CANASTOTA, N.Y. - It's probably a good thing Larry Holmes didn't receive a lot of encouragement when he set out to become heavyweight champion of the world.

One of 12 children born into a poor family, Holmes fed off the negativity of everyone who ever told him he couldn't do this or that. It made him want to prove to the world, and to himself, that he could achieve anything as long as he worked hard and never lost sight of his goal.

Now 58 and one of boxing's greatest success stories in and out of the ring, the "Easton Assassin" still conducts himself with the defiance of a hungry child who learned fast that the only real way to get ahead is to take control of your life and forge ahead, no matter how long the odds against you.

"I don't want them to put me in the Hall of Fame because they like me," Holmes said yesterday during the 19th annual induction ceremonies for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. "I want them to put me in because I earned it.

"Go home and tell your kids if Larry Holmes can do it, you can do it. Get yourself an education, stay off the damn streets because the world don't owe you nothin'. You owe the world everything."

And with that in-your-face challenge, the seventh-grade dropout who always seemed to be at the wrong place at the wrong time received the sort of ovation previously denied him by a public that never could accept that he wasn't as charismatic as Muhammad Ali or as powerful as George Foreman.

On a muggy afternoon, he shared the dais with five other living inductees - former junior welterweight champion Eddie Perkins, Danish promoter Mogens Palle, British promoter Frank Warren, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson and Japanese journalist Joe Koizumi. But Holmes was far and away the biggest draw, perhaps appreciated even more now than he was during a 7 1/2-year title reign that ended when he lost a controversial decision to Michael Spinks on Sept. 21, 1985, which ended his bid to equal Rocky Marciano's career record of 49-0.

At that postfight press conference, Holmes said Marciano "couldn't carry my jockstrap," a remark that stamped him as a sore loser unwilling to acknowledge the greatness of one of his predecessors as heavyweight champion.

Holmes said yesterday his comments were not meant to denigrate Marciano so much as to celebrate his own underappreciated career.

"I didn't say it to knock him, I said it because I feel good about myself," Holmes explained. "No man is better than another man. God blessed some of us with a little more than others. That don't mean I'm better than [Marciano]. But that don't mean he's better than me, either.

"Muhammad Ali says he's the greatest. That's his opinion. And there's nothing wrong with my opinion. But I feel I'm the greatest."

During his 25-minute acceptance speech, Holmes talked about his days as an Ali sparring partner who was so poor that Gene Kilroy, an Ali aide, had to furnish him with boxing gloves because he had none of his own.

"I went to Manila to fight on that Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier card [Oct. 1, 1975] and [promoter] Don King wanted to give me $300," recalled Holmes, who stopped Rodney Bobick in six rounds.

Even as he advanced through the ranks and became the challenger to then-WBC heavyweight champion Ken Norton on May 9, 1978, the fear of never getting another chance at the title hurt Holmes more than the torn ligaments in his left arm he claims to have suffered 6 days before the bout.

"When that bell rang, I started working," Holmes said. "Kenny Norton and I was on. And I beat him; 15 rounds of real fighting. There was no dog in Kenny Norton and there was no dog in me. He didn't give in and I didn't give in either."

With an aching arm that did not allow him full use of his primary weapon, a state-of-the-art jab, Holmes outgutted Norton in the decisive 15th round of one of the best heavyweight championship fights ever.

And with every punch he delivered or took, Holmes remembered each stinging putdown he had ever heard. It made him dig down just a bit deeper.

"When I was coming up, nobody thought anything about Larry Holmes," he said. "Nobody would give a dime for my career because my legs were too small, I couldn't punch and I was just a poor copy of Muhammad Ali. That's what Howard Cosell said."

Now Holmes is a Hall of Famer, and a rich one, he noted. And why shouldn't he be? Money is, after all, just another way of keeping score.

"I didn't get into boxing to become heavyweight champion of the world," he said. "I didn't get into boxing to make the Hall of Fame. I got into boxing to make some money to pay the rent.

"I'm still a multimillionaire 30 years later. How many fighters you know are multimillionaires 30 years later? Or 3 weeks later? Mike Tyson made $350 million and ain't got a dime. [Evander] Holyfield is in foreclosure.

"Sometimes, when people get rich and ain't hungry no more, they forget everything and everybody. They forget where they come from. Larry Holmes hasn't forgot where he came from."

Nor has he forgotten Foreman, a frequent target of his verbal jabs.

"George Foreman is the biggest phony ever. Everybody knows George wouldn't fight me," Holmes said. "He can sell all the grills you want, and y'all are stuck with them.

"If you don't want your hamburgers to be greasy, you're crazy. I want my burgers juicy. I don't want no damn dried-up burger." *