Once Just Ali's Sparring Mate, Champ Larry Holmes Says Now He's the World's Baddest Heavyweight

updated 09/29/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/29/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As the owner wanders from room to unfinished room in the skeleton of a house off Freemansburg Highway near Easton, Pa., the contractor looks on resignedly. "Every time he comes out here," sighs the builder, "he wants a new window or a new door or something." Of course, when Larry Holmes, the 6'3", 214-pound heavyweight champion of the world, wants a new window or a new door, he gets it.

At last count the $500,000 "mansion," as Holmes calls it, has five bedrooms, nine baths, two whirlpool baths, a sauna, steam room and an indoor swimming pool in the shape of a boxing glove. To Larry, the house, which he hopes will be completed next month, is part of "a dream come true, something that represents struggling for so many years." The rest of the dream could be fulfilled next week in Las Vegas, where Holmes, 30, defends against three-time former champ Muhammad Ali, 38. Larry, the odds-on favorite, has never lost as a professional (he's 35-0, with 26 knockouts). "When the bell rings," he vows, "Ali's ass is grass. I'm gonna prove that I'm the baddest black heavyweight in the world today."

Just as there are nominally two heavyweight champs (Holmes has the World Boxing Council title, while the World Boxing Association recognizes a Holmes KO victim, Mike Weaver), there are two distinct Larry Holmeses. There is the brash champion, playing Ali with bravado and jive poetry: "Ali swings with a left/ He swings with a right/ It's just a matter of time/ Before Holmes knocks him out of sight." The other Holmes is a prosaic family man. "I'm an everyday guy," he says. "I swear, I look at other women, I eat hot dogs and hamburgers. If I was like Ali, I would blow my own horn everywhere I go. But I enjoy being me," he sums up. "I enjoy my wife, my kids."

The champion also enjoys life in Easton, a manufacturing town of 30,000 one hour north of Philadelphia. Holmes Enterprises, Inc., headquartered in a two-room office just off the town square, includes a local disco and a small construction company. Unlike his opponent, whose entourage numbers about 40, Holmes has five full-time employees and a modest 15 on fight night.

For all his attachment to Easton, Larry was born in Cuthbert, Ga., one of 12 children. His father, a construction worker, moved the family to Pennsylvania when Larry was 7, but his parents separated soon after, and the future champ was forced to quit school in seventh grade to help support his mother. His first job was at the Jet Car Wash, where he made $1 an hour. In his spare time he would fight, and he recalls a stretch of 40 straight weekends when he fought and won. At 19, Holmes decided to make a career of boxing, and ran up a 19-3 amateur record before turning pro in 1973. He apprenticed as Ali's sparring partner for almost four years and maintains, "Ali was afraid to fight me when I quit him in 1975. He knew me too well." Larry took the title from Ken Norton in 1978. To make sure he is in shape for this, his eighth defense, Holmes starts the day at 6:30 a.m., loping five miles along the Delaware Canal. His running partner, Keith Kleven, who is his sports therapist, says simply: "Larry is the best-conditioned athlete I have ever seen."

Holmes will make $6 million for stepping into the Caesars Palace ring on October 2 against his onetime idol, but he is not entirely serene. "It's a no-win situation," he reasons. "When I beat him, they're gonna say he was an old man, and if I lose they're gonna say I was never nothing. So all my thoughts are focused on winning."

After the Ali fight Holmes will prepare to move into his mansion and spend time with his wife, Diane, 23, and his three children. (He has adopted the two girls, Misty, 12, and Lisa, 11, that he fathered with an Easton woman he never married.) "I've been a fighting champion," he says, "but after October 2 my thing is to relax a while and let everybody else do the fighting."

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