The boxing community is still reeling from the highly questionable outcome of the Manny Pacquiao vs. Timothy Bradley bout that took place this past Saturday night in Las Vegas. Today marks the 30-year anniversary of another fight that stirred a great deal of emotion for different reasons – the highly anticipated heavyweight championship contest between WBC champion Larry Holmes and top contender Gerry Cooney on June 11, 1982 at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.
There was a stark difference between both fighters. Holmes, the long time heavyweight champion who defeated Ken Norton by the slimmest of split decision victories in June 1978 to capture the WBC belt, had a wealth of experience. At 39-0 with 29 KO's, Holmes resume was a 'who's who' within the heavyweight division. In addition to Norton, Holmes defeated quality fighters such as Earnie Shavers (twice), Mike Weaver, Trevor Berbick, Leon Spinks, Renaldo Snipes and a badly faded Muhammad Ali.
By the time he faced Cooney in June 1982, the 32-year old Holmes successfully defended his title 11 times. He was willing to do so against any fighter, regardless of ranking or name because he wanted to defend the title properly and give everybody the opportunity to fight.
Holmes possessed a powerful right hand, yet his greatest strength was his superior boxing skills led by a precise and snapping left jab. He was a complete and proven professional, fighting 254 rounds over his 10-year career.
Cooney, 25, quickly made a reputation for himself as a knockout artist. Known for a crushing left hook that often ended fights within eight rounds, the undefeated Cooney registered 23 thunderous knockouts in his 25 professional fights. However, these stoppages came against carefully selected journeymen as Cooney was groomed from heavyweight prospect to contender over his six-year career.
The two recognized names that Cooney faced heading into the Holmes fight were veterans Jimmy Young in May 1980 and Ken Norton in May 1981. While Cooney won these bouts with impressive stoppage victories, both Young and Norton were well past their primes at the time.
Inactivity also plagued the Huntington, New York native. During the course of his six-year career, Cooney only fought 86 rounds and had three fights in two years before stepping foot into the ring with the worldly Holmes.
Despite all of these professional variances, it was the difference in the color of their skin that was given all of the attention during the build-up to the fight. Promoter Don King and Cooney manager Dennis Rappaport began a massive and racially charged promotional campaign to raise public interest in the bout.
Instead of experience vs. youth, skill vs. power or finesse boxer vs. brawling slugger, it was promoted as black vs white. Holmes portrayed the disrespected black champion while Cooney was cast as "The Great White Hope" to end the White world Heavyweight championship drought of 22 years.
The disrespect for Holmes reached an unprecedented high when he was introduced first during the fighter announcements, defying boxing tradition of the champion being announced last. As Holmes later said, 'Once the bell rings, all of the b***s*** goes out the window.'
Holmes established his popping left jab early and circled Cooney in the opening rounds. Cooney was feeling out Holmes while coming a little short on his punches due to the champion's constant movement and range.
Cooney was staggered by a crushing right hand that was set up by a straight left to the body and eventually fell to the canvas toward the end of Round 2. Although on unsteady legs and clearly hurt when he got up, Holmes still respected Cooney's punching power and did not go after his opponent, enabling him to survive the round.
There was good action by both men in the middle rounds, with Cooney landing some clean left hooks to the head and body. One such body shot hurt Holmes at the end of Round 4, leaving the champion walking tenderly back to his corner after the bell sounded.
Although Cooney continued to come forward and tried to punch his way inside, Holmes dictated overall control with his jab, movement and ring generalship for the majority of the fight.
The champion hurt Cooney again in Round 6 with a left-right combination. This time, Holmes continued to apply the pressure. However, Cooney effectively smothered the big punches, making it difficult for Holmes to land a clean shot. As Cooney stumbled between the ropes, Holmes was able to land a number of shots, but the gutsy challenger exhibited tremendous heart by not falling and surviving the round.
Cooney reached the ninth round for the first time in his career and was now swimming in unchartered, shark infested waters. However, he bravely forged ahead with a cut over his left eye and continued to throw punches as he had been all evening, trying to get inside so he could land his power shots.
One such power shot was a thumping left hook that landed well below the belt with :30 remaining. Holmes required several minutes to recover from the unintentional blow, while a point was deducted from Cooney for the infraction.
The tenth round was perhaps Cooney's best, with the challenger asserting himself and throwing bombs with both hands in the middle of the ring. However, it appeared he may have exerted too much energy and by the end of Round 11, had been deducted two more points for low blows.
Holmes was the fresher fighter and back on his toes in the following two rounds. An exhausted Cooney continued to come forward but had nothing left, literally walking to Holmes who nailed him with flush right hands to the head.
Holmes put his shots together well to drive Cooney backwards, where the courageous but beaten challenger swayed against the ropes. Once again, Cooney displayed heart by not falling to the canvas but his cornerman, Victor Valle, realized the fight was over and jumped into the ring to stop the action.
It was Holmes' twelfth successful title defense and fortieth career victory, thirtieth by stoppage. Cooney suffered his first career loss in a spirited effort.
Holmes continued to dominate the division for an additional three years before losing his title by a unanimous decision to Michael Spinks in September 1985.
This would be Cooney's one and only championship title fight. He experienced personal issues following the loss that kept him out of the ring before making two unsuccessful comebacks in 1987 and 1990.
Both men were able to rise above the strain caused by the racial element surrounding the bout, giving fans a memorable fight and becoming close friends over the last 30 years in the process.
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