The biggest heavyweight fight of the 1980s took place on this day in 1982, as heavyweight great Larry Holmes defended his crown against “Great White Hope” Gerry Cooney. At the time of the hugely-hyped fight, one that pitted an established champion against a power-punching superstar in the making, plenty of people felt Cooney would beat Holmes and become the next heavyweight king.
“The Dream is here, Gentleman Gerry Cooney,” bellowed one ringsider’s placard at Caesars Palace. Cooney might not have fully learned how to fight yet (this something he was honest enough to admit when looking back on the fight he had been rushed into, the money that was at stake being nothing short of enormous) but his adoring fans believed in him. And why not? In the opinion of the average fan, Cooney was the real deal – his crushing knockouts of Ron Lyle and Ken Norton (both one-round jobs) proved it.
Cooney gave it everything he had against Holmes, and with his distinct lack of experience (just 86 pro rounds boxed) he succeeded in giving 32-year-old Holmes, who was making the 12th defense of the title, a darn good fight. At the time of his crushing loss – the 13th round TKO defeat more crushing from a mental standpoint compared to a physical one, with 25-year-old Cooney taking his physical lumps far better than his psychological ones – Cooney couldn’t stop saying sorry.
Still, it was thought Cooney would bounce back, that he would return to his wrecking ball ways and string together another series of KO’s ahead of a second shot at the title. After all, Cooney had been beaten by a great champion and he had nothing to be ashamed of. But Cooney disappeared, being a more frequent visitor to bars than the gym. Cooney did fight again – just five times in all before George Foreman blasted him into permanent retirement in 1990 – but he was never again the young, strong, power-packed sensation he had been in 1979 to 1982.
Two of the bigger questions that can be asked about the Holmes-Cooney fight are: What if Cooney had taken the fight a year or so later, having had an additional three, maybe four fights? And, what if Cooney had not taken the loss so hard and had, instead of hiding away feeling sorry for himself, returned to the ring quite quickly and stayed there?
As for the second question, maybe the damage Gerry took, to his psyche mostly, was just too much. They say boxing is around 90 percent mental and maybe Gerry Cooney never had the mental strength to be a truly great fighter.
But as for the first question, if Cooney had taken the Holmes fight in 1983, with three or four additional wins tucked under his belt, then perhaps this would have made all the difference in the world. Cooney said a while back how he felt that, “with another year’s experience, I really do think I’d have beaten him,” and he probably still feels the same way today. “With three or four [more] fights, against top guys, I’d have beaten Holmes,” Cooney told this writer a few years back.
Of course, the timing of a fight is crucial. If Cooney was too green in June of 1982, might a 33-year-old Holmes have been a little closer to being sufficiently ripe for the taking by a 26-year-old Cooney, who had a 28-0 or 29-0 record? Of course, we will never know. But such was the enormous promise Cooney once had – his left hook a thing of devastating beauty – we find ourselves asking questions like this one all these years later. Cooney was a dead-cert to be heavyweight champion. The fact that he failed is still hard to take; especially for Gerry himself.
Here’s another ‘what if?’ What if Cooney had fought WBA heavyweight champ Mike Weaver (as he was close to doing) instead of Holmes? Would Cooney have taken down “Hercules?” Maybe so. Instead, Cooney can be proud of the herculean effort he managed to give on the night of June 11, 1982.