Holmes, whose left jab is rated among the best in boxing history, held the WBC heavyweight title from 1978 to 1983, The Ring magazine and lineal heavyweight titles from 1980 to 1985, and the inaugural IBF heavyweight title from 1983 to 1985. He made 20 successful title defenses, placing him third all time, behind only Joe Louis at 25 and Wladimir Klitschko at 22. Holmes is one of only five boxers—along with Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Leon Spinks and Trevor Berbick—to defeat Muhammad Ali; he is the only one to have stopped Ali.
Holmes won his first 48 professional bouts, including victories over Norton, Ali, Earnie Shavers, Mike Weaver, Gerry Cooney, Tim Witherspoon, Carl Williams and Marvis Frazier, and falling one short of matching Rocky Marciano's career record of 49–0 when he lost to Michael Spinks in 1985. Holmes retired after losing a rematch to Spinks the following year, but made repeated comebacks. He was unsuccessful in three further attempts (against Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Oliver McCall) to regain the heavyweight title, the last in 1995. Holmes fought for the final time in 2002, against Eric "Butterbean" Esch, and ended his career with a record of 69 wins and 6 losses. He is frequently ranked as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time and has been inducted into both the International Boxing Hall of Fame and World Boxing Hall of Fame.
Holmes was the fourth of twelve children born to John and Flossie Holmes. After the family moved to Easton in 1954, Holmes' father went to Connecticut. He worked as a gardener there until his death in 1970. He visited his family every three weeks. "He didn't forsake us", said Flossie Holmes. "He just didn't have anything to give." The family survived on welfare.
To help support his family, Holmes dropped out of school when he was in the seventh grade and went to work at a car wash for $1 an hour. He later drove a dump truck and worked in a quarry.
When Holmes was nineteen, he started boxing. In his twenty-second bout, he boxed Duane Bobick in the 1972 Olympic Trials. Holmes was dropped in the first round with a right to the head. He got up and danced out of range, landing several stiff jabs in the process. Bobick mauled Holmes in the second round but could not corner him. The referee warned Holmes twice in the second for holding. In the third, Bobick landed several good rights and started to corner Holmes, who continued to hold. Eventually, Holmes was disqualified for excessive holding.
After compiling an amateur record of 19–3, Holmes turned professional on March 21, 1973, winning a four-round decision against Rodell Dupree. Early in his career he worked as a sparring partner for Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Earnie Shavers, and Jimmy Young. He was paid well and learned a lot. "I was young, and I didn't know much. But I was holding my own sparring those guys", Holmes said. "I thought, 'hey, these guys are the best, the champs. If I can hold my own now, what about later?'"
Holmes first gained credibility as a contender when he upset the hard-punching Earnie Shavers in March 1978. Holmes won by a lopsided twelve-round unanimous decision, winning every round on two scorecards and all but one on the third. Holmes's victory over Shavers set up a title shot between Holmes and WBC Heavyweight Champion Ken Norton in Las Vegas on June 9, 1978.
The fight between Holmes and Norton was a tough, competitive fight. After fourteen rounds, each of the three judges scored the fight dead even at seven rounds each. Holmes rallied late in the fifteenth to win the round on two scorecards and take the title by a split decision.
In his first two title defenses, Holmes easily knocked out Alfredo Evangelista and Ossie Ocasio. His third title defense was a tough one. On June 22, 1979, Holmes faced future WBA Heavyweight Champion Mike Weaver, who was lightly regarded going into the fight sporting an uninspiring 19–8 record. After ten tough rounds, Holmes dropped Weaver with a right uppercut late in round eleven. In the twelfth, Holmes immediately went on the attack, backing Weaver into the ropes and pounding him with powerful rights until the referee stepped in and stopped it. "This man knocked the devil out of me," Holmes said. "This man might not have had credit before tonight, but you'll give it to him now."
Three months later, on September 28, 1979, Holmes had a rematch with Shavers, who got a title shot by knocking out Ken Norton in one round. Holmes dominated the first six rounds, but in the seventh, Shavers sent Holmes down with a devastating overhand right. Holmes got up, survived the round, and went on to stop Shavers in the eleventh.
His next three defenses were knockouts of Lorenzo Zanon, Leroy Jones, and Scott LeDoux.
On October 2, 1980, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Holmes defended his title against Muhammad Ali, who was coming out of retirement in an attempt to become the first four-time World Heavyweight Champion. Holmes dominated Ali from start to finish, winning every round on every scorecard. At the end of the tenth round, Ali's trainer, Angelo Dundee, stopped the fight. It was Ali's only loss without "going the distance" for a judges' decision. After the win, Holmes received recognition as World Heavyweight Champion by The Ring magazine.
Ali blamed his poor performance on thyroid medication which he had been taking, claiming that it helped him lose weight (he weighed 217½, his lowest weight since he fought George Foreman in 1974), but it also left him drained for the fight.
Holmes seemed to show signs of regret, or at least sadness, in punishing Ali so much during the fight. He appeared in a post-fight interview with tears in his eyes. When asked why he was crying, he said that he respected Ali "a whole lot" and "he fought one of the baddest heavyweights in the world today, and you cannot take credit from him."
After eight consecutive knockouts, Holmes was forced to go the distance when he successfully defended his title against future WBC Heavyweight Champion Trevor Berbick on April 11, 1981. In his next fight, two months later, Holmes knocked out former Undisputed World Heavyweight Champion Leon Spinks in three rounds. On November 6, 1981, Holmes rose from a seventh-round knockdown (during which he staggered into the turnbuckle) to stop Renaldo Snipes in the eleventh.
On June 11, 1982, Holmes defended his title against Gerry Cooney, the undefeated #1 contender and an Irish-American. The lead-up to the fight had many racial overtones. Holmes said that if Cooney wasn't white, he would not be getting the same purse as the champion (both boxers received $10 million for the bout). Although Cooney tried to deflect questions about race, members of his camp wore shirts that said "Not the White Man, but the Right Man." In their fight previews, Sports Illustrated and Time put Cooney on the cover, not Holmes. President Ronald Reagan had a phone installed in Cooney's dressing room so he could call him if he won the fight. Holmes had no such arrangement. Lastly, boxing tradition dictates that the champion is introduced last, but the challenger, Cooney, was introduced last.
The bout was held in a 32,000-seat stadium erected in a Caesar's Palace Parking lot, with millions more watching around the world. After an uneventful first round, Holmes dropped Cooney with a right in the second. Cooney came back well in the next two rounds, jarring Holmes with his powerful left hook. Holmes later said that Cooney "hit me so damned hard, I felt it—boom—in my bones." Cooney was tiring by the ninth, a round in which he had two points deducted for low blows. In the tenth, they traded punches relentlessly. At the end of the round, the two nodded to each other in respect. Cooney lost another point because of low blows in the eleventh. By then, Holmes was landing with ease. In the thirteenth, a barrage of punches sent Cooney down. He got up, but his trainer, Victor Valle, stepped into the ring and stopped the fight.
After the fight, Holmes and Cooney became close friends.
Holmes' next two fights were one-sided decision wins over Randall "Tex" Cobb and ex-European champion Lucien Rodriguez. On May 23, 1983, Holmes defended his title against Tim Witherspoon, the future WBC and WBA Heavyweight Champion. Witherspoon, a six to one underdog and with only 15 professional bouts to his name, surprised many by giving Holmes a difficult fight. After twelve rounds, Holmes retained the title by a disputed split decision. Boxing Monthly named it one of the ten most controversial decisions of all time.
On September 10, 1983, Holmes successfully defended the WBC title for the sixteenth time, knocking out Scott Frank in five rounds. Holmes then signed to fight Marvis Frazier, son of Joe Frazier, on November 25, 1983. The WBC refused to sanction the fight against the unranked Frazier. They ordered Holmes to fight Greg Page, the #1 contender, or be stripped of the title. Promoter Don King offered Holmes $2.55 million to fight Page, but the champion didn't think that was enough. He was making $3.1 million to fight Frazier and felt he should get as much as $5 million to fight Page.
Holmes had an easy time with Frazier, knocking him out in the first round. The following month, Holmes relinquished the WBC championship and accepted recognition as World Heavyweight Champion by the newly formed International Boxing Federation.
Holmes signed to fight Gerrie Coetzee, the WBA Champion, on June 15, 1984 at Caesar's Palace. The fight was being promoted by JPD Inc., but it was canceled when Caesar's Palace said the promoters failed to meet the financial conditions of the contract. Holmes was promised $13 million and Coetzee was promised $8 million. Even after cutting the purses dramatically, they still couldn't come up with enough financial backing to stage the fight. Don King then planned to promote the fight, but Holmes lost a lawsuit filed by Virginia attorney Richard Hirschfeld, who said he had a contract with Holmes that gave him right of first refusal on a Holmes-Coetzee bout. Holmes then decided to move on and fight someone else.
On November 9, 1984, after a year out of the ring, Holmes made his first defense of the IBF title, stopping James "Bonecrusher" Smith on a cut in the twelfth round. In the first half of 1985, Holmes stopped David Bey in ten rounds for his 19th title defense. His next against Carl "The Truth" Williams was unexpectedly tough. The younger, quicker Williams was able to out-jab the aging champion, who was left with a badly swollen eye by the end of the bout. Holmes emerged with a close, and disputed, fifteen-round unanimous decision.
On September 21, 1985, Holmes stepped in the ring looking to equal Rocky Marciano's 49-0 career record and to make his twentieth successful title defense. His opponent was looking to make history as well. After winning the undisputed championship at light heavyweight, Michael Spinks decided to move up in weight and try to become the second fighter after Bob Fitzsimmons to win titles at both light heavyweight and heavyweight. An elder statesman who had tried for these latter honors, Archie Moore, predicted an easy win for Holmes: "I'm afraid Larry will chew him up. Michael may be faster than Larry, but you can only go so fast." Despite the assessment, it indeed would be Spinks whose historical destiny would be fulfilled, albeit controversially, as he defeated Holmes via unanimous decision to become the first reigning light heavyweight champion to win the heavyweight title. After the fight, a bitter Holmes said, "Rocky Marciano couldn't carry my jockstrap."
Holmes had a rematch with Spinks on April 19, 1986. Spinks retained the title with a disputed fifteen-round split decision. The judges scored the fight: Judge Joe Cortez 144–141 (Holmes), Judge Frank Brunette 141–144 (Spinks) and Judge Jerry Roth 142–144 (Spinks.) In a post-fight interview with HBO, Holmes said, "the judges, the referees and promoters can kiss me where the sun don't shine—and because we're on HBO, that's my big black behind."
On November 6, 1986, three days after his 37th birthday, Holmes announced his retirement.
On January 22, 1988, Holmes was lured out of retirement by a $2.8 million purse to challenge reigning Undisputed World Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson. Tyson dropped Holmes in the fourth round with an overhand right. Holmes got up, but Tyson put him down two more times in the round, and the fight was stopped. It was the only time Holmes was knocked out in his career. After the fight, Holmes again retired.
Holmes returned to the ring in 1991 and became a much more active fighter, usually fighting on USA Tuesday Night Fights cards every few weeks against up and comers and journeymen. After five straight wins, he fought Ray Mercer, the undefeated 1988 Olympic Gold Medalist, on February 7, 1992. Holmes pulled off the upset and won by a 12-round unanimous decision. (Holmes later claimed that he fought Mercer in spite of having a detached retina.) The win got Holmes a shot at Evander Holyfield for the Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship. On June 19, 1992, Holyfield defeated Holmes by a twelve-round unanimous decision.
On April 8, 1995, he fought Oliver McCall for the WBC title. Holmes lost by a close 12-round unanimous decision. Two of the judges had him losing by one point, while the other judge had him losing by three points.
Holmes was back in the ring five months later, resuming the pace he had set since his comeback. However, he was growing tired of the sport and, after he fought and knocked out Anthony Willis in June 1996 on another USA boxing event, Holmes announced that unless he received a shot at the title, the fight against Willis was likely to be his last.
On January 24, 1997, Holmes got his last opportunity to fight for a heavyweight championship when he traveled to Copenhagen to fight undefeated International Boxing Organization champion Brian Nielsen. Nielsen won by a 12-round split decision to retain the title.
Holmes and George Foreman signed to fight on January 23, 1999 at the Houston Astrodome. Foreman called off the fight several weeks before it was to take place because the promoter failed to meet the deadline for paying him the remaining $9 million of his $10 million purse. Foreman received a nonrefundable $1 million deposit, and Holmes got to keep a $400,000 down-payment of his $4 million purse.
Holmes' next two fights were rematches with old foes. On June 18, 1999, he stopped "Bonecrusher" Smith in eight rounds, and on November 17, 2000, he stopped Mike Weaver in six.
Holmes' final fight was on July 27, 2002 in Norfolk, Virginia. He defeated Eric "Butterbean" Esch by a 10-round unanimous decision.
Holmes invested the money he earned from boxing and settled in his hometown of Easton. When he retired from boxing, Holmes employed more than 200 people through his various business holdings. In 2008, he owned two restaurants and a nightclub, a training facility, an office complex, a snack food bar and slot machines. Holmes currently co-hosts a talk show What The Heck Were They Thinking?
In 2014, Holmes sold his business complex in Easton to business entrepreneur Gerald Gorman.
In 2016 Larry Holmes guest starred as himself in an episode of Mike Tyson Mysteries, titled "Unsolved Situations".
Larry Holmes married his wife, Diane, in 1979. Together they have had two children, Kandy Holmes and Larry Holmes Jr.
Holmes was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2008.