Why no one can solve the new Holmes mystery

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There are varying reports on how much Larry Holmes is worth but the important thing is that it comes to plenty; chunks of prime real estate in Easton, Pennsylvania, rock-solid investments. The former world heavyweight champion does not make America's rich list but, at 52, he does not have to worry where the next million dollars is coming from.

Let us go back a while, to October 1980, shortly before Holmes stopped a physically impoverished Muhammad Ali, by then 38, for the vacant World Boxing Council title. "I loved the man, I really did," Holmes said. "Ali was everything to boxing, a real hero. But he got to learn..."

The words were coming slowly now. Holmes wanted to get this right. "Look, George Foreman told Joe Frazier to retire twice; he did it with a left hook and a right hand upside the head. Nobody ever told Ali to retire; he just got a warning from little midget Leon Spinks. Well, I'm going to tell Ali to retire. It ain't gonna be no fourth championship for him. I'm just hoping I don't hurt the man."

After his urgent pleas to the referee were finally answered in the 11th round, Holmes spoke again. "It just shows what can happen when you're 38 and you to try to fight," he said.

"You mean you won't fighting when you're 38?" someone asked. "You kidding?" Holmes replied. "I'm gonna be watching these guys on TV. I'm not gonna be in the ring taking punches. I ain't crazy about getting killed."

In January 1988, Holmes flopped to the floor of a ring in Atlantic City after being stopped in four rounds by Mike Tyson. He was in his 39th year. Refusing the assistance of his corner men, Holmes growled: "Don't want people saying Larry Holmes had to be helped up in his last fight."

Not nearly the last. Since then, despite obvious perils and a sense of ridicule shared by family and friends, Holmes has taken part in 23 contests. Now he is planning another, ridicule compounded by the suggestion that it could be against Joe Bugner, who is 51.

"What the hell are you up to?" Holmes was asked last week. The excuse this time is that it would be his 75th professional fight. "Good figure on which to quit," he said.

The great heavyweight champion Joe Louis fought on past his time, later taking part in wrestling contests and ending up as a greeter in Las Vegas because he was broke. Fleeced, unable to meet harsh tax demands, a compulsive gambler, Louis was once asked to consider what he would have made in a television funded era. "Just bigger bets," he said, "just bigger bets".

Sugar Ray Robinson, by general consensus the best fighter, pound for pound, in history suffered 10 of only 19 defeats in 202 bouts when past his 40th birthday. He needed the money. Robinson's name figures on the winning record of Terry Downes. But Downes was not fooled by the success. "I didn't beat Robinson," he said. "I fought some guy who said he was."

Financial imperatives have brought so many boxers out of retirement, sometimes with tragic results, that Holmes' wealth – he is reputed to have made more than $75m (£51m) from boxing and is estimated to be worth in excess of $100m – touches on the sport's abiding mystery.

What draws Holmes back? What persuades another rich man, Evander Holyfield, to continue risking his health when surely aware that his senses have already been impaired by punishment? Partly ego, partly a fear of anticlimax, the athlete's age-old inability to cope with comparative anonymity.

It is easy to suppose that even the best champions can endure only so much of boxing's torture before they reach their limit and start hating it as much as Holmes once asserted. "I can't be lying to people," he said before successfully defending the WBC title against Leon Spinks a little more than 20 years ago. "I'm looking forward to retiring."

The more you listen to old boxers yearning for their days in the ring, the more you realise that they are people apart, people with whom it is impossible fully to establish a connection. As with Holmes, we are forever excluded from the mystery of their being.