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Gerry Cooney: ‘Four punches from death!’ I still don’t like to watch that fight today

Gerry Cooney
Gerry Cooney goes back to the beginning, the turbulent childhood and finding comfort in a bottle of apple wine, through to his rollercoaster career that etched his name in heavyweight history

I DIDN’T have any skills growing up in Long Island. My father was a tough Irish-American drinker who beat his kids every day. I didn’t get any kind of love or understanding in my household. I was wild. There was a lot of dysfunction in my life. I didn’t have anybody to guide me. The last time I saw my father, I took him to the hospital to get chemo. Immediately after, he said: If you can’t live under my roof to my rules, get your hair cut, get home when I want you to get home, I’d rather crawl to the hospital on my hands and knees myself… That was my life. I left the family home when I was just 16 years old, had to find my own way. I had plenty of anger in me.

Through boxing I learned how to love myself, my family, people around me. Boxing fed me, gave me confidence.

I got into it through my older brother, Tommy, a great fighter. One time, I guess I was around 16, we were at a very crowded bar and he kept getting knocked into a table by some 6ft 8in guy. They took it outside and my brother hits the guy a left hook to the body, right cross to the guy… Completely winds him and knocks him cold with the same two-shot combo; most horrific thing I ever saw. Tommy could really punch with both hands but unfortunately took another path.

Growing up, I traveled from Long Island up to Gleason’s Gym in Manhattan every day, a magical place, everyone who was anyone in East Coast boxing was there.

Boxing helped me express my anger and it put my picture on the back page of the Daily News in New York City. I became somebody. I won the New York Golden Gloves at middleweight aged just 16, five knockouts in seven fights. I won a lot of championships.

At 18 years old, I was on the United States [amateur] team. They wanted me to fight against the third ranked Russian who had a rep of doing really well against tall guys.

I was always out boozing, partying, kissing the girls… I’m not sure if first I was an alcoholic or a sex addict. Six days before, they finally confirmed I was fighting at the Garden. Holy shit! I ran six miles for each of those six days to get in shape.

I couldn’t care less about the anthems, the introductions. Once the bell rang, I gotta fight and I could do that pretty good. I was a good banger, and knocked that Russian out in the first round.

Shortly after, I got the call from the US Olympic Committee that I’d made the box-offs at Colorado Springs to fight it out for a slot on the US Montreal Olympic team. But I said: ‘Sorry, I’m not gonna make it. My father is very sick, I gotta stay close to my family.’

I didn’t even like my father very much because he beat me every day of my life. The real truth was I felt I wasn’t good enough. Why go and make an ass of yourself? They asked me a second and third time then hung up. It’s a huge regret that I didn’t get on the plane and take that shot. Even if I didn’t make it, I’d have had the experience and life is about having those experiences.

After my father passed, somebody close said: ‘You gotta stay close to your family for a year.’ So I got away from boxing. Around that time, all my buddies went away to college but I wasn’t going to college. I sat at the back of the room in school, never paid much attention, never raised my hand. So it was boxing for me. 

The Ring Magazine via Getty Images

After 57 amateur fights, I turned pro in ’77 and had a great start to my career. I won 25 straight, 22 knockouts, developed a left hook they said could deck a horse. I learned early you can knock ‘em out as easily to the body, as to the head. I actually got frightened by some of my knockouts, especially in the gym. Others could play around but I sparred hard every day. It’s sparring that gets you in shape. I wasn’t taking care of myself outside the gym – smoking, drinking – so needed to train doubly hard to get rid of that stuff. I broke a lot of ribs. Ridiculous.

I’ll never forget coming through, I fought GG Maldonado, a nasty, nasty guy in the Garden. I coulda knocked him out any time but he made me so mad with stuff he’d said, I wanted to torture him. That was my mindset.

It was a beautiful feeling being a world class guy, with that tunnel vision, having that split-second timing that all great athletes in any sport possess, knowing that, with a feint, you can create the ‘shot’ anytime you want. But you had to work real hard to keep that.

The night I destroyed Kenny Norton inside a round at The Garden, May 11 1981, I was in such great shape I believe I coulda beat anybody in the world.

The winner gets to fight Larry Holmes for the championship. Beforehand, I was 23 and s**ting my pants, bro. I expected a long, tough assed fight. The most trying time is when you’re in the dressing room before the fight and you hear the knock on the door: ‘Cooney, you’re next.’ Oh s**t!

But Kenny didn’t fair too well against punchers who could back him up. As soon as the bell rang, I always liked to touch opponents with my power, let ‘em know I got a good shot so you’re not gonna come onto me so easy. I touched Kenny to the body, he buckled a little and I thought ‘Wow!’ From then on it was ‘Hail Mary!’ I spun him into a corner and left him completely defenceless, sat on the ropes so he couldn’t fall down. 54 seconds! Next day the New York papers wrote: ‘Four punches from death!’ I still don’t like to watch that fight today.

That was the night I should’ve said to myself, I better get in shape, take care of myself. I’m gonna fight for the championship. But that’s not what I thought. I had a high school girlfriend who gave me some cocaine, which allowed me to drink a bottle of scotch a day… Funny now, it wasn’t funny then. For the next 13 months, training for the biggest prize of my life, I lost track, fell off the wagon. I don’t know if the pressure got to me.

My own management [Dennis Rappaport and Mike Jones] really hated each other and just wanted big paydays, didn’t give a s**t about developing me, delivering the fights to improve me so that I had the right experience when my chance at the title came.  

But I became number one contender and got a shot at the title for a $10 million payday … not that money meant a lot to me at the time. Today, I realise it means a little bit!

I knock out Norton, May 1981, then I’m not fighting Larry until June 1982. I got off track. I tore a rotator cuff in training which delayed the fight for three months. I was never really crazy about fighting and I had a whole year thinking about a great fighter, a mean guy, who wanted to kill me. What kind of joy is that?

I’m a kid from Long Island, beat down most my childhood, who didn’t really believe in myself and, all of a sudden, I’m thrown in to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. Back then, everybody loved me. Here’s my plane, here’s my house, here’s my wife! But what I needed to do was train! I got lost…

At the time there was bitterness between me and Larry. When you sign a contract to fight someone, you both want to kick the other’s ass. What’s to be friendly about? Once that bell rings, your life is on the line.

It was a very tough time for Larry. He came through the Muhammad Ali era, trained with Ali, saw all the magic that Ali made, how well people treated Ali. When Larry became champion, he expected to get all that. When he didn’t, he was resentful. He’s a great guy, a good family man, helps a lot of people. Then I came along, created a lot of publicity and he’s p**sed at me…

I got myself in the best shape I could and fought my ass off but I got stopped in the 13th round. I gotta lot of excuses if you wanna hear them. It was 115 degrees that night, I probably over trained, was a little stale… [laughs].

George Foreman hit me harder but Larry was the best I fought by far. He knew exactly what he was doing every second of our fight.  It was a privilege to be in there with him.

‘Back then, everybody loved me. Here’s my plane, here’s my house, here’s my wife! But what I needed to do was train! I got lost…’

Gerry Cooney

I gained so much experience in my loss to Larry. He was so smart; slick, patient, calm. Though he dropped me in round two, he knew I could punch, knew there was a lot of time left. Patience, patience. I never learned that. If I clipped ya, I wanted to hurt you, take you out immediately.

Larry and me are forever tied together. Today, we spend a lotta time together… still can’t stand him! No, he’s a great guy. After fighting, you always identify with an opponent. You remember how hard it was, you become friendly, have a camaraderie. We’ve been hanging out 12-15 times a year doing appearances together since. We talk about how life changes, how we’re more forgetful than we used to be. I’m still trying to get that rematch. I’d go again right now!

The Holmes defeat set me in a tailspin for a while. I couldn’t stand my managers, they hated each other and I was stuck in the middle. Don King was no good either. I didn’t trust anybody because of my upbringing.

So I drifted out. At that juncture of my life, it didn’t suck to be Gerry Cooney either. People liked me. I had a good house, I was with Miss America … yet depressed! I’d take another fight cos I’d get scared but, truth is, the fight in me was gone. I was looking for something else to do.

Alcohol ruined the rest of my career. I had my first [alcoholic] drink, a bottle of apple wine, when I was just 12. The next 20 years, that was my curse.

Then, in 1985, Michael Spinks beats Larry Holmes for the championship and they call me. ‘Do you want to fight Spinks?’ Did I ever?!

I got my gear in order and left for camp the next day but the fight was on, the fight was off, on again, off again … for two and a half years they ran me around to the point I stopped believing it was going to happen. So I started to party again.

Mike Spinks didn’t belong in the ring with me for a second, if Gerry Cooney was right. But that night, I didn’t have anything in the tank [Cooney was dropped and stopped in five in 1987].

Losing to Michael Spinks is the biggest regret of my life because, even now, I wanna kick his ass. Afterwards, I broke away from the game again, disappeared.

I had this beautiful house at the water in the New Hamptons and every day I was waking up hung over. I didn’t answer my phone. I thought ‘Wow, what happened to you? Eventually, I got scared. On April 21 1988, I said ‘God, please help me.’ The desire to drink went away from me that day. Haven’t touched it since.

I started a promotional company and was promoting George Foreman’s fights. One day, big George says: ‘Why don’t we fight?

I didn’t really want to fight but thought, you know what, I never did it sober, never did it clean, never dedicated myself to the game, plus the money wasn’t bad, two and a half million dollars. So I said: ‘Do the fight.’

I’d been sober just under a year and got in terrific shape. If anything, I over trained, got too thin. Gil Clancy, a terrific trainer, told me: ‘Box him for five or six rounds, tire him out, don’t slug with George. But I’m a puncher and when I hit him on the chin…

George later told David Letterman the hardest he ever got hit was by me. He was badly shaken up by hooks, down and up. But, instead of being smart and listening to my corner, the Irishman in me wanted to take George out. In the heavyweight division, you get hit on the button, it can be over and Foreman was a great puncher, caught with me a brutal uppercut [Cooney was stopped in round two].

But for the first time, it allowed me to turn the page and get on with my life, move forward.

You know what? Right now is the greatest time of my life. I love my golf. I’ve put down the drink and life has gotten so good. I live in Fanwood, New Jersey with my fabulous wife Jennifer. I’ve got three great kids. I love them very much and I never raised a hand to them. I’m very blessed.

In 1998, I founded Fighters’ Initiative for Support and Training (F.I.S.T) to provide retired boxers with career assistance.  I’ve been inducted into the New York and New Jersey Halls of Fame. My book ‘Gentleman Gerry’ has just come out, which chronicles all the ups and downs of my life. I have a movie in the works. I still spar, hit the bags and mitts. I can do 20 rounds, no problem.

Now, I’ve got a twice weekly worldwide radio boxing show. I’m the voice! I get to go to all the fights and hang out with fans across the world. We have a bunch of laughs. Today the light-heavyweight division is crazy good, any one of the top ten could be a worthy champion. The welters are crazy good, the middleweights are crazy good. Boxing’s so deep with talent. Finally, the best fighters are coming together again.

Regrets? I wish I went the Olympics, I wish I beat Larry Holmes… It is what it is. Boxing was a tough life. It was a long, lonely road.  Every day I had five or six sparring partners wanting to kick my ass. When I was with number one, the four other guys were watching to see where they could get me.

I made mistakes, crossed the line a few times, but the sport’s given me a great life. I can’t believe what I came from, to travelling the world. I learnt a lot about myself.  It was a great career, lotta fun, lotta laughs. I loved most of the people I met through boxing. It’s been unbelievable.

Today my job is to help new guys stay focused. Pay attention for three-four years and get that belt I shoudda got. I lost touch. But still came mighty close.

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