Book review: From poverty to the pinnacle

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SPORTS autobiographies can make pretty turgid reading. Because sporting heroes are predominantly young, their stories are too often insular and lack perspective. In addition, most of those marketable enough to have a book published are incapable of writing it. Consequently, supposed autobiographies are written in the first person by someone else.

Larry Holmes, the former world heavyweight champion, who at 49 is at least old enough to have plenty to say, even if it is Phil Berger, formerly of the New York Times, who does the writing (St Martin's Press, New York, pounds 21.50 from Sportspages). The result is, given the confines of the genre, fascinating.

Holmes is most interesting when talking about his bleak youth in Easton, Pennsylvania, his educational years as a sparring partner to Muhammad Ali and in recounting his volatile but mutually fruitful relationship with the promoter Don King. Holmes was inspired by poverty, and by the subsequent fear of losing the wealth he accumulated over a quarter of a century in a boxing ring. When your brothers and sisters steal the pocket money you earn shining shoes and washing cars, you learn how to squirrel it away, he says. And the habit sticks.

Because Holmes was neglected as a young boxer, he learned a perspective that more protected rising stars never can. There were no soft opponents, no perks for the young Larry Holmes, and he never forgot or forgave those who dismissed him as a nobody when he had nothing but his emerging talent.

He was 28 before he won the World Boxing Council title in a classic 15- rounder with Ken Norton in Las Vegas - and recounts the bitterness he felt perfectly towards men like King and the legendary TV commentator Howard Cosell. King was shamelessly opportunistic - and boasted openly of his control of the heavyweight division. As he put it, he arrived with the champion and left with him, whoever he turned out to be. "Now here was Cosell, the microphone shaking in his hand, as he, like King, pretended to be pleased as punch to share my moment of glory... he was another of the so-called experts who had treated me like garbage on the way up... I had beat the damn system. I had beat the front-running phonies like Cosell and King."

There are passages about backroom machinations which will seem explosive to those who do not follow boxing avidly, or who are too young to remember Holmes in his peak years. There are also ridiculous moments, for example fighting Evander Holyfield for the world title in 1991 while wearing contact lenses.

I liked Homes when I met him, briefly, a few years ago, and like him even more after reading Berger's book. History is only just beginning to give him the respect his talents deserve, and the bitterness over his treatment by writers and fans surfaces again in his uncharitable assessment of his successors - Holyfield, Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. "You wouldn't have heard of them if they had boxed in the Seventies," he sneers. He also badly wants to fight George Foreman, a bizarre meeting that could still happen. "I've always thought I could beat that Texas fatboy..."

It is a pleasing read, and Berger has done a competent job. However, both subject and writer might have been better served by a fully developed biography, which would have allowed a fuller perspective to a fascinating story.