EVEN at 60 years old, Gerry Cooney looks like he could still lace the gloves up and go a few rounds. So he does – training a variety of people when he’s not sparring verbally with Randy Gordon on their Sirius XM radio show. And while the former heavyweight contender isn’t preparing for a comeback, the fighter inside him is still alive. He recalls the day four muscle-bound brothers entered the gym looking to go a few rounds with the man who fought Larry Holmes for the world heavyweight championship in 1982.
“They were young, they were [American] football players, and I said, ‘Listen, to warn you, don’t back me in a corner because if you do, instinct takes over and I have to fight out.’”
Soon enough, Cooney found himself in the corner. You can figure out what happened next.
“The bell would ring, they’d push me in a corner and I’d slap them around a little bit,” he said matter of factly. Those brothers didn’t try to get Cooney in the corner again.
Boxers are cut from a different cloth than other athletes. Even at just five years away from being considered a senior citizen, Cooney is all business when the gloves are on. Yet when they’re off, you would be hard-pressed to find a more beloved figure on the New York boxing scene.
“I love people,” he said. “I have millions of stories, and I like to touch everybody I meet. I like to give everybody a hard time and at the end of the line, they laugh, and they have a little easier day. Because life is tough.”
Few know that better than the Long Island man, whose career was defined by what ifs. Blessed with one of the finest left hooks in heavyweight history, the 6ft 6in “Gentleman Gerry” was seemingly destined for greatness from the time he burst on the scene as a teenager in the prestigious New York Golden Gloves tournament.
“I fought Elebee Frazier when I was 16 years old and I thought he was gonna kill me,” he said. “I hit him on the chin with a hook and knocked him cold. This guy was 25.”
Out cold was the usual result when Cooney landed his left hook, but behind the winning smile and spectacular knockouts, the boxer was battling to deal with the demons put in his head by an abusive father.
“My father was an alcoholic, he beat us every day, I was neglected my whole life,” Cooney said. When his father died, the 18-year-old boxer was at a crossroads. Enter Mike Jones and Dennis Rappaport, not so affectionately referred to as the “Wacko Twins”.
“We attract the same dysfunction, the same sickness. I was 18 years old when my father died and I gotta find a way to make a living. My friends all went to college. I didn’t have a lawyer, I didn’t have a father figure. And then I met Rappaport and Jones and the only reason I signed with them was because they had Howard Davis, who was signed to a CBS contract. And I felt I could be showcased and travel around and fight on those cards. But those guys hated each other and I was in the middle.”
Cooney turned pro in 1977, and he walked through his opposition, beating solid fighters and fringe contenders like Eddie Lopez, Dino Denis and Leroy Boone, while becoming a legitimate attraction at home. But it was a three-fight stretch in 1980-81 when Cooney went from local ticket-seller to contender, as he halted Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle and Ken Norton in consecutive bouts. All were impressive, but it was his 54-second destruction of Norton on May 11, 1981 that was Cooney’s magnum opus, the one fight nothing that happened before or after could ever take away.
Yet ask Cooney about the Madison Square Garden massacre, and he will say it was the best and worst night of his career. “That night I beat Ken Norton, I could have beat anybody in the world,” he said. “I was in the greatest shape you could ever possibly be in and, that night, my career ended. I started messing around with recreational drugs and drinking. I didn’t know it at the time, because I thought I could handle it.
“When I used to see Jerry Quarry, I’d say, ‘Jerry, come on, get a hold of yourself. You gotta get sobered up here.’ I never saw it in myself. I helped family members go into rehabilitation centres. My father was a raging alcoholic. You get the gene. It’s an illness. And at that time, it caught up with me. That’s all.”
Cooney wouldn’t fight for another year, as the biggest bout of 1982 was made. At the time, Holmes was the WBC heavyweight champion, 39-0 and 11 successful title defences into his Hall of Fame reign. Looking back on paper, the 25-0 Cooney perhaps shouldn’t have been considered the threat he was, but with Holmes having to get up off the canvas to beat Renaldo Snipes in his most recent outing, pundits and fans believed the New Yorker had more of a puncher’s chance than most.
Add in Jones, Rappaport and promoter Don King and their insistence on pushing the contest along racial lines, and it became a lucrative, if off-colour at times, promotion. But Cooney wasn’t ready.
“I knew I could fight,” he said. “Unfortunately, I had two managers who didn’t really care about developing me as a fighter. They wanted to make the money. And I wouldn’t sign with Don King, so he kept me out. So I never really developed into the guy I could have been.
“Don King owned everybody except for me, and I didn’t get those guys I really needed to develop as a fighter, to stretch me out. Was I a big puncher? Yeah, I was a tremendous puncher. But I needed that work.”
Yet on fight night, Cooney gave Holmes a fight before getting halted in the 13th round. At the time of the stoppage, the challenger trailed 115-109 on one scorecard and 113-111 on the other two. If you take into account the three points deducted from Cooney for low blows, he would have been ahead on two cards. Those scores wouldn’t have reflected the action in the ring. But suffice to say that Cooney was in the fight against one of the all-time greats. Regardless, he was inconsolable.
“In that moment, it was sad to me because I didn’t have someone grab me by the arm and say, ‘Listen, Cooney, you got a good shot here,’” he said. “After the Norton fight, I started drinking and not taking care of myself, whether it was out of fear, or whatever it was. It could have been fear of the success, because I was always told I was no good, I was a failure, I was never going to amount to anything, by my father.
“Maybe I thought I was going to be found out. I don’t know. I thought about that for a lot of years, and it’s all of those things. I took the wrong road and no one grabbed me.”
Cooney would only fight five more times, stoppage losses to Michael Spinks and George Foreman in 1987 and 1990 respectively, putting an end to his career. “I was so disillusioned with the press, with my management, it was such a mess,” he said. “I wanted to get away.”
And though he admits that, “I never reached my potential,” he is not bitter. The same can’t be said for his one-time rival, Holmes, who still feels he never got his just due as a legendary world heavyweight champion. Cooney, who became good friends with Holmes after their title bout, understands those feelings.
“He was a great champion, he fought everybody,” Cooney said of Holmes. “He came up with [Muhammad] Ali, he saw the adulation Ali got, and he thought that when he became a great champion that he would get that. But Ali was a special guy and then they started to compare him [Holmes] to Rocky Marciano, so he couldn’t win.
“He was bitter and frustrated and angry. I don’t blame him. He was the long-reigning heavyweight champion of the world, and he’s my friend today. I understand his bitterness, and I think in some ways, when I’m with him, I help him forget about that. We have a nice time and we enjoy life. There are only so many summers and so many springs.”
That’s the philosophy Cooney lives by these days, with the most important anniversary on his calendar being the one that has nothing to do with anything that happened in the ring.
“It took me until April 21, 1988 to put down alcohol,” he said. “I’m sober 29 years without a drink. And you learn a lot about yourself and about your life in that process. You have to grow up. And I depended on all the wrong people.”
It’s an important lesson to be learned by those in the boxing world, but even with Cooney telling his story and helping his fellow fighters when he can, he’s not convinced it will ultimately help.
“They’re never gonna hear it,” he said. “It’s like an alcoholic can’t hear it until he can hear it. They think it’s not gonna happen to them. But I still think it’s important to put it out there.”
He is also a vocal proponent of better ring safety, and he is not shy about using his media platform to get that word out. “Change is so difficult and takes so long, and I think every gym should have a commission representative, making sure there’s no sparring unless you’re wearing 24-ounce gloves every day,” he said. “These guys box with 14-ounce gloves and they beat their brains out. Save yourself, protect yourself. I knocked a lot of guys out in the gym. I wouldn’t have with those big gloves on. That is a life-saving tool.”
“A lot of tough things go on in life. I can’t sit and wait for yesterday”Gerry Cooney
Unlike many in this sport, boxing didn’t save Gerry Cooney’s life. But as a fighter, he found a way to win his biggest battles. And that’s worth more than any championship belt.
“I lost my brother, he was 57 years old,” he mused. “A lot of tough things go on in life. I can’t sit and wait for yesterday or think about that. I have to keep moving forward.
“And I’m so lucky I have a great family, I do some fun things in my life, I travel, and I still remember most things – except for my car keys and my phone once in a while. I have a great wife, my kids are beautiful, and I’m blessed. I’m a lucky man.
“Yeah, I wish I could have had more experience when I fought Holmes. He was a very experienced heavyweight champion, one of the top five in history, that I had a chance to go in with without the proper tools.
“But it’s okay because that’s how it turned out. Maybe had I won the title, maybe my life would have been too fast, and it was so fast anyway, not winning the title.”
On his love for boxing
Despite the ups and downs, Cooney has never abandoned the sport that put him on the map so many years ago. “I love boxing, I love people, I’m on the radio and I get to talk about it all the time, so I think it was a win-win,” he said. Cooney particularly enjoys talking to the next generation of stars, specifically noting recent chats with Errol Spence Jnr and Shakur Stevenson. “I love to hear the hope in their voices,” he stated. Does he have any advice for aspiring pugilists? “Go to a gym, you watch,” he advised. “Watch the guy who’s teaching defence. That’s the guy for you. Anybody can teach you how to punch.”