IT WASN’T supposed to be like this. The racial divide was meant to play the fighters off against one another. The insults, the stirring, the hostilities, the privileged, the resentful and the overlooked were multiple sides of the same toxic coin.
It wasn’t a grudge, it was war. It wasn’t sport, it was politics. It wasn’t the best boxing could offer, it was the worst. Battle lines weren’t just drawn when Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney met in the sweltering heat and toxic pressure of Las Vegas 40 years ago, racial lines were.
Yet here, 40 years on, following 13 rounds that delivered an unexpected and thrilling violence that saw both men emerge with a lifetime of credit, Holmes and Cooney sit before me and they laugh together.
They smile for cameras, they raise one another’s spirits, they crack the odd joke at each other’s expense and they finish each other’s lines, like a couple ageing gracefully.
Over the years, their double act has acquired a high-mileage. They’ve done dinner shows, autograph signings and joint appearances despite all the rubbish that hovered like a poisonous cloud over the pre-fight promotion, none of it matters now. For Larry Holmes, former heavyweight champion, and Gerry Cooney, well-regarded former heavyweight contender, are great friends. As much as I’d like to share anecdotes of tables being flipped, chairs flying, and even of me being left with a cut lip like Howard Cosell was when he tried to intervene between Holmes and Cooney many moons ago, I can’t. There is no such story. Holmes and Cooney struck up a 40-year friendship after their fight, after that manic night in the Caesars Palace car park in Sin City, when their souls were fused by electricity and ferocity.
There weren’t many who were not guilty of pushing the racial overtones of the 1982 showdown. Even this publication headlined, with a picture of Gerry but not Larry in their preview issue, ‘He’s the last white hope!’
That was the story, unfortunately. The next version down from that was that an excellent, underrated, underappreciated but aging champion was defending his title against an unproven yet clearly destructive power puncher. That in itself would have sold, but it wasn’t enough.
Champion and challenger were both making $10m, promoter Don King – who else! – was anticipating revenues of $60m from closed circuit alone.
“This is a white and black fight,” King boasted. “Anyway you look at it, you cannot change that.”
Some of the stories in the media could have been true, some probably weren’t.
There was talk that the Ku Klux Klan held a rally to support Cooney. Holmes reportedly received death threats and had his house vandalised. Cooney was on the cover of Time and Sports Illustrated, Holmes was not. Snipers were on casino roofs around the arena in case things got out of hand.
Former [i]Boxing News[i] editor Graham Houston wrote how Holmes, “seems to genuinely dislike, if not despise the challenger… He sneers that if Cooney wasn’t white, he’d be just another fighter… If he was black, he’d be nothing.”
“He’s brought up this black-against-white thing too many times,” came the Cooney riposte. “The hype is just nonsense as far as I’m concerned.”
It was important to others. As Harry Mullan wrote in Boxing News, “It is undeniably the single factor that makes this the richest fight in the whole history of boxing.”
Cooney hurt his shoulder in the build-up to the original date of March 15 and it was shunted to June 11.
There had been speculation that it would be held on St Patrick’s Day, but Holmes shot that down when he quipped, “I’ll fight one Irishman, but I won’t fight them all!”
Some thought Cooney blasting out Ken Norton, Ron Lyle and Jimmy Young had given him the experience he needed to challenge an operator of Holmes’ ability. But Cooney’s record was hollowed out, on veterans who had seen better days and those who would never have their tickets to the Promised Land stamped.
It was a well-worn line in the sport that Cooney, who was 25-0 with 22 knockouts – many of them of the highlight reel variety – had been fast-tracked to the big money, and many believed it was because of his skin colour. Fight manager Al Braverman joked of the matchmaking, “If they’re that careful, they must be scared of something we don’t know about. Perhaps he’s got a potato for a chin.”
Cooney had boxed just twice in 20 months before Holmes, and both contests had lasted less than a round, thrashing Lyle in 2-49 and blitzing Norton in 54 seconds. It didn’t amount to thorough match practise. In fact, the Norton annihilation caused one old hack to write, “This was no fight: this was a napalm attack on some defenceless village.”
Whatever was said about Cooney’s managers, Mike Jones and Dennis Rappaport – called the “Whacko Twins” by plenty within the sport – they had manoeuvred their man into the biggest money fight of all time. Was he ready for it? There were 10-million reasons why the answer to that question would be buried by irrelevance. For 10-million bucks, of course he was. For 10-million big ones, who cared?
As we sit in an empty hotel restaurant between meals on the fringes of London you can’t stop the jokes and one-liners Cooney and Holmes share. It doesn’t stop me from trying so I ask Holmes about Gerry’s privileged start.
“Well, you know, he had it easy I thought,” smiled Larry.
Intently listening to his right was Gerry. Larry was wearing a black sports cap, spectacles with an orange tint and a navy sports jacket over a grey shirt, cream slacks and white trainers. On both enormous fists were rings from a number of Hall of Fames. “You know how managers are,” Holmes added. “They get fighters the easiest fight they could possibly get to get you to the top, and when they get you to the top, then they take over. That’s the way I seen it.”
Cooney, in a navy Tommy short-sleeved shirt with white dots and dark trousers, still physically imposing but his mat black hair is white, looked pensively through his black-rimmed glasses as Larry spoke. Gerry picked his moment to add, “I agree, I needed four, five, six more fights to get the experience I needed to be more competitive. But I didn’t have those fights, I had a lot of knockouts because King – I wouldn’t sign with King so he wouldn’t let me fight those guys. The other half of it is I’m sure my management… they wanted a big payday. They didn’t care about my experience, so I was in a no-win situation. But I needed [a] Timmy Witherspoon, I needed some of those guys before I got in with him [Holmes] because he was the champ. He was an unbelievable fighter.”
On two occasions in the build-up to their fight, Holmes tried to put his hands on Cooney. Firstly, he swung for him at the WBC convention in Mexico and then, having battered poor Leon Spinks in Detroit, Holmes set his sights on Cooney.
“I’m going to slap his face if you bring him over here,” Larry threatened, to Howard Cosell.
Among the turbulence during a commercial break, Larry’s seat was taken by Cooney and Cosell re-emerged with blood in his mouth.
Of course, build-up was far bigger than a post-fight melee. There hadn’t been a white heavyweight world champion since Johansson stopped Patterson in 1959. By the time the fighters reached their dressing rooms on June 11 1982, there was a mysterious phone in Cooney’s dressing room but there wasn’t one in Holmes’s. The phone was linked to the White House, with President Ronald Reagan ready to congratulate Cooney if he won.
That’s something Gerry finds hard to justify now, why the champion was not afforded the same courtesy, but Gerry’s keen to make a point about it.
Larry Holmes – Yeah, yeah, yeah, he had the President going to call him…
Gerry Cooney – Okay, but I’m finishing or we’re going to fight right now, bro!
LH – If you hit me, I’m going to call the cops!
GC – So yeah, there was a Presidential telephone for a call in my dressing room if I won the fight, I got the phone call. Did I have anything to do with that? No. It just happened to be there for whatever reason.
LH – The phone happened to be there!
GC – Reagan was probably a Cooney fan, whatever it was I don’t know, but I was in a fight for my life. I wasn’t thinking about any of that stuff. Who got introduced first… All I cared about when I got in to the stadium was the bell ringing.
That was another contentious area. Once in the ring, Cooney was announced second, in the spot reserved for the champion.
I’m trying to prod and probe Larry and Gerry, get them to drop the buddy-buddy schtick but it’s tough. Years of friendship are proving tough to penetrate, let alone dismantle.
“Yeah, that’s what I mean,” Larry responded, as I tried to sympathise with him for his shoddy treatment. “I’m the champ of the world and they introduced me first, which they should not have done. It was at Caesars Palace. I fought more times at Caesars Palace than I did any place, and they called me out and introduced me first, and that was a no-no.”
Gerry, wise to my antagonistic role, intervened. “Listen, I didn’t think about who got introduced first, who got introduced last, it had nothing to do with me…”
So I turned on Gerry.
“But did you not feel the hostility from the Holmes camp?”
“Of course I did, but when you’re signed to fight somebody, it’s life and death. And obviously he fought everybody, I fought the guys I could. I’d like to have fought the other guys so I could have been prepared, for a guy like him. I didn’t get that opportunity. I had to take what I had into the ring and fight the best I could and that’s what I did.”
Larry Holmes predicted he would stop Gerry Cooney in seven rounds. Cooney had never been beyond eight and he’d not often had to go beyond one or two. Holmes was an established 15-round fighter, making his 12th championship defence.
“It was magical,” Cooney recalled of that night, four decades ago. “It was 115 degrees or 120 under the light.”
“I liked it,” said Holmes. “I’ll fight in the heat…”
When they finally came face to face for the instructions of referee Mills Lane, Holmes stared through Cooney, who peered down.
He said he was zeroing in on Larry’s ribs. Holmes was confident of his own ring prowess, but he knew he’d been decked by Renaldo Snipes and Earnie Shavers and that Cooney packed huge wallop with both hands.
“He’s the type of guy who looks at you and you get scared,” confessed Holmes. “You know about his left hook and you know about his right hand and you try to work on what would work against Gerry, would he be able to block the jab, block body punches, block the right hands?”
Cooney was down in the second round from a strong right, but Larry didn’t rush in.
“He was so patient and he waited and he waited and he was calm,” recalled Cooney.
Larry took this moment to interject. “I was operating on him, like a doctor.”
“True,” Gerry lamented. “He was.”
“I got up, we fought through the round he went back to the corner and they said, ‘Why didn’t you knock him out?’ He said, ‘Listen, this kid can punch. I got plenty of time’. That’s experience… Take your time, be patient, I didn’t have that.”
The atmosphere crackled throughout the evening and the fight was delivering on the hyperbole. Cooney had points docked for low blows but they were not sinister attempts to debilitate Holmes.
“It was a good fight,” Larry added. “We had a lot of people there cheering for both of us. The blacks, of course, cheering Larry Holmes and the whites cheering Gerry Cooney, but believe me, a lot of the blacks didn’t root for me. They say black and white… It wasn’t a black and white thing; it was just a fight.”
Holmes was referring to his lack of popularity that, in part, came from his surly disposition but also from inheriting the throne he’d bludgeoned his idol, Muhammad Ali, as the defining heavyweight of a generation.
Cooney was hoping Holmes would use his right uppercut often, leaving him exposed for his left hook – but Larry only did so sparingly.
That was part of the plan and Holmes had real knowledge and expertise in his corner, with Eddie Futch and Ray Arcel combining to coach him.
“It don’t get any better than that,” Larry continued. “I got two guys out there that know boxing in and out, they tell me what to do. But the only thing I got mad about was Ray Arcel saying ‘Don’t let that boy beat you. Don’t let that boy beat you.’ That’s all he said all night. ‘Don’t let that boy beat you.’ He didn’t give me any instruction, and I wanted to say, ‘Just jump in the river, will you!’”
Larry didn’t let Gerry beat him. Cooney gave it everything but his wobbly legs wilted in the 13th round and Victor Valle, Cooney’s trainer, stormed into the ring to stop the thrashing. It had been a terrific fight, but Holmes was in a different class and there was no disgrace in that.
Cooney is not afraid to pay Larry compliments 40 years on. In fact, he is full of them. The respect gleams through their relationship. They are friends, but Gerry, who has a larger-than-life persona himself, seems a little awestruck by his old rival and it’s endearing.
Remembering how he unravelled Gerry said: “I was a young kid, 25 years old, what did I know? I got tired because he controlled the pace. That’s part of the game. I needed to calm down, I was trying to get him, I wasn’t cutting the corners off, I was coming straight at him but these are the things I learned from that fight. I went 13 rounds with one of the all-time greats. A kid who was told I’d never be anything in my life, ‘You’re no good,’ I made it from there to that night by myself. By myself.”
“You make out like I was an old man,” Holmes slipped in.
“I’m not saying an old man, a good man,” Cooney quickly replied. “He had every answer because he was working with Frazier, Ali, all the top guys.”
The very mention of Ali and Frazier saw Holmes’ mask slip. He’s not just a heavyweight legend and an all-time great, Larry’s a man who’s lost his fair share of friends in recent years.
“My education comes from Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier,” Holmes went on. “Those are the two guys that helped me out. Ali gave me a room, Joe Frazier gave me a room, they fed me in the camp, and you’d feel good about Muhammad Ali working with you. He was great, man, Muhammad Ali. I still think about him and cry a little bit every now and then, but you learn a lot from a guy like Muhammad Ali. He never tried to hurt you, unless there were a lot of women around, then he’d try to get you outta there!”
Asked about how his feelings changed towards Cooney after they had fought, Holmes said: “I never hated nobody I that boxed. They was trying to make me mad at Gerry but I couldn’t get mad at Gerry, he didn’t do nothing. I just wanted to box him, not hurt him and try not to get hurt.”
There’s a video on YouTube of Trevor Berbick complaining to police officers about how Larry had kicked and punched him when you suddenly hear the noise of footsteps on metal. It’s Larry Holmes, clambering up onto a black saloon car, charging at Berbick and then taking flight through the night air to continue whatever brawl they’d already had.
When Larry said he’d never hated anybody he boxed, I knew he was manipulating the truth, so I pressed him on Berbick and he laughed because he knew he’d been caught out.
“No, I wasn’t friends with Berbick because… there’s a line, he called me names… He messed around talking about my wife… my mum… I didn’t want to go with that.”
“He overstepped himself with the champ,” chimed in his biggest supporter, Cooney.
“I did not like him, calling me different things, saying things I didn’t like, and I said, I’ll fight you, Trevor!”
So he did!
Holmes doesn’t stand for nonsense today, and I tell him he’s clearly someone who will not suffer fools. He claims he’s more genial. The ‘Easton Assassin’ is 72.
“I’ve got to take it now or else I’m going to jail,” he smiled.
Cooney’s bravery afterwards was the story of the fight. He was on the cover of The Ring and Boxing News with the headline in this publication ‘Cooney’s Courage’.
Larry couldn’t win in the eyes of plenty and it seemed like many didn’t want him to. Still, I’ve seen these friendships in boxing over the years and there’s nothing quite like it, with Benvenuti and Griffith, with Gatti and Ward, Morales and Barrera, Leonard and Duran, and Tyson and Holyfield.
Two become one and it’s one of the great, great redeeming features of this sport.
Larry’s reign and career continued off and on for another two decades and astonishingly another 36 fights. Cooney was tormented by the loss and hit the skids. He only fought five more times, twice in 1984, once in 1986 before losses to Michael Spinks in 1987 and George Foreman in 1990.
He was in tears after the Holmes fight and there were signs then, that it was all-too much.
“I had an alcohol problem, leading up to him [Holmes] and after him, so I had problems,” Gerry explained. “I would have loved to fight him again because it would have made me focus again. Unfortunately I didn’t get that go around again. I didn’t trust anyone… I had so much shit going on… it was just crazy.”
Was a rematch ever discussed?
“For some reason it was never talked about,” Cooney continued. “I would have loved to have had that rematch.”
Deadpan, Larry said, “They thought I would have killed him!”
But Larry could see Gerry spiral and he tried to intervene at various times.
“I think Larry knew I was struggling with that loss and I saw him maybe eight or 10 months after the fight – in Atlantic City or someplace – and he grabbed me by the arm, gave me a talking to and he kind of freed me up from that boogie man,” Cooney recalled.
Gerry would even attend Larry’s fights, and Holmes would hear him shout, “Hit him, Larry, hit him,” to which Holmes would reply from inside the ropes, “Shut up, Gerry.”
After we finish talking, Gerry – a very fit and strong 65 – moves to help Larry out of his chair. Larry looks at Gerry as though he’s Trevor Berbick. Larry don’t need no help. Not from Gerry, not anyone.
But his wingman is there, 40 years on from the night they made and shared boxing history, on a night when a real fight between real fighters caused the pre-fight toxicity to evaporate into the hot neon sky leaving one winner but no losers. And that doesn’t happen too often in Las Vegas.