Gerry Cooney seemed to have it all and he seemed to be on his way to the top of the heavyweight division. Tall, athletic, hungry for success, and carrying genuinely crippling punching power, with his vaunted left hook in particular, the 24 year old Cooney had everything except big fight experience. Cooney needed fights, a number of additional fights, preferably fights that saw him get some valuable rounds in, if he was to have his best chance of beating a great like Holmes.
Yet Cooney had had just two rounds of action in the 20 months prior to his fight with Holmes. Old timers Ron Lyle and Ken Norton had been taken out in a round apiece, and though Cooney looked good in scoring the KO’s, he needed way more activity going into the Holmes fight. Today, when he looks back, Cooney says he feels that had he had the extra fights/experience he needed, it “could have made all the difference in the world.” Maybe. Instead, Cooney toom out Lyle in October of 1980, then he destroyed Norton in May of the following year. And that was it, with Cooney then facing Holmes in June of 1982.
Had Cooney boxed a couple of ten-rounders, who knows how it might have aided him and his chances. Against Holmes, Cooney was plagued by worries about going the distance – “the distance, the distance,” Cooney said he had said in his head over and over. Cooney was as we know stopped in the 13th round by Holmes, this after giving a good account of himself. Again, how much better equipped to take the crown might a far more active, more experienced Cooney have been?
On the night of the Norton knockout, Cooney had his army of believers, and the title was certainly well in the towering Irish-American’s sights.
It was on this day 41 years ago when these two heavyweight giants who were at wholly different stages of their respective careers met in New York. What followed proved to be disturbingly memorable. Norton, officially 35 years of age yet possibly older, had been in with some of the very best: Ali, Foreman, Young, Holmes. Kenny had not always won the big fights, yet he showed in the Ali fights and in the terrific 15 round epic with Holmes what a great fighter he was. But those fights were a long time ago and they had taken a toll on Norton. Cooney, aged 24 and perfect at 25-0 with all but three of his wins coming by KO, was now in the right place at the right time.
Norton, 42-6-1(33) had enormous experience, but on the night of May 11, not too much more. It was no way near enough.
Cooney came out fast, stunning the pawing Norton with a right hand to the head and then, in a horrifying blur, Cooney went to work on a swiftly immobilised target. Cooney whipped in some sickening lefts to the head, Norton out of it and slumped in a corner. The referee, Tony Perez, was far to slow in diving in, allowing a defenceless Norton to take at least two, if not three unnecessary shots, hard, damaging shots to the skull. It was all over after just 54-seconds of the opening round.
Norton never fought again, whereas Cooney, was made to wait those 13 months before he fought again. When Cooney’s next fight did come, it was a world heavyweight title fight with a 32 year old Holmes he was no way near ready or equipped for. Still, that was some time away and against Norton, Cooney was an absolute wrecking machine of a heavyweight contender. Plenty of people felt Cooney was an unstoppable wrecking machine of a heavyweight contender.