Phil Rice
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Holmes-Cooney: Return of an Afterthought

A couple years ago I was swapping tales from my time in the hotel business with a guy who was working as a desk clerk at a little motel in the tourist town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. I made mention of some fun celebrity encounters at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, and he countered with, “Last year Gerry Cooney came into the Belle-Aire looking for a room,” the Belle-Aire being an obscure little motel tucked away on a Gatlinburg side street. I suspected he was lying, but I was impressed that he would lie about Cooney. Then I realized that he probably wouldn’t have lied about Cooney. Maybe “Gentleman Gerry” really had been looking for a bargain hideaway, or perhaps my friend simply meant to lie about George Clooney. Twenty-five years ago or so, though, Gerry Cooney was front page news and would have made for an exceptional celebrity encounter.

In 1982, as now, the only sport that mattered to most of the locals in Gatlinburg was college football, and more specifically, the University of Tennessee Volunteers football team. Even in the summer the sports talk generally centered on the Vols. Baseball broke through once in awhile, but anybody who showed any real passion for the national pastime was openly scorned. Baseball was acceptable as a minor diversion until kickoff, nothing more. Likewise for tennis, auto racing, and other sports that might take up some air time on the tube or space in the newspaper. Boxing was usually ignored completely except for the really big fights, the kind that had a name like Ali or Sugar Ray in the heading. But in June of 1982, there was a fight that did catch the attention of the local populace: Gerry Cooney’s title-fight challenge of heavyweight champion Larry Holmes.

There is a kneejerk reaction to think of Holmes-Cooney as being simply a much-ballyhooed racist spectacle, and to be sure the promoters and journalists were more than happy to sell tickets and magazines by playing to that angle. The pre-fight build-up was marked by frequent comparisons to the historic bout between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries in 1910. Johnson-Jefferies was truly a racist spectacle, a fight for which Jeffries was called out of retirement specifically to defend the honor of the white race (he lost by 14th round TKO.) This sort of race-baiting had worked in boxing promotions through the 1950s and 60s, often overshadowing the fight itself, but—and admittedly my memory might be pulling some revisionist tricks—I remember hearing more pre-fight chatter among fans about other aspects of the Holmes-Cooney clash, namely that it was a classic boxer versus puncher match-up between two undefeated fighters.

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Gerry Cooney was a tall, broad-shouldered man who moved methodically around the ring on disproportionately thin legs. His boxing arsenal didn’t seem to be loaded down with many options, but the weapons he carried were extremely lethal, especially the left hook. In the two years leading to his championship fight, Cooney had taken less than six total rounds to annihilate veteran contenders Jimmy Young (TKO 4), Ron Lyle (KO 1), and Ken Norton (TKO 1) in succession, practically decapitating Norton in the process. Boxing people were quick to point out that those three opponents were the most impressive names on his ledger, and they were getting a bit long in the tooth at the time of their encounter with young Cooney. Still, his supporters would emphatically insist, he did brutally destroy Ken Norton, the same man who had fought on even terms with Muhammad Ali for 39 rounds (W12, L12, and L15) and had gone toe-to-toe with Holmes for fifteen ferocious rounds when Holmes won the championship with a razor-thin split-decision victory in 1978.

At 6’3” and between 210 and 215 pounds in his prime, Larry Holmes was a full-fledged heavyweight for the day. Unlike Cooney, his shoulders sloped slightly and his figure was polished and sleek. He was fast on his feet and quick with his hands, and he had the boxing skills to utilize these assets to the fullest. Simply stated, he was a complete boxer with an excellent command of offensive and defensive weaponry. And therein was the rub for most boxing aficionados, and virtually all of the casual fans, who for two decades had been marveling at the phenomena known as Ali. From the time he first entered the public’s consciousness as Cassius Clay in 1960 until his final bout against Trevor Berbick in 1981, “The Greatest” managed to hold the attention of the world as he redefined the role of the professional athlete in American society.

As if to complement his inconceivably huge celebrity status, Ali was an incomparable artist and dominant champion in the ring as well. He was the loudest of loudmouths, but he always backed it up when it counted, usually in remarkable fashion. That’s a hefty act to follow in any context, but especially in a sport where recognition is generally limited to its own small fan base. To his critics, Holmes was simply a poor imitation of “The Greatest.” After he reluctantly defeated a used-up Ali in 1980, Holmes was treated like a usurper to the throne by many disdainful boxing fans. Justice was nowhere to be found for the man who had earned the right to be called the heavyweight champion of the world.

I admit that Larry Holmes was not one of my favorite fighters. For me to be a fan, personality and character count as much as extraordinary skills. Holmes was obviously an exceptional boxer, but he had a way of speaking his mind in the moment without first processing the thoughts behind his words, frequently with obnoxious results. Besides, he reminded me of a guy who used to beat me up on a regular basis in the 8th grade. So I was not among his vocal supporters, but to be fair, I wasn’t especially interested in seeing him fail, either.

Cooney was somewhat quiet and personable, and time has since proven that his affable nature was not just manufactured for the cameras. His warm personality was certainly more likable than the champion’s bitter demeanor, and his dramatic knockouts made him more entertaining to the average fan. Mix in Holmes’s angry tirades and a classic hero versus villain scenario was born. Maybe that was just the work of some clever public relations, but it all seemed genuine at the time.

The build-up to the fight gathered more and more steam until it was, to paraphrase promoter Don King, gargantualistically fantificent. Discussions of race continued throughout, but like millions of others I remained stuck on the fact that this looked like a great match-up that could genuinely go either way. A terrifyingly brutal puncher with an easy going attitude against the remarkably smooth and grumpy boxer who also happened to be the heavyweight champion of the world (Mike Weaver was actually recognized as champion by the WBA, but WBC champion Holmes held a TKO victory of Weaver in their only meeting and was therefore considered to be the champion by most of the sporting world.)

Unlike many would-be fights of the century, this fight at least came close to justifying the high expectations. Cooney was competitive throughout and had his moments, but by the 13th round he was a beaten man and the fight was stopped. Make no mistake, Gentleman Gerry gave an excellent account of himself. There are many men who have worn the title “Heavyweight Champion of the World” in one form or the other who would have fallen that night against Cooney, but Holmes was not going to be defeated that night. To find a heavyweight capable of beating the Holmes who stepped into the ring against Cooney you’ll have to search among a very short list of all-time greats. No one could doubt that Larry Holmes was the true heavyweight champion of the world after that one.

Gerry Cooney was pretty much done as an active contender after that fight. He re-emerged in the ring a few more times but the visible desire and enthusiasm for the sport were gone. When he fought Michael Spinks in 1987 and then George Foreman in 1990, he exuded the attitude of a retired golf pro and lost each contest by TKO. He again showed a king-sized heart but his terrifying slugger persona was a thing of the past, as was most of the public attention. But Cooney continues to be visible as an organizer and participant of various charity events, occasionally in the company of one-time foe and longtime friend Holmes.

His victory over Cooney gave Larry Holmes a huge dose of long-overdue respect, and he would reign as the heavyweight champion of the world for three more years before losing to Michael Spinks by close decision in 1985 and again in 1986. After a two-year layoff he attempted to regain the title against Mike Tyson in 1988. Ill-prepared for the challenge, Holmes suffered the only stoppage loss of his career. Despite being a successful businessman out of the ring, he would continue to box professionally until 2002, showing flashes of brilliance even into middle age. Unlike his early championship years, the older Holmes enjoyed recognition as a living legend, and time continues to smile favorably on his place in boxing history. As his 2008 induction speech for the International Boxing Hall of Fame demonstrates, he is still something of a curmudgeon, but now there is an undeniable twinkle in his grandfatherly eyes.

Holmes-Cooney never lived up to its billing as a racial demonstration on par with Johnson-Jeffries, not even close. As far as I know, there were no riots, no lynchings, no race-related violence of any sort following Holmes’s victory, which is a far-cry from the horrific aftermath of Johnson’s thrashing of Jeffries. If anything, the fight can be seen as a measuring stick for the growth experienced in American society between 1910 and 1982. Perfection? Not by a long shot. Still, though it didn’t seem like it at the time, substantial progress was visible, especially when viewed in the larger context of cultural history.

And the same can be said for the primary participants. The night of June 11, 1982 represents the defining moment of each man’s boxing career. In the grand scheme of life, to the betterment of all, neither has been content to rest on those laurels.

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