We are now in 'fight week' leading up to one of the most anticipated bouts of the year between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Miguel Cotto taking place on May 5. This June 11, 2012 marks the 30th anniversary of another highly anticipated fight of its era - the championship fight between then heavyweight king Larry Holmes and former top contender "Gentleman" Gerry Cooney.
Boxing 101 recently met up with the 55-year old Cooney at Moonstruck Diner on 58th Street in Manhattan, owned by Mike Trapani Jr., son of former amateur boxer and Golden Gloves finalist Mike Trapani. Over a heaping plate of chicken parmigiana and a side of spaghetti, Gentleman Gerry openly shared his views on a wide range of boxing topics, including his shot at the championship, reflection upon his life after boxing and his views on the sport. This conversation will be shared over a four-part series leading up to the June anniversary of Holmes-Cooney and Boxing 101's "VHS Classic Rewind" coverage of the fight. This installment covers the circumstances surrounding Cooney's fight for the heavyweight championship of the world in 1982.
Even though the Holmes fight is his most memorable and famous, Cooney (28-3, 24 KO's) considers his May 1980 fight against Jimmy Young to be the highlight of his career. In his first televised fight, the then 23-year old undefeated Cooney stopped the cagey veteran via fourth round TKO. Young had previously been stopped only once in a career that included bouts against such powerful greats as Muhammad Ali, Ken Norton and George Foreman. Cooney regaled in his joining Earnie Shavers as only the second fighter to stop Young and by doing so with an uppercut instead of his trademark vicious left hook. This victory helped set the wheels in motion for his rise within the heavyweight ranks.
Cooney described fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world as the greatest experience of his life, but was quick to point out that he self-sabotaged himself with alcohol abuse which stemmed from his lack of self-worth.
That may sound surprising coming from a six foot, seven inch man who left behind a trail of knockout victims often within the first 4-6 rounds of a fight with one of the most devastating left hooks in the sport. However, it was that very lack of experience to which Cooney, in part, attributes his sense of insecurity during that period of his life. One of Cooney's knockout victims, former champion Ken Norton, was brutally knocked out in a mere 54 seconds in 1981. Although this victory set up Cooney for a shot at the championship against Holmes the following year, he believes it actually may have ended his career.
"I didn't get the experience. I didn't learn to fight until it was over. It was all about the knockout….I just wanted to get the knockout," explained Cooney. "That worked with some fighters but not with the heavyweight champion of the world."
Cooney’s management team was unwilling to risk a big future pay day by having him face another viable fighter prior to Holmes. As a result, he did not fight for 13 months after Norton, leaving him further unprepared for the likes of Holmes and the biggest fight of his career.
"I needed two more fights, three more fights. Holmes talked about it. Holmes said if I fought [Mike] Weaver first or waited another year, I would have beat him."
Instead of fighting and gaining the needed work in the ring, the 13 months leading up to the Holmes fight entailed a great deal of publicity and nationwide media attention for the warm and personable Cooney. This included an appearance on Johnny Carson, a cover story in Time Magazine and a phone line installed in his room by former President Reagan the night of the Holmes fight in the event he won.
Cooney is very active today in numerous charitable events, so he suspects his life would be even busier now had he won the fight. He already receives countless phone calls every day, including an unexpected call during our interview from former Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly.
Wearing his boxing analyst hat, Cooney evaluates his championship title fight performance looking back on it today.
"My mistake was trying to go the distance with Holmes instead of fighting," a reflective Cooney said. "I caught him a few times but he covered up. I couldn't find another way to get to him because I didn't know of any other way."
Cooney had three points deducted for low blows during the fight, making it even more difficult for him to win a decision. He explained that Holmes was pulling his head down to prevent him from going to the body, so his shots were falling low. Behind on points, Cooney entered the 13th round believing he could not overcome the three point deficit to win the fight at that point.
"Instead of trying to knock him out, I tried to show him that he could not hurt me. It was a stupid, immature and inexperienced thing to do," laments Cooney of his 13th round stoppage at the hands of the skilled and savvy champion.
However, Cooney has no regrets about the outcome of the fight or his life.
"If I had won that fight, I might be dead today," says Cooney. "A lot of champions from my time are all on their heels today. Maybe I got lucky."
Gentleman Gerry went on to develop a close personal friendship with Holmes after their fight, to the point that he is able to recite the former champion's phone number by memory. He also considers Holmes to be the greatest heavyweight of his era because he "had it all". The light-hearted Cooney jokes about his dear friend:
"He won't fight me. I am still trying to fight him. He don't want nothin' to do with me, that guy!"
When asked if he has any plans with Holmes to reminisce about their famous fight on its 30th anniversary, Cooney responded that his plans are unknown at this time but he does not plan to watch the fight.
"I remember every second of it," Cooney said without missing a beat. "I don't need to see it."
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