Thirty years ago today on June 11, 1982, WBC heavyweight champion Larry Holmes and top contender Gerry Cooney battled each other under the hot Las Vegas night stars at Caesar's Palace amidst racial tension and divisiveness. This did not stop the two combatants from giving the world a great fight while teaching all of us a lesson on sportsmanship, courage and friendship. Boxing 101 had the honor of revisiting this moment in boxing history with the great champion Holmes, the second longest reigning heavyweight champion in history who made 20 successful title defenses from 1978 to 1985 and came only one fight short of matching Rocky Marciano's undefeated record of 49-0.
Anticipation over a Holmes-Cooney confrontation began to intensify in 1981 after Cooney defeated former champion Ken Norton in a brutal :54 knockout. Holmes continued to defend his title that year against mandatory opponents Trevor Berbick, Leon Spinks and Renaldo Snipes.
Once the fight was finally signed in 1982, promoter Don King and Cooney manager Dennis Rappaport began a massive and racially charged promotional campaign to raise public interest in the bout. Holmes was cast as the disrespected black champion a la Jack Johnson and Cooney as "The Great White Hope". There had not been a White world Heavyweight champion in 22 years and there was a great deal of pressure on the 25-year old Cooney to change that.
Although Holmes did not entirely distance himself from the racial theme leading up to the fight as Cooney had done, he had both the experience and ability to keep such antics in perspective. Therefore, the wise Holmes was able to share some sage advise with his opponent.
"I told Gerry, first of all, 'let's have a good fight' and 'don't let these people get to you' because that's what they do. They will get to you. Don't let them do it to you.
"It was one of those things, if you lose to me, people gonna' make fun of you because it's a black guy that whoops you. And if I lose to you, the black people are gonna' say 'how could you let that white guy beat your butt'?
"So I told Gerry 'don't let them get in your head'. I know how it is."
Holmes explained the pressure he often faced as a black fighter and his approach to the prejudice.
"When I fought a white guy, it was always hard for me to because somebody always looked at me different or the fighter might look at me different and say different things to me that was racial, that we didn't need in the game of boxing.
"Because it's just either you whoop me or I whoop you and the best man wins. I'm gonna' say my prayers for you like I do with everybody else and ask God to let me do what I gotta' do and don't let me hurt nobody while I'm in the process of doing it. That was my prayer for me and everyone else.
"Gerry was just a nice guy that got caught in the middle of this black-white thing," said a sympathetic Holmes.
Holmes was also able to keep perspective when the antics spilled into the ring before the bell rang for the highly anticipated fight that June night. In an unprecedented act, the champion Holmes was announced first, defying tradition in boxing that the challenger be named before the champion.
"They wanted to introduce me first and they did. They didn't want to give me the credit and they didn't."
Nevertheless, when the boxers touched gloves before the first round began, Holmes told Cooney, 'Let's have a good fight.'
And a good fight they had.
Holmes dropped Cooney in the second round, but Cooney got up and landed some good power shots of his own. This included a crushing left hook to the body at the end of Round 4 and an aggressive Round 10 where Cooney let it all on the line, pounding bombs with both hands.
Inexperience, exhaustion, a total of three points deducted for low blows and a better skilled Holmes culminated in a thirteenth round technical knock out loss for Cooney. Holmes acknowledged his courageous foe.
"What I always tell people and they look at me, if Gerry didn't fight me and fought somebody else that night, he would have been heavyweight champion of the world, " insisted the former long reigning heavyweight king.
"I say that because the guy punched hard. As a matter of fact, he hit me with one punch that hurt me. I told him about it after the fight, 'You hurt me. Look at the way I'm walking' and I showed him 'That's where you hit me with the left hook to the body that hurt me.'
A disheartened Cooney later apologized to his many fans during the ensuing press conference for what he considered to be a let-down on his part. Holmes, of all people, provided the defeated challenger with the encouragement Cooney was unable to generate on his own at the time.
"I tell Gerry, 'don't let nobody put you down'. If he had waited 6 more months or a year, he probably would have beat me because he would have had a little bit more experience and it would have been a tough fight for me", Holmes predicted.
As he shared in a previous conversation with Boxing 101, Cooney remembered these words as he reflected upon his attempt at the title and his career.
Holmes, who fought everyone in the division over his long stretch of 20 successful title defenses, went so far to highly rank Cooney among the top quality heavyweights of his era.
"I would make Gerry one of the top fighters. I tell everybody, of all of the hardest punchers I've met, Gerry was probably the third hardest 'cause Ken Norton punched hard and Earnie Shavers punched hard," Holmes said. "Even though Snipes knocked me down, I mean, it wasn't like a real hard punch. It was like a lucky shot or somethin' like that.
"Ken Norton was a hard puncher, strong, especially to the body. He was a heck of a puncher," said Holmes of the former world champion whom he defeated by split decision to capture the WBC belt in June 1978.
Even though hurt by Cooney's powerful left hook to the body, it was a devastating overhand right by Shavers that knocked down Holmes in a 1979 title defense. Cooney is in very good company.
Holmes does not hold today's generation of heavyweights in the same level of high regard. He cited the style and technical skills that differentiate him from those fighting today.
"They don't have the ability. They don't have that body movement and the style that I did. I would stand in there and box. These guys can't box. They just go out and hit, don't get hit and hope for the best, I guess. I'm not impressed with these guys at all," Holmes flatly stated.
"I'm not saying they can't fight. I mean, their way of fighting is different. I'm not impressed with the way they fight."
When asked what was missing in boxing today, the great champion responded:
"Dedication for one. They're not dedicated. You need more dedicated fighters and they need to show more of the fighters on TV. That would probably help them out a lot.
"If they start showing the fights like they did in our day on ABC, CBS, NBC network, people will see them and they can get to know them. Then the kids will have more recognition and they'll probably want to fight more because they'll be seen more and then they might feel they can earn more."
The praise that Holmes, who now runs a nightclub in Pennsylvania, has for Cooney extends beyond that of a professional nature. The two former foes and pawns in a divisive game of greed are now very close friends.
"Gerry is one heck of a guy as far as I am concerned. He's always been that way even when I was getting ready to fight him," said Holmes of his long-time pal.
"He's a good guy, man. I mean, I have nothing bad to say about Gerry. I don't know what to say bad about him".
Holmes may never have gotten his just due as a fighter or developed the appreciation from fans that he so richly deserved, but he did develop a valued 30-year friendship.
Cooney lost his one and only championship fight, but gained a friend for life in the process.
While we all remember the racial angle that depicted the ugliness of the sport and society, both men rose above it to give us what they set out to do before the bell rang that night thirty years ago.
"Gerry was trying to do what everybody was telling him to do so that we could put on a good fight," said Holmes.
"And he done it and I done it."
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Tags: Boxing, Dennis Rappaport, Don King, Earnie Shavers, Gerry Cooney, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes