Photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images
As the cold tide rolled in near the boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ, the torch was about to be passed inside Donald Trump’s Convention Center. That torch signified the transfer of power from the old king to the new king of the heavyweight division.
January 22, 1988 was a cold winter night in Atlantic City. The undisputed, undefeated heavyweight king Iron Mike Tyson (32-0, 28 KOs) was in town to face the former heavyweight champion, The Easton Assassin, Larry Holmes (48-2, 34 KOs).
Tyson had taken the boxing world by storm. Turning pro in March of 1985, he had won the title just 19 months later by defeating Trevor Berbick. In doing so, Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history surpassing the record once held by another Cus D’Amato fighter, Floyd Patterson.
It was an unforgettable night as Tyson obliterated Berbick inside of two rounds. Fans still talk about the last knockdown in which Berbick went down, got up, went down, tried to get up, and went down again. Winning the title is one thing. Winning it in that fashion by demolishing your opponent is another thing altogether.
To further his growing aura, Tyson went on to unify the title over the course of the next year. He won titles from James “Bonecrusher” Smith and Tony “TNT” Tucker. Sandwiched between those wins, both by decision, was a sixth round knockout of Pinklon Thomas.
The end was equally as brutal as that of Berbick, as Angelo Dundee rushed into the ring and the Tyson onslaught put Thomas down and out.
Tyson’s first defense of the undisputed heavyweight crown came in October of 1987. In the same building that he was fighting in tonight, he faced former Olympic teammate, Tyrell Biggs. After seven brutal rounds, Tyson continued his domination of the division by flooring Biggs twice in the seventh round and stopping him via TKO.
After the fight, Tyson bragged to Larry Merchant that his body punching made Biggs cry. Merchant asked, “You’re saying that Biggs was crying while you hit him?” Tyson seemed eager to tell him, and the audience at home, “I was hitting him with body punches and heard him, he was actually crying in there.”
After finishing off Biggs, Don King was at ringside with Larry Holmes. Holmes, now 38 years old, had not been in the ring since April of 1986. That night, he had lost for the second time in rematching Michael Spinks. Holmes had run his record to 48-0 and was one win away from tying the immortal record of the great Rocky Marciano.
It wasn’t to be.
Holmes was beaten by Spinks in September of 1985. Just seven months later, although heavily disputed and highly controversial, he lost the rematch and then descended into retirement.
Interviewed live on HBO by Barry Tompkins, and King by his side, Holmes was both energized and confident. “Tyson makes a lot of mistakes. If he fights me dirty, that’s the kind of fight it’s gonna be all night. I am an experienced, professional fighter. I am no kid. I do not play.”
Holmes, who ruled the heavyweight division as champion for seven and a half years, was indignant after losing to Spinks. He made no bones about the fact that he believed that he could win. Holmes also made it clear that he was coming back to take what “they” had taken from him; the heavyweight championship of the world.
The night of the fight, the sold out Convention Center was electric. All involved in the promotion agreed that the event had exceeded their highest expectations. The boxing public wanted to see this fight. The fight itself would be televised live on HBO as Barry Tompkins, Larry Merchant and Sugar Ray Leonard would call the action.
Tyson was fighting the most experienced fighter he had ever been in with. At just 21 years old, fans would witness a 17 year age difference between the champion and the former champion. Remarkably, the largest age difference in heavyweight title fight history was 21 years, when Floyd Patterson knocked out Archie Moore in the fifth round.
Holmes had also been in with and beaten some the great names in heavyweight history. He had beaten men like Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton, Gerry Cooney, Mike Weaver, and Earnie Shavers.
Holmes felt that he never got the respect he deserved in his long title reign and was robbed in his fights against Spinks. Fighting, and beating Tyson, would be his shot at redemption.
Ringside was packed with some very recognizable names and faces. Jack Nicholson, Kirk Douglas, Don Johnson, John McEnroe, Barbra Streisand, and Mickey Rourke were all in attendance. But the man who drew the biggest applause as ring announcer Michael Buffer was making introductions was the one and only Muhammad Ali. Ali was sitting next to tonight’s host, Donald Trump.
After a long wait, Holmes entered the ring first with longtime trainer Ritchie Giachetti. Leonard pointed out, like old times, that Holmes was walking in with the same song he entered the ring with so many times in years past, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.”
A victory against Tyson and he would become the oldest man to ever win the heavyweight title.
As soon as Holmes climbed through the ropes, the champion sprinted from his dressing room. Merchant observed, “Mike Tyson waited about a second and a half and he almost is running down here.” There was no music. No fanfare. No big entourage. Tyson was all business.
It was also reported by Merchant that Tyson had become so enraged by Holmes’ stalling tactics and the long delay prior to entering the ring, that Tyson punched a hole in the wall of his own dressing room.
As Tyson entered the ring with trainer Kevin Rooney, Tompkins told viewers that they were just finding out about a threat made against Tyson. “Incidentally, we did have reports that there was a death threat against Tyson. That’s all we know. We don’t know where it came from, how it was delivered or if Mike Tyson even knows about it.”
As the crowd roared with anticipation, an infuriated Tyson paced around the ring. Tompkins continued, “There is a look at an angry young man.” With hands on his waist, Tyson stared across the ring at Holmes. Holmes refused to make eye contact and simply bounced and shadow boxed in his corner.
Buffer then unloaded his trademark, “Let’s get ready to rumble, 12 rounds, for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world!”
After the fighters were introduced, both men came to center ring. Referee Joe Cortez gave the instructions and both returned to their corners to await the opening bell.
As the bell sounded to begin Round 1, Holmes, wearing white trimmed with red, immediately tried to use his 10-inch reach advantage. Tyson, wearing his trademark black trunks, charged right at Holmes and went on the attack. Tyson bobbed and weaved, trying to get inside and attack the body. Holmes tried to circle and extend his left hand to keep Tyson at bay.
As the round continued, Tyson stalked and Holmes moved and tied up Tyson on the inside. The round was punctuated with a right hook by Tyson to the body of Holmes. Holmes retaliated with a right uppercut. As the bell sounded, Merchant quipped, “In that round anyway, the landmark avoided the wrecker’s ball.”
As the Round 2 began, Tyson continued to try to attack Holmes, especially to the body. The two traded jabs and Holmes continued to use his legs and circle. Holmes was trying to measure Tyson, throwing right hand leads and right uppercuts. Leonard quickly pointed out, “Holmes is trying to measure Tyson.”
Tyson continued to bang to the body. As the round climaxed, Tyson landed a good left hook. In between rounds, Tyson complained to Rooney that Holmes was holding him. Rooney scolded Tyson, advising him that he’s not punching enough and that, “You’re letting him hold you. Don’t give me that crap!”
As the third round began, Merchant described Holmes’ tactics. “Holmes is practicing what Archie Moore used to call escapology. The question is when is he going to start to practice fightology?”
As the two men traded jabs, Holmes dropped a right hand on the button. Tyson smiled at Holmes and pounded his glove on his chin. Holmes tried again to drop the right hand, this time only glancing Tyson. Tyson then loaded up, trying to blast Holmes with a right hand. Rooney could be heard screaming from Tyson’s corner, “Don’t look for one shot!”
Holmes was desperately trying to slow the pace and use his height and long arms. Tyson continued to press and pressure Holmes. Leonard liked Holmes’ strategy, “Larry Holmes is really trying to upset Mike and get him out of his fight plan.”
As the final seconds ticked away in the third, Tyson hit Holmes low. After Cortez warned Tyson, the round ended with the men exchanging right hands near Tyson’s corner. Tompkins cried, “That was a big right hand, best punch of the fight!” After Holmes countered with his own simultaneous with the bell, Tyson bombed a left hook just after the bell sounded.
Merchant observed, “Followed up by another good punch right after the bell.”
As Holmes walked back to his corner, he pointed and jawed at Tyson. Rooney, who had entered the ring, pointed back at Holmes and returned the pleasantries.
Holmes corner was animated. Giachetti told Holmes, “Let’s go now! Come on now!” As the bell started Round 4, Holmes was bouncing with renewed energy and he began pumping the jab in Tyson’s face. As Tyson smiled and nodded at Holmes, he began weaving while still attacking Holmes.
The crowd roared and was on its feet. This was the Easton Assasin of old. Holmes was making his stand. At exactly the halfway point of the round, Tyson stepped in and landed a huge right hand to the top of Holmes head. As the punch thudded, Tompkins screamed, “That was a right hand and down goes Holmes with a crashing right hand!”
As Holmes rose, Merchant confided, “The old Larry Holmes would always get up and fire back. But he’s in against a guy who is a tremendous finisher.”
Tyson immediately moved in and launched a combination sending Holmes down again. There was a full minute to go in the round. Those in attendance were on their feet.
The Convention Center was in a frenzy.
After taking the eight count, Holmes tried to steady himself and held on for dear life. Tyson was in full attack mode and was launching his full arsenal. Leonard screamed over the roar of the crowd, “What he needs to do now is hold on!”
With 15 seconds remaining and Holmes trapped in the corner, Tyson landed a series of right hands mixed in with an assault to the body. The last right hand sent Holmes sprawling to the canvas. Cortez, not bothering to count, climbed on top of the fallen Holmes and waived his hand over his head while trying to remove his mouthpiece.
Draped with all three belts, Tyson showed class and respect when being interviewed by Merchant after the fight. “Everyone knows Larry Holmes was a legendary fighter. If he was at his best I couldn’t stand a chance. He was a great fighter and I admire him very much”
In his dressing room, Holmes spoke on air with Leonard. Holmes was equally classy. “He’s better than I thought he was. He’s is a true champion. They can talk about Spinks all they want. In my book he’s the champion and I wish him good luck.”
Holmes final comment resonated. “As we all go along somebody eventually will get us.” That somebody tonight was the youngest heavyweight champion in history.