Gerry Cooney turns 64 today. The towering Irish-American who retired three decades ago, having lost to George Foreman in his final attempt at a comeback, is in great health and spirits these days. Cooney got out with his faculties, with his money and with his memories. There was a time when “Gentleman Gerry,” (Cooney hated the “Great White Hope” tag) was an absolute superstar.
Seemingly destined for the very top, Cooney, his left hook a devastating weapon, scored KO after KO. Looked after by “The Whacko Twins,” Dennis Rappaport and Mike Jones, Cooney avoided the clutches of the all-powerful Don King. But this, as Cooney has lamented many times, hurt his career. Inactivity was a major issue and, through not signing with King, thus unable to get any fights between his May 1981 annihilation of Ken Norton and his June 1982 shot at heavyweight champ Larry Holmes, Cooney was rusty when entering the ring for the biggest fight of his career.
Nevertheless, at the time of the huge – as in Time Magazine front cover status huge – Holmes-Cooney fight, plenty of fans felt their new hero would do it. Cooney had transcended the sport and he’d done it in a short period of time.
Going pro in 1977 after having had a solid amateur career, Cooney was matched carefully. Soon attracting a following due to his incredible punching power, his good looks, his easygoing nature, and of course, his skin tone, Cooney was as popular with female fans and admirers as he was with the guys who followed boxing. And, say what you want about Rappaport and Jones, they sure did a great job in making Cooney a star; a rich star.
After big KO wins over faded names Ron Lyle, Jimmy Young and Ken Norton, Cooney was all over the place; a genuine household name everywhere in America. The current success of the “Rocky” films didn’t hurt (some said Cooney looked like Rocky Balboa) and the craving – one that may well seem odd now – for a white heavyweight champion, saw to it that the Holmes-Cooney fight became the monster that it was.
Rappaport is today proud of the way he and Jones managed to maneuver their fighter into such a humongous payday – a reported $12 million, $2 million more than champ Holmes. This money set Cooney up for life. Holmes of course won the fight, after a brave effort by Cooney, who was a veritable novice in so many ways. But Cooney then all but vanished. Hurt at the way he had “let the people down,” the 25 year old scarcely fought again – just five times in fact.
It was incredible how the fans did an almost complete U-turn and ditched Cooney. Now sometimes booed as he was introduced in public, it seemed Cooney had indeed let the fans down. While plenty of fellow fighters were jealous of the “undeserved” big money Cooney had picked up. It was truly astonishing how Cooney’s life and reputation changed so dramatically after June 11, 1982.
Today, Rappaport says he hates it when the anniversary comes around, that the Holmes loss hurt him as much as it did Cooney; and still does.
Cooney has moved on, he says he has no real regrets and he is grateful for the “great life” he has got today, and has had since leaving the tortures of the ring. And Cooney has given back, with various charity work. He is no longer booed by anyone.
Some interesting recollections from Rappaport:
On the Time magazine photoshoot with Cooney and Sly Stallone, from 1982:
“How many fighters do you see on the front cover of Time magazine! There’s a funny story about that,” Rappaport said a couple of years back. “Gerry was on the cover with Stallone, and Gerry is 6’5” – Stallone is a whole lot shorter. Anyway, Stallone wanted to keep his image and he didn’t want to appear so much shorter than Gerry, so they had him standing on this box (laughs). I said it was okay if he wanted to stand on a box but there was no way we’d allow Stallone to look taller than Gerry! It was great. Neil Leifer, one of the finest boxing photographers ever, he did the shoot.”
On who he wanted Cooney to fight instead of Holmes:
“I wanted Cooney to fight Mike Weaver (for the WBA belt held by Weaver). We flew to California to sign for the Weaver fight. His manager wanted it, but Weaver was offered a fight with James Tillis. We offered step aside money, big money, but Weaver and his people did the stupid thing and turned it down. Weaver had a spiritual advisor, and apparently she told Weaver that God had told her he should take the Tillis fight. It was crazy. I said God must not have known about the millions of dollars a Cooney fight would have made Weaver!”
On Cooney’s big payday for Holmes:
“We got Gerry the best deal in heavyweight history. I insisted on purse parity but in the end, he made $2 million more than Holmes. Quite recently, Gerry said to me how he wished he’d had more fights but that he couldn’t as he hadn’t gone with Don King. I told him that if he had gone with Don King he wouldn’t be set for life as he is today and God knows how it would have ended for him.”
Happy birthday, Gerry!