"Then, when I became champ, there was the Ali thing. Everyone thought I was trying to copy Ali the way I fought. I wasn't, but then what the hell was so wrong with being like Ali?

"In the end I got the recognition I deserved, but it was a long, hard battle."

Larry's record shows that he fought an average of five times a year with one 12-month span bringing a staggering total of nine bouts. A late starter, his first pro fight was in 1971 and his last in 2002 - 29 years apart.

He confronted all the greats of his time, but for him his best night's work came in 1978 when, at the age of 29, Holmes was at last crowned world champion after a toe-to-toe battle with Ken Norton.

"It was a war, voted probably the best 15 rounds of boxing ever," said Holmes proudly. "I was giving it and he was giving it. The will was huge.

"Norton was a tough son of a boy. I had pulled a muscle in my left arm six days before the fight but I kept quiet because this was my big chance and I didn't want the fight postponed. I won carrying that arm."

I asked Holmes if he missed boxing, the way so many sportsmen suffer from withdrawal symptoms once the spotlight has been turned off for good.

"I miss the money," he laughed, "but I don't miss getting beat up!"

*Larry Holmes was booked by players inc event management, who are available on their website www.playersinc.org.uk

"I kept asking for the fight to be stopped.

At the end I went over to him with tears in my eyes. 'I love you, man', I said."

CAPTION(S):

SPARRING PARTNERS: John Gibson meets up with boxing legend Larry Holmes on his Tyneside visit; CRYING GAME: Larry Holmes lands a blow on his way to defeating Muhammad Ali in 1980 - a fight which left Holmes in tears
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 20, 2008
Words:996
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