ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Almost every step fight promoter Bob Arum took through the crowded Trump Plaza casino early yesterday morning after watching Larry Holmes' upset of Ray Mercer, a gambler would stop him and say: "Make Larry and George. We want to see that fight."
That's Larry and George, as in Larry Holmes, 42, and George Foreman, 43, two born-again former heavyweight champions who could be matched this June in the biggest money-making fight of all time, each assured of a minimum $10 million guarantee.
"Yeah," said Holmes, "we'll fight for the 'Geritol championship.' We've both proved age has nothing to do with competing and winning. I live the good life, and so does George, and now we have the respect of everyone over 40."
A Holmes-Foreman fight would have been a laughable idea five years ago when Foreman, after a 10-year absence from the ring, launched his improbable comeback that was capped by going 12 rounds last year against current heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield.
Taking a cue from Foreman, Holmes ended a three-year retirement last year, determined to make one last attempt to regain the crown he wore for more than seven years (1978-1985) before losing a controversial decision to Michael Spinks.
In a masterful performance Friday night, Holmes, a 4-1 underdog, moved considerably closer to his goal by taking unbeaten, but untutored Mercer, 30, to school for 12 rounds on the art of boxing.
It was in this same ring four years ago that Holmes' boxing career was declared officially dead after he was flattened in four rounds by then heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.
Had Tyson remained champion, Holmes would have been content to stay home, gather interest on his municipal bonds and collect rents from his real estate holdings.
But with Tyson losing his title to Buster Douglas and with his ring future in doubt while he is on trial for an alleged rape in Indianapolis, Holmes views himself as a logical challenger to Holyfield.
And yet, a showdown with Foreman seems to be a much hotter ticket. And surprisingly, Holmes, rather than the comedic Foreman, might now be the cast as the sentimental favorite.
Once called a pale imitation of his idol, Muhammad Ali, and known for putting his foot in his mouth with a classic put-down of legendary Rocky Marciano, Holmes has now seemingly shed his negative image and gained the respect he so long craved.
"People are starting to forgive me for things I said," Holmes said. "But no one wants to be picked on and told they're not good enough. I retaliated by fighting back. I'm more mature and wiser now, and I don't have to do that anymore."
No one, however, ever questioned the size of Holmes' heart or the composition of his chin. Mercer staggered him with a looping left in the first round, and ring-siders anticipated a quick ending to the pay-per-view fight that began after midnight.
"That punch scared me," Holmes said. "Mercer caught me off balance and hurt me. But I told myself, 'You ain't going to fall.' I've got too much experience and meanness in me to give up so quick. And I controlled the fight after that."
With the crowd of 7,000 rallying to his side in the middle rounds as he frustrated Mercer with his trip-hammer jab, crisp combinations and counterpunching off the rope, Holmes even found time to joke with TV cameramen in mid-round.
"I told them, 'I'm going to knock this guy out,' " Holmes said. "I only told a little lie."
Holmes, now being trained by Don Turner, appeared to have a perfect battle plan. He kept the younger and stronger Mercer at arm's length by simply extending his right arm like a ball carrier stiff-arming a would-be tackler.
"I don't think it's legal, but it worked," Mercer said. "I couldn't cope with his defense, and I hurt my right arm trying to get through his guard. But he was the better man; even at 42, he's still a legend. He convinced me that I've got to go back to the
gym and learn how to fight."
As Turner said: "Larry beat him with steps and angles. Sure, his legs aren't what they used to be. But he doesn't have to cover all that ground fighting an inexperienced guy like Mercer. He set him up with the jab, and then nailed him with double and triple hooks, and uppercuts. He was like a wily, old lion using all his cunning."
Holmes has made one other significant change, dropping longtime promoter Don King in favor of Arum, his archrival. Although he fought a number of lucrative title bouts for King, he accused him of taking kickbacks on his matches with Ali, Ken Norton and Earnie Shavers.
"I still think King is a great promoter, but he is too self-centered, not interested in the fighter's welfare. I was loyal to King all those years. Now I plan on being loyal to Bob Arum, who is going to make me more money than I made my whole career."
Said Arum: "Foreman-Holmes? I'd love it. That's one fight I
wouldn't have to hype. Just sit back and enjoy it."