June 11, 1982: Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney
by Pete Madzelan - Let’s go back in time. Back to June 1982, and the heavyweight championship fight between champion, Larry Holmes and challenger, Gerry Cooney. The fight made cash registers jingle—it was a bonanza, brought on by a buildup that left nothing out. It was boxer-vs-puncher; youth-vs-age with the possibility of the changing of the guard. There was much written about Holmes’ age of 32, and Cooney was the perfect antithesis to aging emotions: young and powerful. And then there was this—the emergence of a White Hope. Something that Cooney didn’t want, but there it was: “Why can’t we be two fighters, two athletes, both trying to win.”
Article posted on 11.06.2012
Originally, the fight was scheduled for March 15, 1982, but was postponed when in January, Cooney’s was injured—a partial tear of muscle fibers in the posterior of his shoulder..
Holmes didn’t enjoy the news, and wanted to fight an unnamed opponent on April 2. “They know Larry Holmes fights better when he’s more active, that’s why they were hoping I wouldn’t have a fight between now and June.”
He also made a point about boxers being injured. “The week before I fought Ken Norton, I tore a ligament in my left arm, in the bicep, but I had it treated, and in the fight I made it work. It hurt but I forced it. Norton knew it, he banged me on it, but I forced it like a fighter’s supposed to.”
Holmes didn’t have another fight. The big fight was on.
In the buildup, Gerry Cooney was the star; the media poster boy. He was neatly transformed into the perfect American hero. Not hard to do with his little boy charm. “We’re making a case for a gentleman. He basically is a very gentle guy. We’re marketing reality,” said Dennis Rappaport, who along with Mike Jacobs, were the managerial force behind Cooney.
And so it went. Gerry Cooney and Sly Stallone graced the cover of TIME magazine, while Sports Illustrated had a fold-out cover for the upcoming fight. Guess who was folded under as if he didn't exist? Larry Holmes, the heavyweight champion had selectively become a non-entity—a nuisance to to rid of. Even to the point of one day, Holmes’ name was misspelled on the marquee in front of Caesars Palace, the site of the fight.
All of this galled Holmes, especially to the point that Larry Holmes, a quality champion who defended his crown eleven times in four years wasn’t getting the larger chunk of the financial pie.
The word used was “parity.” But, hey, if you take away the hyped-hero construction of Cooney, and the black-white diversion, and replace it with reality, then Cooney wasn't close to financial parity. But, I guess, sometimes fiction is easier to swallow than reality.
Then again, what did Holmes expect? For in a string of title defenses, he received less then what his contract called for, ranging from fifty-grand to two-million bucks. There's that underside of boxing again. In this case, Holmes’ promoter, Don King, who on June 9, 1982, sued by Muhammad Ali for being shortchanged when he fought Holmes. If he did it to Ali, what chance did Holmes have? (This is all documented in Jack Newfield’s book, “Only in America: The Life and Times of Don King,” 1995. Chapter 7: The Stealing of Larry Holmes, and Chapter 8: The Betrayal of Muhammad Ali.”)
Meanwhile, with money matters secured, King and Cooney’s braintrust, Dennis Rappaport and Mike Jones, who a British journalist labeled, “Tweedle-De-Dum and Tweedle-De-Dumber,” did their best to throw the fight into the race gutter. After all, polarization does sell tickets. And we all know, you gotta sell tickets, man.
Cooney was portrayed as the public’s darling, something Joe fan could hang their dreams on, yet his two previous fights in his home state of New York failed to sellout. Still, his potential was real, as real and as lethal as his left hook. A punch that belted out opponents quicker than snapping one’s fingers. Still, one had to wonder if the knockout quickness was robbing him from honing his skills and testing his stamina.
Burt Randolph Sugar, at the time, the publisher of Ring magazine said, “How can you have the stamina when every fight you fight is one round? Cooney might have potential, but he hasn’t had a chance to show it. His managers have show businessed him to death. A large part of him is hype.”
Writing in the New York Times, Dave Anderson echoed about the hype. “Gerry Cooney remains a mystery man. His buildup...is the most carefully controlled con since Primo Carnera.”
To supporters, this was just excessive dribble because Cooney’s thundering left was what dreams are made of. The flashback video of Ken Norton sagging towards the canvas with eyes crossed and rolling into the unexplored canyons of his head still crawls uneasily up the spine of anyone who witnessed that fight.
Truth was that Norton was an aged shell remembering yesterday without tomorrows. In fact, Cooney’s last three opponents before Holmes (Norton, Jimmy Young, and Ron Lyle) were men with noble fistic histories in the past tense. They were hand-picked with the delicate care of picking fruit at the grocery store. You squeeze it to test the ripeness. As a result, the big kid from Long Island stood accused of not paying his dues. No professional appreciates leap-frog success of another without stopping at the toll booth. Larry Holmes talked bitterly about his, “That sucker ain't even paid his dues.”
“He knocked out Ken Norton in 54 seconds, and all of sudden he’s great. I never heard of that. A fighter fighting 54 seconds in a year and then asking for parity with a champion. He can get away with it because he’s the great white hope, so he thinks he can dictate his terms for everything.”
Cooney saw it differently, didn’t think he was being overprotected: “They were all supposed to be tough men, and a lot of people said I’d lose to all of them. Then, I go out and beat them the way I did, and all of a sudden, all three of them are has-beens, fighters on their way out.”
As many questioned the selection of Cooney’s opponents, another member of the boxing fraternity analyzed it from an angle beyond Young, Lyle and Norton. Noted boxing historian, Jimmy Jacobs, said throw out the three old opponents, and go back to Gerry's knockout of journeyman, LeRoy Boone.
Jacobs observed, “Boone was getting Cooney in trouble and Cooney not appearing to know what to do about it.” As to Cooney’s chances against Holmes, Jacobs tossed a quick jab, “Cooney doesn't have a chance.”
Cooney didn’t care what anyone thought of his chances, but he did care about the race angle, even flinched from the race talk. He was constantly quoted as not wanting to be considered as white, but rather as a fighter. Sorry, Gerry, but white heavyweights don't come around often. So, was he a caricature or what?
After all these years, one can’t shake the way his managers led him around like an adolescent, who willingly accepted their proclamations without questioning. Youth? Probably. Undoubtedly, he was a nice and friendly guy, an innocent kid with maturity still around a few corners. A clean-cut suburban kid who loved “Rocky” movies; got off on Pac-Man, and just couldn’t wait until his high school reunion.
It harkened back to how the great boxing writer A. J. Liebling, who penned “The Sweet Science,” described the 1950s welterweight fighter, Billy Graham. He wrote that Graham was a “good” fighter, but not a “hell” of a fighter. The theory said that Graham's neighborhood was too “genteel” to produce a “hell” of a fighter. His point being that the hunger of deprivation wasn't there.
Cooney’s supporters would not have agreed, screaming that he was ready and to say he wasn’t could’ve brought up laments about reverse discrimination. The time was right. The moment was a now moment. He was ready for the storm.
There is no escaping it. White hopes have a historical link. It’s there, and the era leading up to Cooney had their crop. White hopes predictably bloomed with the season, and then most of them were dismissed. In the late sixties, Jerry Quarry proved to be a quality, but limited fighter. Then came the precursor to Cooney. Duane Bobick (1973-77) rode the hyped express until he was cracked with egg shell proficiency when Ken Norton ko’d him in one round.
The torch was quickly picked-up by Joe Bugner, who attempted to cut through the maze by annoucing himself as the best white heavyweight since Rocky Marciano. “If it sounds big-headed, it’s because it’s true, I am the best white heavyweight in the world.”
Give him credit for admitting the generational connection. But, like most others, he faded. In 1979, came the emergence of Gerry Cooney.
As the fight approached, Cooney, unlike Holmes, was wooing them in and out of the ring. He almost took joy in saying that he went through 14 or 15 sparring partners. “I think I have a record for sparring partners.” So, there was a guy, who should have been learning the intricacies and nuances of boxing, but went out to kick ass.
No, that bottom line just wouldn’t do. In the ongoing campaign pumping Cooney, the sparring showed his devastating destructiveness. It was an endless campaign by Cooney’s managers that had to make any political consultant of the time blush. The phrase used in the Cooney camp, worn on shirts: “Not a White Man, but the Right Man.” The training camp's ring ropes are red, white, and blue. The symbolism was clear.
Mike Jones: “Gerry is not only a great fighter, he is an image of America—the America we like to think about.”
“Instead of getting high on dope, Gerry will make kids get high on life,” said manager Dennis Rappaport. “We’re going to make more converts than Billy Graham.”
Cooney himself said. “Boxing needs me. I think I make people laugh, and that's good in life.” On Larry Holmes, he said, he’s a “very kind guy, he’s the kinda guy boxing can do without.”
Hype and myth were easily woven as celebrities paid homage. That historical sociologist, Sly Stallone, offered this astute ditty. “If he accomplishes in reality what Rocky did on film, the American Dream comes true.”
It wasn’t all that rosy, and Cooney knew the realities, “Sure I’m afraid of losing. This is a society of winners...once you lose, no one wants to know you. That’s just the way it is. That’s life.”
As Cooney sauntered down the American Dream highway, Larry Holmes fended off the charge of being anti-white. He claimed he has no personal animosity towards Cooney, just that he, Holmes, earned it the hard way. “If he weren’t white, do you think he’d be here getting the same money as me?”
George Vecsey, writing in the New York Times: “I have never detected any sign of racial antagonism in him. He seems to be a stable adult...who has a solid place in his community and a good family life. The hype of this fight seems to bothering him—and for good reason.”
Yeah, for good reason. For Larry Holmes it should’ve been his high times. His flapper times. But, as the fight drew closer, he turned distrusting and edgy. He switched hotels—eating at the Dunes Hotel, and sleeping at Caesars! Did he believe some devious forces may be out to try something sinister?
When that happened, Cooney’s camp believed Holmes was being psyched out. “Everyone thought the pressure would get to Gerry, but Holmes seems like the one who’s ready to crack,” said Victor Valle, Cooney’s trainer.
His mood swings were a concern to his veteran trainers, Eddie Futch (67 years old) and Ray Arcel (82 years old). They thought Holmes’ fight face was rising too soon. On May 31, twelve days before the fight, Holmes, who was generally easy on sparring mates, beat up on sparring partner, Jody Ballard.
Besides the varibles of approaching fight, some of the edginess had to come from not being appreciated; being perceived as a cheap imitation of Ali. Forget the labor. Forget climbing the rungs, fighting in small clubs, like off I-81 in Scranton, Pa., where he had his first fight. A four-round decision over Rodell Dupree and for a $100 payday Forget all that. Forget the cheap-ass motel rooms. Forget the years of sparring with Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. Forget how he honed his sills against quality opposition. How he turned his left jab into a thing of pure beauty. A jab that was one of the best in the history of the division. More punishing than that of Ali, and faster than that of Louis. Forget it all, because now, he must fight a potentially good fighter to receive the creditability that should be in his hip pocket. Make no mistake about it. This would be the fight he would be remembered for.
Fight night arrived with a 350-man security force partrolling the sweltering Las Vegas parking lot where the ring was erected. The night was full of questions and thoughts as Cooney came to the ring hooded, wearing Irish green. He walked in with a puncher’s chance to the ring, remembering that Earnie Shavers and Renaldo Snipes both decked Larry in round seven.
Cooney: “He says I’m a coward. That I’m scared of him. Friday night, I’ll put an end to all this garbage. He’s a jerk.”
Holmes: “He wanted parity, he got parity. But parity ends when we step in that ring. Then there’s no parity, no controversy, only the two of us.”
Round one began with Cooney stalking and lungeing, while Holmes used his weapon of choice—the jab. “It’s going to be Everlast in his face, all night long.”
Holmes, the profession, knew that Cooney had a habit of dropping his left hand when preparing to hook to the body, so when Cooney’s shoulder dipped during second round, Holmes sent across a right hand, decking the challenger. Cooney shook out the cobwebs and continued to stalk Holmes in the third round, who was easily avoiding Cooney’s telegraphing hooks.
Holmes’ veteran trainers had their opinions. Ray Arcel: “To me, Cooney is absolutely inexperienced.” And Eddie Futch knew what they were dealing with. “Cooney is young, strong, and ambitious with power in his left hand, but Larry is a disciplined fighter. He does what he has to do to win.” Futch knew the dangers, but he knew other nunances of the sweet science, saying he didn’t understand some of things Cooney did, like crouching and not using his height advantage. And, “rather than throw the right behind the hook, he keeps doubling and tripling his left and drops his right. Cooney is vulnerable to a straight left. That’s the key.”
There were spirited exchanges during round four, where Cooney crunched a left to the body that hurt the champion. Round five saw Holmes settling in, carving out landscape in the center of the ring, while his jab picked-up the tempo; was increasing in rhythm as overhand rights were landing. In Round six, Cooney still couldn’t get inside and stay there, and his telegraphing hook was alerting Holmes every time he winged it. Two savage rights hurt Cooney, who staggered like a midnight drunk, or somebody who was just mugged. His left eye was cut. The bell saved him.
Larry Holmes: “Before you mug a guy, you get him drunk. I get him drunk with jabs in three or four rounds, then when he’s dizzy, I end it.”
Round seven clanged with Cooney appearing to be dazed and confused. Holmes was in control, being patient, cagey and deliberate. Boxing from a textbook, going page by page, and using tricks of the trade and defensive skills unknown to Cooney, who had to be realizing that he was in another world. By round eight, Cooney was cut above and along the left eye, but continued to come forward, showing heart and determination, but in this game, you need more than that. Budd Schulberg wrote, “He couldn’t jab with Holmes, he couldn’t seem to defend against straight right hands and his own right hand was still in grammar school.”
At ringside, one of the Cooney braintrust, Dennis Rappaport offered bizarre encouragement, shrieking the following: “Win it for your dead father! Boxing needs you! America needs you, Gerry! Remember the kid with leukemia!”
During round nine, Cooney was warned for throwing below the belt. The warning was heard, but then it quickly melted into the hot Vegas night, or maybe Cooney had mariachi music playing in his head because he again went south of the border—straight for the groin. The low blow had Holmes doubled-over and grimancing in pain. Mills Lane took two points away from Cooney.
Both men landed and received telling hard blows during the rousing tenth round. Cooney shot for the moon. It was as though Cooney realized time was running out, and Holmes wasn’t going anywhere. Either that, or he realized that his gas tank was nearing empty. So, he shot for the moon. The moon didn’t blink.
During the eleventh round, Cooney again traveled south of the border. One point was taken from him. The low blows didn’t derail Holmes, as his intelligent performance continued in the twelfth...zeroing in with stinging jabs and stiff right hands.
When the bell rang for the thirteenth, the scent of the end was in the air. With that, Holmes set up his easel and painted the scene. He rocked Cooney with a right hand; Cooney came back with a left hook, and Holmes responded with a left-right-right-right-left-right that had Cooney hurt, reeling “pitifully across the ring.” Mills Lane checked Cooney, “His eyes were still good.” Thankfully, Victor Valle didn’t agree, coming to Cooney’s rescue. “ I wasn’t going to let him get a beating.”
Holmes by TKO in the 13th round.
Cooney took the announcer’s microphone and with his voice cracking told the crowd, “I tried with all my heart. I’m sorry. I gave it all I had.”
Holmes won, and won convincingly. Though, the ringside judges scorecards left a sour taste in the mouth of the event. Jerry Roth had it 115-109 Holmes, while Duane Ford and Dave Moretti had Holmes ahead 113-111 after 12 rounds, which meant if Cooney wasn’t penalized three points, he would’ve been ahead 114-113!
The sporting press was outraged, and voiced their concern, calling it “disgraceful.”
Dick Young, NY Post, “Duane Ford and Dave Moretti were incompetent.”
John Schulian, Chicago Sun-Times: The scoring “smelled of what the champion was beating out of the challenger.”
Budd Schulberg: “According to these myopic judges, if Cooney somehow had been able to win the closing rounds, he would have been gifted with Holmes’ championship belt. Another scandal was in the making, with ugly racist overtones.”
Mike Lupica, New York Daily News: “Neither man should be allowed anywhere near a big fight again.”
United Press International surveyed 20 writers at ringside, only one had awarded Cooney 5 rounds; five gave him either 4 or 3, and 14 gave him only two. For example, Bob Verdi of the Chicago Tribune, and Dave Anderson of the New York Times had it a 10-2 blowout.
(note: ironically, on June 9, 2012, Duane Ford celebrated his Holmes/Cooney scoring of 30 years ago, by scoring Tim Bradley the winner over Manny Pacquiao. Goes to show, the more things change, the more they remain the same.)
Larry Holmes taught Gerry Cooney about professionalism. Now, if only he could’ve given that lesson to the hordes of hype-mongers. Dream on. Holmes, the professional, swashbuckled behind a phalanx of euphonic left jabs that were eagerly gobbled up by Cooney as if they were sugar sweet lollipops. Or, as Jerry Izenberg wrote in a pre-fight column: “Larry Holmes’ dominant piece is the jab. Until now, it has been the fountain from which all his...artistic blessings flow. Without it, he is going to be deep trouble, when the moment of truth rolls around. With it, well, he could win this fight very, very big.”
Holmes did win big. That was evident as early as the second round, when a right hand turned Cooney's legs to jelly and knocked him down. The challenger was awkward without suitable leverage, and without leverage, many of his punches had little power; his offense was one-dimensional without skilled science.
What must’ve locomotived through his mind when the Vegas ring was transformed from the comfort of neatly trimmed suburban sod to the nightmare of the other side of the tracks. The side we’re weaned to stay away from. In the sweltering ninety-degree skillet heat of a desert night, hype was reduced to nakedness. It was, as if the glittering glaze of the infamous strip became again the solitary desert, where truth sizzles and bullshit was non-existent. Demythologization sure did make the sun shine brighter, didn't it? Doesn’t it?
And that sun can bring reality, as Cooney acknowledged, “I learned such a lesson about fighting. I couldn’t have learned it from anybody else.” What would he do next. There was only one option, as Budd Schulberg echoed. For Cooney, “it’s back to the gym, back to the drawing board and maybe back to hard fights that are finally the only school in town.”
Cooney did come back, but he never went anywhere. His career ended when he was knocked out back-to-back by Michael Spinks and George Foreman.
As for Larry Holmes, he received what should’ve been his—recognition. Before the fight, Holmes’ trainer, Ray Arcel said, “Holmes is the most underrated champion of all time.” Time has changed that thinking.
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