Gentleman Gerry Cooney: What could have been!

By Don Colgan

Last June the 20th anniversary of perhaps the most provocative and anticipated heavyweight title bout of the modern era passed. On June 12, 1982 Larry Holmes defended his WBC Heavyweight Title against the number one contender, Gentleman Gerry Cooney at Las Vegas. Cooney's credentials for a title challenge were somewhat suspect. His one round knockout of 40 year old Ken Norton earned him the title opportunity yet Norton's weak chin and advanced age shed a degree of doubt upon Cooney's qualification to challenge such an accomplished titleholder as Holmes.

Gerry's punching power was not in question. His stamina, jab, defensive skills and overall development and maturity were. After his demolition of Norton Holmes #1 challenger and heir apparent to the championship did not engage in such much as a tune up. In fact Gerry was out of the ring for an astonishing 14 months before his championship challenge, a foolish strategy considering Larry's experience, the caliber of opposition he had faced and his championship heart.

However, as the contest approached many in the national print media saw a Cooney stoppage of Holmes as almost a formality. Even the renowned radio sportscaster Art Rust Jr predicted a Cooney first round knockout. The fact that Holmes succeeded the immortal Ali and had duplicated much of his success as champion was lost upon much of the nation. Cooney was decked in an air of indestructibility, an expectation that did not serve the contender, or his woefully inexperienced management team well.

Whether Cooney was blocked from engaging in a meaningful contest before meeting Holmes is open to speculation. Certainly there were numerous matches that would have elicited enormous fan appeal and where a Cooney KO would have totally solidified his claim to a bout with Holmes. Earnie Shavers would have tested Gerry's chin and a clash with South African Gerrie Coetzee would have been a stiff challenge for the Huntington, Long Island heavy.

The buildup prior to Cooney-Holmes powerfully illustrated the grip that a marquee Heavyweight Championship contest once had upon the American sporting public. The bout utterly dominated the public and press and the white hope mantle thrust upon Cooney's brow placed a cruel burden upon his preparedness to do battle against a truly great titleholder. In the two decades that have passed only a handful of heavyweight title bouts have captured the nation's attention and none so poignantly as Cooney-Holmes.

If Gerry was confident he could wrest the title from Holmes the Champion was beyond condescending of Cooney's abilities. Holmes did nothing, as did Cooney, to place an undue emphasis on race yet his comments were purely off the street and the sense of Cooney being bullied and dismissed as a legitimate title threat. Gerry's suburban background in contrast to Holmes upbringing and Larry's "Looney-Cooney" remarks certainly crept in Cooney's mind, perhaps formed excuses for defeat long before he climbed between the ropes of that torrid June night.

In retrospect it may have been black street toughness contrasted with white reticitude that framed this bout. The Champion told all who would listen that he would kick Cooney's butt, "get him drunk before I knocked him out" as he outlined very graphically the strategy he employed to perfection inside the ring. No doubt behind closed doors the Holmes's brain trust, with Eddie Futch as its cornerstone, he convinced Holmes that a careless moment against Cooney was an invitation to disaster. Holmes had been thumped to the canvas in earlier defenses against Earnie Shavers and Renaldo Snipes. Larry was well aware to be careful and craft a plan to use his magnificent jab against the ponderous Irishman at will before attempting to secure a knockout.

The air of certain Cooney victory that enveloped the challenger's followers and many in the print media did not serve Gerry well. The endless comparison to the fictional Rocky Balboa, carried to the extent that the Rocky theme was blaring as Gerry climbed through the ropes, placed Cooney in the impossible situation of having to live up to the deeds of the mythical Philly slugger. The script for Cooney was to kept endless pressure on Holmes, cut the ring in half and negate Larry's piston jab. Left hooks to the body in the early rounds, conserve strength wherever possible, for this was for the championship distance of 15 rounds.

As the instructions were given at mid ring, Cooney looked apprehensive, Holmes street tough. Larry worked Cooney hard with the jab in round one, eluded Gerry's left hook and moved him around well. Cooney was stalking the champion, he was right there, yet from the opening minute it was apparent that Holmes would have a difficult, yet not unmanageable evening.

The second session followed the same pattern with Cooney throwing punches yet catching more. Then, in the final minute Holmes abruptly dumped Cooney on the seat of his pants with a cunning straight right. Gerry bounded off the canvas and resumed his pursuit of the titleholder yet the sense was that Cooney had bitten off far more than he could chew.

Then Cooney got into the fight. He began landing the left hook, both to Holmes's head and body. Gerry's hooks strayed south of the border more than once and began to draw the attention of Mills Lane. Cooney took the third and fourth fairly convincingly and was on the attack through the midway point of round five when Holmes caught him with a beautiful right hand counter that buckled Cooney's knees and brought an abrupt conclusion to the challenger's rally.

The 6th round was all Larry as Cooney was staggered with a classic right lead and pounding from pillar to post for most of the session. Yet Gerry was not through. He rebounded strongly in the seventh and eighth rounds, slamming brutal left hooks, many of them low, to Holmes body and head. Yet Larry always had an answer and his ring generalship had an answer for every question the challenger posed.

After the titleholder dominated Cooney during round 9 there appeared a moment, one fleeting moment when Cooney's youth and power seemed to be turning the tide as he began walking through Larry for the first two minutes of the 10th round, ripping hard left hooks to the ribcage, left and heart. The champion seemed briefly overwhelming yet he was probably doing his best Jake LaMotta imitation as he sprang back at Cooney in the final minute of the round, ripping combinations to the head that stopped Cooney cold and turned the bout irrevocably in his direction.

From that point forward Holmes picked the tiring challenger to shreds, administered a battering as Cooney's 10th round last stand had exhausted his reserves. Cooney through punches and forced the action through He was simply trying to survive even though he had an inexplicable narrow points lead on two cards. Round 13 saw Holmes go for the stoppage and pounded the game Gerry brutally, finally sending him sprawling in the final minute of the round. Cooney's trainer Victor Valle leapt into the ring to prevent Cooney from suffering further damage as the challenger's courageous effort to capture the heavyweight crown fell valiantly short.

In the twenty years that have passed Larry Holmes could not bring himself to leave the ring although his most recent effort against Butterbean was supposedly his finale. Regardless, Larry fights for the love of the game and his place is firmly entrenched among the great Heavyweight Titleholders of all time. He amassed twenty championship defenses before yielding the title to Michael Spinks and many felt he had done more than enough to reclaim it in their return bout the following year.

Cooney, sadly, was never truly correctly handled and his chance to be a champion passed him by. Unlike Joe Louis, who learned from his knockout defeat to Max Schmeling and returned to not only halt the German in one brutal session two years later, he also reigned for a dozen years with a still record 25 title defenses. Cooney should have been back in the ring within six months of his loss to Holmes. Had Gil Clancy or Angelo Dundee handled Gerry he would have forced a rematch with Holmes with convincing triumphs. Instead, he allowed the ring rust to gather, won a few bouts against second tier competition and was convincingly stopped by Michael Spinks in 1988 at "The War at the Shore". Two years later he was blitzed in two sessions by a come backing George Foreman after connecting with a left hook in round one that Foreman characterized as "The hardest I've ever been hit".

Today Gerry head up the F.I.S.T organization that works on behalf of retired fighters and provides a support structure for boxers in general, including up and coming youngsters. It is an organization that Cooney founded in 1998 and has gained recognition as an effort long over due in a sport where ex boxers are often forgotten, even by their peers.

Twenty years have elapsed since Holmes-Cooney. Boxing would do well to have a Heavyweight Title Bout that equaled it in excitement and public interest.


Gerry Cooney

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