LAS VEGAS -- It was 17 years ago that Larry Holmes won a brutal 15-rounder with Ken Norton at Caesars Palace to claim the heavyweight title and begin a 7 1/2 -year, 20-fight reign as champion.
Reflecting on that memorable battle with Norton, Holmes said, "There comes a time in a fight when you ask yourself, 'Should I quit or carry on.' The devil is telling you to give up, and your body is crying out in pain. But you ask yourself, 'Are you a champion or not?' It's just not physical ability. It's the inner man that counts."
Tomorrow night, at 45, a trim-looking Holmes will climb into that same ring to challenge Oliver McCall for the World Boxing Council crown.
The fact that McCall, 29, making his first defense, is only an 8-5 favorite, indicates a lot of bettors believe Holmes can duplicate George Foreman's stunning feat of winning a title at an age when most boxers are living off their memories.
After a final sparring session, a jovial Holmes addressed the crowd of media types and fans.
"I've done all my homework, and dotted all the I's in preparing for this fight," he said. "I'm not taking McCall for granted, and he'd better be ready. He's been running his mouth, but no boy can whip Larry Holmes.
"Very few people get second or third chances in life, but I got them because I stayed busy," added Holmes, alluding to his three unsuccessful bids to regain the title from Michael Spinks (1986), Mike Tyson (1988) and Evander Holyfield (1990). "I can still fight, and I want to be champion again.
"I don't need boxing or the money. I need it for my ego. I never claimed to be the greatest, just one of the best. I think I accomplished as much or more than anyone in boxing. But that's the past. I dwell on the future."
In the audience, Charley Spaziani smiled softly and shook his head in disbelief.
"I can't believe I'm still listening to Larry talk about another title fight," said Spaziani, an attorney in Holmes' hometown of Easton, Pa., who might know the ex-champion better than anyone.
It was Spaziani, then the district attorney, who cleared a teen-age Holmes of creating a riotous situation in a movie house. Spaziani checked the story, and the investigation resulted in an apology by the mayor of Easton. From that point, Holmes and Spaziani formed a close friendship."
"He's a good person, who truly cares about people," said Spaziani. "I can't get him to quit fighting, although I keep trying. He's set financially and could clip [bond] coupons the rest of his life with no worry about his future. But he really loves this -- the crowd, the attention, the challenge."
Holmes talked of retiring on numerous occasions, even when he was still champion.
After beating a shell of Muhammad Ali in 1980, he said, "What happened to Ali, I promise will never happen to me. When it's my time to quit, I'll know. Larry Holmes is one fighter who will go out on top."
Five years later, after a surprisingly close call against Carl "The Truth" Williams, he said, "The promoters will keep me in this business until I'm a vegetable. I'm not going to let them do it."
But Holmes continued to fight and win, seeking his own identity after long being considered an unworthy successor to Ali, his idol, who once employed him as a sparring partner.
And when he finally lost his crown and a chance to equal legendary Rocky Marciano's record of 49 straight victories on a controversial decision to Spinks in 1985, his bitter tirade further alienated the fight crowd.
He accused the judges of being corrupt, and told Marciano's kin, "Rocky couldn't carry my jock." Apologies were forthcoming, but the damage was done.
"I know now that I said a lot of things I shouldn't have," he said. "I learned from hanging around Ali and Joe Louis, that you have to be diplomatic, even if you're crying on the inside."
At the final news conference, McCall did his best to belittle Holmes, and accuse him of once ducking Greg Page in 1983, to fight an overmatched Marvis Frazier, whom he flattened in one round.
"Young punks like McCall don't know how to respect the older generation," Holmes said. "They tear down boxing instead of building it up.
"I'm 45 now. Do you think McCall will ever see 45? I'm betting that five years from now, he'll be like Tyson. He'll be in jail or dead. That's what happens to most bullies."