ON this day in 1982, heavyweight king Larry Holmes defended his world heavyweight title against unbeaten puncher Gerry Cooney. Known for his nickname of “The Great White Hope” and for his lethal left hook, Cooney was on his way to becoming the next boxing superstar. If he could take Holmes’ crown, Cooney would be the single biggest fighter in all of boxing. A star-studded audience gathered in Las Vegas to see if the towering Irish-American could do it.
Movie star Sylvester Stallone was ringside, as was movie and music legend Frank Sinatra. While the President of the United States no less, Ronald Reagan, was all set to pipe in a call to Cooney’s dressing room if he won (this is the legend anyway, and there were supposedly no plans for Reagan to call Holmes if he won). A good deal of the attention this fight attracted was definitely down to Cooney. Fans and experts may have respected Holmes as a good or even great fighter, yet he had neither the crossover appeal nor the sheer popularity Cooney enjoyed.
Some good judges, who normally got their predictions right, picked Cooney to beat the defending champ. In the end, in what was an electric night at Caesars Palace, Holmes’ skill, experience and class were too much for the power, youth and aggression of Cooney. Stopping a brave Cooney in the thirteenth-round – when Cooney’s corner-man Victor Valle climbed into the ring to rescue his beaten fighter – 32-year-old Holmes had won the fight he simply could not afford to lose. We never knew it at the time, but Cooney, despite being just 25 years old, had all but seen out his career (he would box just five more fights before retiring in 1990).
Today good friends, Cooney and Holmes have nothing but respect for each other. At the time of the fight, however, spurred on by rival promoters and elements of the media who built the fight up as a “Black Vs. White” fight,” the two men appeared to have genuine dislike for one another. On one occasion after a fight of his, Holmes threatened to slap Cooney if the interviewer brought Gerry over while he was being interviewed.
Holmes was angered even more on the night of his battle with Cooney, when decades of tradition were trampled on and Cooney, the challenger, was announced in the ring after the champion. Holmes kept his composure and uttered, “Let’s have a good fight” as the two unbeaten big men touched gloves.
Today Cooney is rightly proud of both the fight and his gutsy performance. The long retired 60-year-old thinks about the fight a lot, and he also regrets not having had more fights and picking up more experience before his big night.
“We had a great night, but unfortunately I needed at least three more fights before that one,” Cooney told Boxing News recently when looking back on his rumble with Holmes.
“But I couldn’t get them and I did the best I could. I did the best I could with the cards I was dealt with. Had I had another year, I think I would’ve beaten him – and Larry Holmes even said that himself; that if I’d had another year to get ready I’d have beaten him. Me and he are good friends today though, and that fight was a great moment for me. I lost, but then I had to move on and get on with my life.”
Cooney never liked the “White Hope” nickname he was given:
“The Great White Hope tag, that never bothered me,” he says all these years later.
“That was all bullshit! I never paid attention to any of that. That never added any pressure. That was just Don King’s doing, and his attempts to make more money. But King did affect me as a fighter, because I couldn’t get any fights because I wouldn’t sign up with him. The lack of experience in not being able to get more fights and not being able to grow and develop, that really was a big deal to me. That is definitely the biggest and most important thing I would say on the subject of what shaped me as a fighter – the lack of experience due to not having enough fights.
“When I KO’d Ken Norton, that was a big deal, but I wasn’t able to get another fight before going into the biggest fight of my life against Larry Holmes. Consequently, I had it in my head going in to the Holmes fight that I couldn’t go the distance, that my stamina might be lacking. I wanted to go the distance to prove wrong the people who said I couldn’t do it.”
Cooney says the Holmes fight was tougher than all his previous fights; for various reasons:
“Let me tell you, I got messed up between my fight with Ken Norton and my fight with Larry Holmes; I got messed up with alcohol. I needed at least a year more experience. That was without a doubt the toughest night of my career but it’s also one of the fights I’m most proud of. It was a great fight, we went back and forth and it was a very close fight until the stoppage. But it was a very hard fight. It was 115-degrees that night in Las Vegas, and I was rusty as I hadn’t fought in 15-months.”
Overall, Cooney has bittersweet memories of that unforgettable night from 1982:
“The Holmes fight was in many ways the worst night of my boxing career, but as I said, it was also a great night in many ways. I just regret that I had to enter that fight having had so much inactivity. Taking everything into account all these years later, I definitely think that if I’d had an additional three or four fights against top guys, I’d have beaten Holmes. But I see Larry quite a lot these days and let me tell you, I’d kick his ass today – but he won’t fight me again!”