A fight of race, re­gret 35 years later

The Washington Times Daily - - SPORTS - THOM LOVERRO

Acoun­try di­vided by race can man­i­fest it­self in many ways — a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, a foot­ball player re­fus­ing to stand for the na­tional an­them, and, 35 years ago Sun­day, in a boxing ring out­side Cae­sars Palace in Las Ve­gas.

Gerry Cooney, a kid from Hunt­ing­ton, Long Is­land, en­tered the ring with the ti­tle of the “Great White Hope” against heavy­weight cham­pion Larry Holmes.

It was a ti­tle that Cooney never asked for. But it was that ti­tle that the coun­try em­braced — from Time mag­a­zine to the white su­prem­a­cists who cheered for the 6-foot-6 hard puncher.

“It was a dumb thing to do,” Cooney said of the pro­mo­tion, led by Don King, that used the boxer’s skin color to sell tick­ets. “We never paid at­ten­tion to any of that. We had a chance to fight for the heavy­weight cham­pi­onship of the world.

“I made a lot of money that night but the rest was all dis­taste­ful,” Cooney said. “They had me out there as the great white hope.”

But Cooney and Holmes both got caught up in the ha­tred be­ing sold in a war of words, and Cooney worked up a sense of rage by the time he met Holmes in the ring.

“It was the first time I went into the ring where I didn’t have any fear,” Cooney said. “I just wanted to hit him.”

Cooney re­vealed in a con­ver­sa­tion with me on my Ci­gars & Curve­balls pod­cast that years later, he dis­cov­ered through DNA test­ing that he had African-Amer­i­can blood in his an­ces­try. “My grand­mother’s mother was African-Amer­i­can, so I have African-Amer­i­can blood in me,” he said.

That night in Las Ve­gas, peo­ple were look­ing for blood.

One of the sto­ries from the fight, whether true or not, is that po­lice had put sharp­shoot­ers on the roofs of the ho­tels sur­round­ing the out­door arena at Cae­sars for fear of vi­o­lence. Both white su­prem­a­cists groups and African-Amer­i­cans had de­clared they

would have armed sup­port­ers at the fight.

Then, as the two fight­ers met in the cen­ter of the ring for fi­nal in­struc­tions from Mills Lane, Holmes said, “Let’s have a good fight.” And then that’s all it be­came — a fight, a fight that Holmes would win by stop­ping Cooney in the 13th round.

“I was in with a great guy that night,” Cooney said. “We fought our hearts out. He had a lit­tle more ex­pe­ri­ence than me and was a very tal­ented guy. I made some mis­takes and I paid for them.”

This fight may have been the last time the heavy­weight belt car­ried the so­cial im­pli­ca­tions that of­ten were as­cribed to the cham­pi­onship — from the days of Jack John­son to the reign of Muham­mad Ali.

Cooney, a former Golden Gloves am­a­teur cham­pion, rose to the ti­tle of “Great White Hope” thanks to the man­age­ment of two part­ners, Mike Jones and Den­nis Rap­pa­port — nick­named the “Gold Dust Twins” by the me­dia — who en­gi­neered his ca­reer care­fully with hand-picked op­po­nents ripe for de­feat.

“I couldn’t stand my man­agers be­cause they hated each other, and I was al­ways in the mid­dle try­ing to sep­a­rate them and make peace,” he said. “My man­age­ment tried to man­age me to get the big payday. They weren’t de­vel­op­ing me as a tal­ent. I was a big puncher, which was great, and I didn’t take a lot of wear and tear. But I did not re­ally get the ex­pe­ri­ence that I re­ally needed so I could have a real shot at beat­ing Holmes.”

The late, great trainer Ed­die Futch once told me that if Cooney had been men­tored, he had the tal­ent to be a great heavy­weight.

Re­mark­ably, two judges had Holmes only ahead by two points when the fight was stopped. If Cooney did not have three points taken away from him dur­ing the fight for low blows, Cooney would have been ahead on the judges’ score­cards.

Holmes, who won the heavy­weight cham­pi­onship in a 15-round de­ci­sion over Ken Nor­ton in 1978, would suc­cess­fully de­fend his ti­tle 20 times be­fore los­ing a close de­ci­sion to Michael Spinks in 1985. He would con­tinue fight­ing un­til 2002.

Cooney’s ca­reer went down­hill af­ter the Holmes fight. He fought spo­rad­i­cally — five times un­til his fi­nal fight, stopped by Ge­orge Fore­man in two rounds in 1990. Three years ear­lier, Cooney was stopped by Spinks in five rounds. He fin­ished his ca­reer with a 28-3 record, and 24 knock­outs.

“I was drink­ing heav­ily at that time,” Cooney said. “It was the worst time of my ca­reer. I would have eaten him alive any other time. In fact to­day I would eat him alive, but at the time the busi­ness had wrung me out.”

Cooney’s post-boxing ca­reer has been a strong one. He has been in­volved in groups that have tried to held re­tired fight­ers with health prob­lems, and he is the co-host of the Sir­ius Xm “At The Fights” Mon­day and Fri­day nights. And he has de­vel­oped a good friend­ship with his former op­po­nent.

“Larry and I are great friends,” Cooney said. “We get to­gether a lot at char­i­ties and ap­pear­ances. He’s a good man.”

But to this day, 35 years later, Gerry Cooney, at the age of 60, still has one ques­tion — a le­git­i­mate ques­tion.

“Why no re­match?” Cooney won­dered. “That was a good enough fight for a re­match. I still don’t know why there wasn’t a re­match. It would have been great.”

Maybe there wasn’t enough hate to milk for a re­match.


Gerry Cooney (right) en­tered the ring with the ti­tle of the Great White Hope in his June 12, 1982, match in Las Ve­gas against world heavy­weight cham­pion.

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