BOXING'S AGE-OLD QUESTION

Early in the second round, Jesse "The Boogieman" Ferguson, all 242 1/2 pounds of him, caught Larry Holmes with a monster left hook that buckled the ex-champ like a man hit in the shins with an ax handle. Deep in the fogs of Queer Street, Larry reeled, pawed the air twice with his trademark left jab, then slathered his 239 pounds onto Ferguson's bulk, his forearms and gloves clamped tight around Jesse's shoulder blades.

He was buying time. In this, his 483rd round of professional boxing, Larry Holmes was in trouble. But even as his eyes glazed and he wobbled on rubbery, tree-trunk legs, the old survival instinct kicked in. Before tonight, only three men--Earnie Shavers, Mike Tyson and Renaldo Snipes--had ever put Holmes on the floor, and he didn't mean to go down again. Not to a guy with a 20-12 record. So Larry hung on, and he hung on. And when the Chinese music in his head finally let up an endless minute and a half later, he spun Ferguson's shoulder, feinted once and clocked him a short, powerful right hand under the left eye.

Larry Holmes had come up out of the dark one more time.
Behind the sneer, you could almost read the irony on his broad, sweat-drenched face. The heavyweight champ who never got any respect now can't get a fight--not a good one, anyway. For two years, none of the world's top ten heavyweights has dared to match his experience with Holmes's. Despite the fact that he now lumbers around the ring like a switching engine. Despite the fact that he's 240 pounds--37 pounds heavier than when he made his debut, during the Ford administration. Despite the fact that he's 44 years old.

Holmes's still-dangerous jab and his defensive skills, the tools that got him through 21 successful title defenses over seven years, have kept Lennox Lewis and Michael Moorer and Riddick Bowe far from his door during his three-year comeback. Only ex-champ Evander Holyfield gave him a tumble: That was on June 19, 1992, and Holmes took Holyfield the twelve-round distance before losing a unanimous decision. Since then, Holmes has beaten seven or eight fighters most people have never heard of, and the man they used to call the "Easton Assassin" can now hear the clock running out.

He wound up decisioning Jesse Ferguson Tuesday night, and not everyone liked the verdict. Whatever you thought of it, though, and whatever you think of the man who had to follow charismatic champs like Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman to the top of the heavyweight heap in 1978, he now embodies the most crucial question in boxing: age.

Abolitionists fixated on a cardboard-cutout notion of "violence" still circle the fight game, just as they hang around auto racing, hunting and, for all we know, deck shuffleboard. Two words for them: Stay home. Meanwhile, the ten-cent moralists remain eager to call the vice squad out for another look at a sport that's always attracted its share of crooks, fixers and bums, just as basketball, football and politics have.

These forces aren't going to change boxing any more than they can change cribbage. They've tried--and they've failed.

But the retirement debate is something else. Something new. When the great, round and oft-retired icon George Foreman, say, steps into the ring with a power puncher half his age, it is not an occasion for nostalgia, like an old-timers' baseball game or a stop on the senior golf tour. Because those nice old guys don't whale on each other with their bats and clubs. Foreman might smother his opponent with skill and sheer bulk, but what if the kid hurts him? Really hurts him. That would send shock waves through even this blase game.

What if somebody knocks ancient Roberto Duran into next week and he doesn't come back? What then? What if Jesse Ferguson, a mere child of 37, had mustered the skills to keep whaling on disabled Larry Holmes in the second round the other night? Would he have wound up gazing into space for the next ten years, like poor Joe Louis? Would he someday find himself tragically reduced, like Muhammad Ali?

Proponents of mandatory retirement in boxing, like fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco, would like to see fighters hang up their gloves at 32--or 35 at the outside--to avoid later damage and decline. The persistence of Foreman and Holmes has become an open invitation for boxers of all ages and skills to get up out of the mothballs, and it's only a matter of time until the inevitable happens.

For his own part, Holmes points out that some fighters should be retired at 18, or 21, so inadequate are their skills or their conditioning. His stern training regimen and his ongoing ability to protect himself serve him well even at 44, he says, and until Tuesday night, at least, he was looking forward wholeheartedly to one last title shot.

Then came that fateful second round, against an opponent he had earlier apologized for facing in the first place. Larry Holmes won the fight, but afterward he was not his old self. "I'm not as fast as I used to be, and I can get hit," he said, the master of understatement. He went on to claim that he was still prepared to face the Bowes and Moorers and Tysons of this world, but in the end, he hedged.

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