In the late 90’s, my phone rang and it was my friend and employer, former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. He wanted me to pursue a possible fight in South Africa.
The “fight that never happened” would pit Larry against Gerry Coetzee. Years earlier, Holmes has passed on a $30 million dollar payday (in 1980’s dollars) in respect of the battles against Apartheid. Fighting there would have been an endorsement of the practices, a los to the white Coetzee, a disaster on many levels.
So, I began talking with the Minister of Sports who kept asking when Nelson Mandela could speak to Holmes? “As soon as he’d like, ” was my response. A time was immediately set and the next day a conference call happened with Larry Holmes, Nelson Mandela, various South African officials and myself.
Almost as soon as the call began, Mandela began almost crying with joy to be on the phone with Larry. While in prison, word had reached him that Larry Holmes had turned down a staggering amount of money to fight there. Keep in mind that many of the biggest entertainers in the world were taking huge pay checks to play Sun City. Frank Sinatra even recorded a television special there.
Like the original fight plans, the 90’s version did not happen either. This time it was costs, not politics that kept it from happening. No network wanted to pay to broadcast two aging fighters in a ring halfway around the world.
So moved was Mandela by Larry’s decision, that he kept a photo of him in his prison cell. Imagine, a man punished for fighting for human rights in awe of a professional athlete.
A few years later I would meet Nelson Mandela in person and I reminded him of our conversation and my relationship with Larry Holmes. He took my hand and held it, looked me in the eye with a broad smile on his face and said, “Your hand has held the hand of a great man.”
It had and did that day as well.
Rest in peace and in eternal grace Mr. Mandela.