Years later, when Ali had that Parkinson’s disease, he told me he’d always envied me for one thing.
“What’s that, Muhammad?” I asked, curious.
“You know the smartest thing you ever did, Larry?”
“You stayed in your hometown. Man, you were smart. You got a place where you feel you belong, where you have your people. Me, I can go anywhere in the world and people will know me and make a fuss, but I don’t really have a hometown no more. I really miss that.”
He was dead right, of course. And if I needed any supporting evidence, it was what awaited me when I arrived at the airport in Allentown. As the plane descended, someone observed that there were lots of cars parked below. I didn’t look down because just being in a plane always made me feel strange, and looking at the ground coming up toward me was too unsettling.
As the plane landed and then taxied to its gate, I could see hundreds of people standing on the roof of the airport, waiting, it turned out, to greet me.
I didn’t know it, but immediately after the fight, Easton had spontaneously erupted, folks leaving their homes and the bars in which they had watched the fight and heading downtown to the square where a huge stone Civil War obelisk, topped by a bugler boy, stood. The joke around Easton was that some nights the city was so quiet you just waited for the damn bugler to blow.
Well, the night I whupped Norton was not like that. Car horns sounded and drivers flashed their headlights. People congregated at The Circle, as the town center at Northampton and Third Streets was known. The crowd grew and grew. Those of my brothers and sisters who had not gone to Vegas were mobbed by well-wishers. Friends told me there had been nothing like this since the end of World War II was declared.
Well, a day later—the day I arrived back home—it was even bigger, grander. At the airport, there were thousands of fans who’d come from all over the Delaware Valley—from big cities like Bethlehem and from small towns like Deer Lake and Pottsville. A few came from as far away as Harrisburg and Reading. They were joined by local politicians, as well as some of my brothers and Mom. It was amazing. The crowd chanted: “You’re the champ” and “We’re number one.” As I disembarked from the plane I waved to the people and, making my way to the limo that an Easton car dealer had provided, signed hundreds of autographs.
In the open limo with Diane and my family, I rode at the head of a motorcade along Route 22, back to Easton. Along the roadside all the way to my hometown were people standing and cheering. Many of them were wearing buttons that said, “Larry Holmes—The Easton Assassin.” I loved it.
It hit me that for the last two years, ever since I won the Roy Williams fight, I’d told everyone around here I was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world. It was my way of convincing myself I could do that… and be that. Folks used to duck me because they were so worn out by me telling them the same thing over and over. The truth was that until I was in that crowd and saw the familiar faces, winning the championship wasn’t a reality.
If the ride along Route 22 was a wonder, what was awaiting me in Easton was even better. The people had come from Brown’s Hardware Supply and the Sportsman’s Café, and they came from the ivied homes up on College Hill. My neighbors from the South Side were there too. All of them were jammed thick in and around The Circle and, as our motorcade reached town center, they chanted, “La-rrry, La-rrry, La-rrry.” Those sitting in their cars blew their horns. I saw signs that said, “Welcome, Larry Holmes” and “Welcome back, Champ.” I felt more then than when I got the decision in Las Vegas. I was so happy I thought I was gonna cry. But I kept my emotions in and just waved. It wouldn’t be right for the heavyweight champion to be crying.
I associated each face with some experience. Faces I worked with. Faces of bosses I’d had and their families. Faces of politicians. Faces of old teachers and cops. Faces I made deliveries to, shined shoes for, washed cars for. Faces of guys I drank with, girls I fooled around with. The face of an uncle of mine who had blown big money betting against me when I’d fought Shavers and Norton. Yup, I saw my whole life up to that point in the faces around me. I knew there could have been nothing like this if I came from a big city. I was glad I had stayed a small-town boy.