Foreman-Cooney: The Preacher Vs. The Puncher 30 Years On

Three decades ago, U.S fight fans (and fans located elsewhere around the planet), while not exactly at a fever pitch of excitement and anticipation, were intrigued by the upcoming heavyweight collision between “Geezers at Caesars,” George Foreman and Gerry Cooney. Widely seen as a joke, a bad one at that – really a laugh-in – the fight between the hefty, shaven-headed former champ, age 41, and the graying former ’80’s superstar, age 33, nevertheless sold. Big.

Foreman had come back in 1987, the same year Cooney had lost fought; losing by embarrassing fifth-round KO to Michael Spinks, and he had reeled off 19 slo-mo wins over a mixture of poor, decent and flat-out bad opposition. Still, George’s unlikely comeback had slowly but surely attracted massive interest, and support, from the fans.

Cooney, who once promoted a couple of Foreman’s comeback bouts, had kicked his alcohol habit into touch, he had linked up with Foreman’s one-time trainer Gil Clancy, and he had decided to see what he had left. As he said later, “I’d never done it sober before.”

The two men, having their first pay-per-view fight in a long time (a very long time in the case of Foreman. Heck, was pay-per-view as we know it even in existence back when George really was the baddest dude on planet earth) both tuned up by way of exhibition bouts. Foreman took it easy on Hassan Shabbaz over three-rounds in December of ’89, while Cooney put on more of a show with regular spar-mate Wesley Watson (this after Gerry had fought a far more serious “mock fight” with Watson, this one with no head-gear, behind closed doors).

Foreman was ready at 253 pounds, Cooney, smiling like never before, was feeling great at a little over 230. Even hardened promoter Bob Arum said he was “baffled” by the ever-growing interest in the January 15th fight in Atlantic City. Arum predicted the fight might even pull in excess of $50 million. The fight enjoyed a how-it-should-be-done pre-fight show, with fascinating insight from former Foreman and Cooney foes, Jimmy Young and Ron Lyle, being a highlight, making the upcoming fight must-see stuff. While in the UK, a great newspaper piece wrote that, while the fight was justifiably criticized, the match-up was a solid one; and the question was asked: would either top British heavy at the time, Frank Bruno and Gary Mason, beat either Cooney or Foreman?

Doug DeWitt and Iran Barkley were supposed to clash on the under-card, but instead Barkley had to pull out with retinal trouble, leaving the teak-tough DeWitt to defend his new WBO middleweight belt against Matthew Hilton. Watson had the tough assignment of facing former 1988 Olympic medal winner Ray Mercer on the card (Mercer being a fighter who might well have proven too much for both Cooney and Foreman on the night).

Clancy had Cooney’s balance as finely tuned as possible, he had Gerry pumping out jabs in the gym and, perhaps basing things on Foreman’s last fight, a dull, laboured ten-round decision over “Big Foot” Martin in July, the sage coach was certain his new pupil had the beating of his former pupil. After a bright start by Cooney, Clancy was proven wrong.

Cooney managed to crack Foreman with his famed left hook, briefly sending George’s body into wobblemode in the opening session, his head dipping a touch. Screams were heard in the crowd, but George didn’t fall. Clancy lambasted Gerry in the break between rounds for not doing what a puncher is supposed to do: finish a man when he has him hurt. All Cooney could do was nod in agreement.

Then came the swiftest, most elegant sequence of fluid combination punching Foreman showed in his entire 1987 to 1997 ring return. Blasting through Cooney’s guard, Foreman landed rights and lefts to the head, neatly sending the one-time “White Hope” to the mat for the first of two occasions. Cooney showed heart, or was it blind instinct, in getting up. But rooted to the spot and a standing duck if a not a sitting one, the towering Irish-American had zero chance against Foreman’s brutal uppercut, the bomb landing flush on the chin of it’s target, a needless follow-up shot to the head sealing Cooney’s fate.

And it was over. The most maligned fight of the new decade since its announcement a few months before, came and went in dramatic, violent, fan-friendly fashion. Nobody was asking for their money back. Instead, the drum was banged even louder for a Foreman-Mike Tyson fight.

“Yeah, I’ll probably knock him out a little quicker,” Foreman said of Tyson. And millions of us believed him. What a shame we never got to see this particular Dream Fight take place, a Dream Fight that would have done monster numbers at the Box Office.

Today, Cooney is content with his life, with how his career went, and he has told his story via his new book. Foreman is a living legend, arguably the greatest living heavyweight.

And it goes without saying how neither man ever gets laughed at these days.