The Big Roundtable

In the Clearing Stands a Boxer

August 13, 2014

The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of Gerry Cooney

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For a man rings like a cracked bell when he thinks and acts with a split mind—one part standing aside to interfere with the other, to control, to condemn, or to admire.

—Alan Watts, The Way of Zen

Back when he was the leading contender for the world heavyweight championship of the world, back in the early 1980s, Gerry Cooney didn’t seem hard to fathom.

Gerry was the working-class kid from suburbia who took an afternoon Long Island Railroad train to work every day in Manhattan. On the way, he sprawled over three seats and laughed and flipped through magazines. Arriving at Penn Station, he shadowboxed with strangers who called his name and bantered with the guys working at the newsstands. He was a one-man parade for the two-block walk to Gleason’s Gym, waving and mugging to passersby.

He was the goofy prankster, a hulk with a leprechaun face and a Corleone whisper. He had a pile of curly black hair, pudgy cheeks, thick ribbons for lips, and a lantern jaw. At 25, he seemed to have won the Irish lottery—all the charm and none of the black moods.

Callers to his home got this message on his answering machine: “I’m in the shower so I can’t come to the phone because I hate to talk when I’m all wet. So at the tone, please leave your name and number. Have a nice day.”

He joked with reporters, then laughed with friends about how clueless reporters could be. “Hey, did I tell you about the interview I gave to a newspaper guy in Ohio?” he told one friend. “Yeah, he asked me how I trained. I told him I was on an all-alcohol diet and that I painted my room black the day before the fight. I think he almost believed me.”

Beyond the merriment—what made the whole Gerry Cooney narrative believable and poignant—was the story Cooney told about his stern father who drove him to become a champion.

The story went like this: Tony Cooney, an ironworker, drove his boys to succeed in the ring because he didn’t have much chance for a good life himself. The old man taught his boys to work hard: mowing and weeding the garden, working in the basement wood shop, and boxing at the Y. When Gerry’s pals Hilton Cohn and George Munch drove by in their big 1970s American cars, honking their horns and teasing him about his endless chores, Gerry looked up sheepishly.

Tony, the story went, didn’t know how to tell Gerry he loved him—a typical father-son divide. But deep down, the story went, Gerry knew his dad cared.

“It was hard, the way he showed his love,” Cooney said then, in that halting shy bruiser voice of his, after his father died. “I didn’t understand what he was trying to teach me. Now I know, but it came too late for him to see it. After he was gone, I realized he was trying to strengthen my mind to make me better.”

Later, Cooney elaborated on this father-son myth of love.

“I’ve seen a lot of father-and-son relationships that are bad,” he said. “I plan on doing things differently. If my son wants a boxing career, I won’t stop him, but I definitely won’t push him. It’s bad for a kid to be pressured.”

From the time he first attracted public notice—when he won two Golden Gloves, got invited to the Olympic trials, and boxed in Europe—Gerry Cooney won fans with his gentle, easygoing nature. Cooney talked softly, in a whisper. Even though he had experienced hurt, he didn’t blame anyone for anything. He just pursued his goal of “seeing how far I can go with this.” He listened to soft rock and played the role of the lovable Irish mope.

In 1981, a Sports Illustrated cover story described Cooney as a man-child reveling in the joys of success. William Nack, one of the best sportswriters of his day, followed Cooney around Huntington and recorded his antics. Cooney caused a stir when he squirted people with a water pistol at the Walt Whitman Mall. Then he was off to Walt Whitman High School, his alma mater, where he bantered with an old high school teacher. Then he was off to explore the town in his brand-new Cadillac. He bathed in the cheers of old friends and strangers.

“Gerry Cooney lives in a world unfettered by complexities,” Nack concluded. “He is 24 years old, but so far he has been able to escape the inhibitions that come with adulthood and has remained essentially the boy he always wanted to be.”

As he prepared for his chance to win the world heavyweight championship of the world—he would fight Larry Holmes in June of 1982—Cooney played along with the heartwarming narrative for sportswriters and publicists, friends and neighbors to soften the rough edges of his story.

It was always about the pop.

“Two weeks after he was buried it hit me—things I wanted to say to him and never said to him, things I wanted to do with him again,” Cooney told one reporter. “I realized why he made me do all those things. He wanted me to be better than him. He wanted me to have what he never had. That’s all. It was hard to see them, but I see it now. I wish he were here so I could tell him that I understand.”

Sons with troubled relationships with fathers struggle to develop their own identity. They desperately want attention and approval, but they also want separation and independence. When they get too far away, they veer back toward their dads, no matter how much pain they get for the effort.

So Cooney played the loyal and lovable son, brother, and friend. He bought people cars, paid restaurant and bar tabs, arranged jobs, gave away ringside seats. He became the man of the house when he was 16 because his father, bless his soul, died of cancer. Gerry was so devastated by his pop’s death that he even passed up a chance at the Olympics. His heart just wasn’t into it.

Now it was, and now he was going to honor Tony’s memory by winning a heavyweight championship.

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All photographs by Isabel Chenoweth

Abuse

Gerry Cooney tried to believe his own rationalizations about his stern but loving father. But somewhere, buried deep in the restricted, no-fly zones of his psyche, he knew he was driven by anger and fear, which spilled out of his desire to please the man who could not be pleased.

“I have this want-to-be-liked thing, but deep down I had this rage,” Cooney says now. “I was just—I was blinded. I wasn’t healthy enough to be able to learn more. I had one mode—to fight.”

The rage went back to life at the red Cape Cod on Holland Street in Huntington Station where Tony and Eileen Cooney raised four boys, Thomas, Michael, Gerry, and Stephen, and two girls, Eileen and Madeleine. They looked like a good, strong, working class family. They went to Mass and did chores. They ran and lifted weights. The boys boxed in a ring in the back yard, at the Y, in the streets, and in the school gym.

But Tony Cooney didn’t just push his kids. He bullied them.

“He would beat me with his hands, his belt,” Cooney years later, after his own battles with alcoholism and drugs, twisted relationships and squandered possibilities, ego trips and depression. “How do you do that to your kids? He drank and was very physical. He kept us under control. He kept us separated. We all had different hiding places. Mine was in the basement.”

Tony didn’t need to drink to get abusive. Cooney remembers the time, on a Saturday evening after Catholic Mass, when Tony asked his four sons if any of them had taken his tool belt. They all said no. Tony ordered them into the garage. He closed the door and beat each one of them, one by one.

Words hurt even more than fists or belts. Cooney remembers the year his father told him to make a list of gifts he would like for Christmas. Gerry brought him the list. Tony hit him in the face. “You don’t deserve anything,” he said.

Always came this refrain from his father: “You’re no good. You’re a failure. Don’t trust nobody.”

The child of an alcoholic or abuser develops three survival techniques. First, avoidance: becoming invisible so the sick father or mother can’t hurt you or shame you. Second, fighting back: gaining power, tragically enough, by doing the same kind of damage … usually to someone else. Third, pleasing the abuser: if the alcoholic only knew how much you love him, how good you are, maybe the violence would cease.

None of these strategies works. Each, in fact, reinforces the patterns of abuse.

Like many children of alcoholics, Gerry Cooney followed all three approaches. When his father returned home to Long Island from his job in the city, Gerry fled to his safe haven in the basement. All these years later, Cooney struggles to talk about those moments of fear. Whatever pain he experienced, he still doesn’t remember fear. “I was never cowering,” he said, correcting a visitor on his word choice. “It was out of sight, out of mind. I never wanted attention on me.”

Cooney learned how to fight back. That’s what boxing was all about. He started boxing when he was twelve years old at the Huntington Athletic Club. He continued at the YMCA. He battled his frustration by hitting the bags. He discovered he was good. He won some bouts, but was still awkward.

Cooney learned his most important lesson as a fighter when he was fifteen years old. A local thug harassed his brother, Tom, at a bar. The two went outside.

Tom, Gerry says, had more potential as a boxer than his little brother. He could have been a contender. But Tom would not make the commitment that his father—and the sport—demanded. Anyway, Tom knew how to throw a punch.

“My brother gave him a left hook to the body and the right hand to the chin,” Cooney recalls. “He knocked the wind out of him. It was the most horrific scene, seeing this guy on the floor, with no wind in the stomach. I was scared for the guy. I was scared for my brother. I thought he was dead.”

Gerry learned his biggest lesson about boxing—and life—that day. Forget about fear, forget about feelings. Win by destroying the other side. Overcome your own demons by humiliating the other side.

From then on, Cooney’s strategy in the ring was to paralyze his opponents with a left hook to the midsection, to set up a flurry of hits to the head.

“I liked to watch the expression in the fighter’s face change when you connected with him,” he says. “You know when you connect in the right spot. It’s like a tunnel vision.”

“Boxing was a way to express my anger. All of a sudden I was expressing anger and I was good at it,” he says. “I was like a Jekyll and Hyde. Boxing helped me. because I was fighting the anger out. I was knocking guys out.

So: When you get into the ring, you read your opponents’ eyes. Pay attention to how they breathe. Gauge their leg strength. Do they weave? Back up? Dip their shoulders? Lift their gloves? Look angry? Hurt? Scared? Then look for an opening and hit it hard, don’t let up, make more openings and then hit them hard.

But Gerry also followed the third strategy of surviving life with an alcoholic. Even after the abuse—especially after the abuse, even—he worked to please his father. He did yard work, before and after school. He took boxing pointers from the old man. He listened to his father’s philosophy of fighting and life. At one point, he even worked alongside his father as an ironworker in Manhattan.

As anyone who’s even been to 12-Step meeting knows, alcoholism has a cunning way of reproducing itself. To get pop’s approval, embrace his anger and resentment. Like father, like son.

Fame—and with it, a chance to build a life of his own—arrived when Cooney won the Golden Gloves in front of 21,000 boxing fanatics at Madison Square Garden in 1972. He was just 16, a 6-4, 160-pound kid trying to find out who he was and how he could survive. After he won that St. Patrick’s Day bout, people who used to ignore him now gave him plenty of attention. Suddenly he was a pied piper to some of the kids at Walt Whitman High and a rising star in the sport. He could start to dream about making money fighting.

Walt Whitman, where Cooney sometimes attended classes, was one part “Wonder Years” and one part “Saturday Night Fever,” a place where children of stockbrokers and lawyers could be found alongside children of truck drivers and clerks and, of course, ironworkers.

Actually, “alongside” is the wrong word. Walt Whitman was so big that administrators separated students and teachers into two separate wings of the school. One side was for college-bound students; the other was for working-class students. When the students of the two wings crossed paths, physical violence, involving gangs, knives and chains, sometimes resulted.

Gerry tried other sports, like football and wrestling, but boxing focused his mind. Rich Carridi, a coach at Walt Whitman, remembers one of Cooney’s wrestling matches. Cooney’s opponent, Cariddi said, “is going for a takedown and [Cooney]’s smacking the kid almost like he was sparring. The referee said, ‘You can’t do that.’ Gerry said, ‘Ref, I’m just trying to keep him away from me.’”

No one at the school understood boxing any better than Gerry understood wrestling. The big sports for Walt Whitman were football and basketball. A few tough kids wrestled. But boxing? That’s not a sport for middle-class kids from Long Island.

One teacher—nameless in history—made a point of razzing Cooney. “You think you’re a big deal because you’re a boxer?” he taunted him. Not just once, but again and again. One day, Cooney had endured enough razzing. He talked back. “Put on some gloves,” he said. A small group of teachers and students shuffled into a padded wrestling room. Cooney waited while the teacher put on his gloves. They closed to door.

The match ended in seconds.

“Gerry gave him a boxing lesson,” a teacher and coach named Rich Cariddi remembered years later. “It didn’t last but a minute. After 9 or 10 jabs to the nose, he said, ‘OK that’s enough.’ Everyone was talking about it in the parking lot afterwards.”

After he won fame, Cooney could get a big head and join in petty bullying. “He always seemed to have a flock of kids around him, mainly the girls, and especially after he won the Golden Gloves,” one classmate, Betty Gartelman Komorowski, remembers. “I personally didn’t see the fascination with him. His boxing wounds and big ego didn’t impress me like it did others.”

But others remember a gentleness rare in such a big, tough, damaged kid. “Gerry was big brother to my brother,” Karen Anderson Wyka remembers. “Lars was having trouble socializing in elementary school and Gerry lent a helping hand to boost Lars’ self-confidence.”

Joe DePinto’s experience with Gerry captures the tough-guy confusion of the future contender. Joey and Gerry started out as friends, then turned bitter enemies—fighting five times, by Joey’s count—and then reconciled when Gerry intervened in one of Joey’s fights with someone else. “I beat the shit out of a guy and broke his nose and jaw,” DePinto, now a retired New York firefighter, remembers. “Gerry pulled me off the guy and said I was gonna kill him.”

Somehow, deep down, Gerry Cooney knew when the abuse had to stop.

In those next amateur years, Gerry fought not just in the U.S., but overseas, too, in England, Wales, and Scotland. He racked up fifty-five wins and three loses.

At home, though, Tony yelled at Gerry for his long hair, the 1970s symbol of youth and defiance. If he wanted to live “under my roof” he had to follow “my rules.” When Tony was dying—he was emaciated by lung cancer; he had worked for years with asbestos—he told Gerry he would “rather crawl to the hospital for chemo” than get a lift from his rebel son. Gerry, then 16, was shaken and angry. He left home to live with his brother.

When the end came for Tony in 1976, guilt and confusion overwhelmed his son, who decided to pass up the U.S. Olympic trials. A teacher told Cooney he had to stay back home and take care of his family, so he passed up his chance for an express trip to boxing fame. But beyond the sense of duty and guilt, Cooney also wanted to get away from fighting, at least for a while.

His mother, eager for some stability after years of chaos, embraced Gerry again.

“My mother made me the hero of the family and I had to take care of everything,” he says. “But I couldn’t help anybody.”

Years later, Cooney asked his mother why she let Tony terrorize the family. Her answer was simple: What choice did I have?

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All photographs by Isabel Chenoweth

The Big Time

With a Golden Gloves championship and a sterling resume as an amateur fighter, Gerry Cooney decided to make boxing his profession.

In 1977, a couple of self-appointed boxing promoters named Dennis Rappaport and Mike Jones approached Cooney about representing him. They signed him to a $200-a-week contract. After 58 amateur bouts, he would finally make money.

Rappaport brought the young boxer to a legendary trainer named Victor Valle, a squat, gray-haired, balding, sexagenarian Puerto Rican. At first, Valle said no, that Gerry was too skinny and unskilled. But Rappaport prevailed.

And so Cooney commuted, every day, from Huntington Station to New York City and then to Gleason’s Gym, at Seventh Avenue and Thirtieth Street, to learn his craft.

More than 100 boxing champions, over the years, trained at Gleason’s Gym. First opened in the Bronx, the gym moved to 30th Street and Seventh Avenue by the time Cooney came along. Posters of past champions lined the walls of the cramped building. As soon as you enter, you see two rings. The place was surprisingly quiet. Entering from the bustle near Penn Station, you could hear boxers hitting bags, trainers barking orders, shouts of hello and goodbye, and murmurs of conversations. But it was a place of business.

When Gerry Cooney walked in the door, he went straight to Victor Valle. Valle was one a promising boxer himself but quit when he broke his hands, “my tools for success,” he said. Now Valle was a teacher and a mentor. He got the boxer in the ring and focused on one skill at a time. Valle broke down boxing to its smallest elements—positioning, footwork, concentration, punching, defending, follow-up. He demonstrated a move, often in slow motion, and then told Cooney to try. When Cooney did something wrong, Valle cut in to remind him and get him to try again.

He pantomimed the boxer’s actions and reactions—getting the right stance, shifting around, dancing; holding the gloves up, bobbing and weaving, blocking some punches and evading others; and throwing punches—in slow motion. Then he told the fighter to mimic him.

One day he showed Cooney how to turn around when under attack.

“No, no, no,” he called out. “You’ve got to keep that left hand higher when you spin off the ropes. Otherwise you’re gonna get hit. Look, like this, see?” Cooney nods and tries again.

Visitors to Gleason’s sometimes wondered whether Cooney’s work with Valle could really help the fighter. When Cooney gets into the ring going to fight a virile, lethal champion, not a little old man. What good can slow-mo games of patty-cake do for Cooney?

By this time, Gerry Cooney had become a man—6-5, 240 to 260 pounds, all muscle. Every day, his tiny trainer tried to make him a champion—not just honing his technique (bad, at first) but also giving him a father figure (he called himself Cooney’s “pop”).

“I told you, Gerry,” he barked. “You got me? Listen to me!”

Years later, Valle laughed when he described the intensity of the relationship: “Two hot-bloods, Irish and Puerto Rican. Two steaming bloods. When he gets his Irish up, I get my Puerto Rican up. And when I get my Puerto Rican up, he respects me.”

Rappaport and Jones called themselves the Gold Dust Twins. Others called them the Wacko Twins. They met at a poker game, where they discovered they were both real-estate agents and boxing fans. They decided to go into the fight business together. They soon represented up-and-coming boxers like Howard Davis, who won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics. Like other promoters, they courted controversy to promote their fighters. In one stunt, they threatened to “break in” to the Rahway prison in New Jersey to get a fight with an inmate named James Scott.

Gerry Cooney’s first professional victory came against Bill Jackson, a day after Valentine’s Day in 1977. Jackson wasn’t much of a fighter. He lost all his six bouts before Cooney, all by knockouts within three rounds. But beating Jackson was a notch in Cooney’s belt and a paycheck. Cooney fought seven times in 1977, winning six by knockouts and one on points.

Cooney kept fighting lesser boxers and he kept knocking them out. In 1978 he beat Terry Lee Kidd, Austin Johnson, Gary Bates, S.T. Gordon, G.G. Maldonado, Charley Polite, Sam McGill, and Grady Daniels, with four knockouts and one technical knockout. In 1979 he beat Eddie Lopez, Charlie Johnson, Tom Prater, Broderick Mason, Malik Dozier, Dino Denis, and Leroy Boone, with three knockouts, three TKOs, and a unanimous decision.

Cooney especially savored his TKO of Dino Dennis, the first real test of his career.

“He was a nasty guy,” Cooney remembers.

How so?

At the weigh-in, photographers for tabloids told Denis to poke Cooney for the cameras. So he reached out and poked Cooney’s cheek. Cooney responded with a fury, hitting him with a right sucker punch. “It was a setup,” Denis said later. “I flipped out, I was going nuts.” So both fighters went into the bout with blind anger, just what their promoters wanted to see.

Denis’s trainer told him to attack Cooney right away: “He’s a dog, put pressure on him and he’ll quit.” Denis had compiled a 35-2-1 record; one of his two losses came in a fourth-round TKO to George Forman. He was a scrappy fighter; he danced around, testing his opponents, looking for opportunities to strike. Then, after his trainer filled Denis with bravado, Cooney broke the bridge of his nose with a hard left uppercut. “Blood was coming out like two faucets,” Denis said later.

Victor Valle implored Cooney to knock out Denis after the first round.

“What’s the matter?” he said. “Why don’t you just knock him out?”

“That’s OK,” Cooney said. “I got plenty of time.”

Years later, Cooney was still proud of the way he damaged Denis. “I just wanted to have fun playing with him, shake him up, make him hurt,” Cooney said.

Between rounds, his trainer stuffed the nose with gauze. Taking his time, Cooney scored a TKO in the third round. When Denis went to the hospital after the fight, the E.R. doctor was alarmed. “The blood could have filled up my lungs and I could have died,” Denis recalled.

Cooney was developing a reputation. People started talking about the “great white hope.”

In June of 1980 he faced his first name opponent—Jimmy Young, who, in 1976, took Muhammad Ali the distance, fifteen rounds, before losing on a decision. Ali’s victory in that fight was, by all accounts, a gift from the judges. Young was quicker and smarter and he hit harder. So, when Gerry Cooney beat Young in 1980, on a TKO in the fourth, it was big news. He could now angle for the biggest prize of all. If he could keep winning for a couple more years, he could fight for the championship.

In December, he took on another name fighter, Ron Lyle. Lyle had fought well against two champions, Ali and George Forman. The Forman fight, in 1976, is considered one of the most brutal in modern boxing history; Lyle knocked Forman down before Forman scored a knockout victory in the fifth round. Against Lyle, Cooney was merciless. He cornered him, pressed him against the ropes, and dropped him with a combination to the body. Lyle finally fell through the ropes.

And then there was Ken Norton, who had famously silenced Muhammad Ali by breaking his jaw in 1973—only the second man to defeat Ali. But Cooney knocked Norton down in the first round of their fight in 1981. After slamming him hard with a right on the side of the head, Cooney snapped back Norton’s head with a left hook. After ten more blows, Norton drooped to the canvas. The referee stopped the fight just 54 seconds into the first round.

Nothing felt better than a knockout—total domination.

“I was just, I was blinded. I wasn’t healthy enough to be able to learn more. I had one mode—to fight. Setting the guy up and playing with him and tiring him out a little bit. … I’m a gladiator and he’s a gladiator. I got to stick him with my sword before he sticks me.”

The transitive property of boxing handicappers says that if X beats Y and Y beats Z, then X can beat Z. Since Young almost beat Ali, and Cooney beat Young, Cooney would be competitive with Ali. Since Lyle battled Ali and Forman, and Cooney beat Lyle, Cooney could stand up to those champions. Since Norton beat Ali and Cooney beat Norton, Cooney could beat Ali. Such calculations are a form of magical thinking. But they feed confidence and dreams.

Those knockouts prevented Cooney from getting the training he needed. In his 25 wins before facing Holmes in 1982, Cooney averaged just over three rounds a fight. He spent less than 45 minutes a year actually boxing.

Cooney considered himself a real-life Rocky—even more than Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder who inspired Sylvester Stallone’s movie—because he was a soft-hearted guy who just wanted a chance to prove himself against legions of doubters. In fact, the Rocky character was an underdog and Cooney was dominant.

Still, boxing insiders wondered whether Cooney was for real. Could he take a punch? Did he have a glass jaw? Could he last more than a few rounds? Could he battle the best fighters in the prime of their careers, or does he just beat up tired old men like Jimmy Young and Ken Norton? Does he have the killer instinct? One magazine asked: “Is Gerry Cooney Too Nice to Fight?”

Ultimately, fighting depends on creating a desire to hurt, then directing that desire so it doesn’t become blinding or distorting. Gerry Cooney, the wounded man-child, was trying to figure it all out.

“I’m a survivor. You have what I want, and you want to hurt me. And I’m sick of being hurt. I’m not going to let you do that. I didn’t realize how strong I was.”

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All photographs by Isabel Chenoweth

The Punch

Nothing in sports matches the sheer brutality of an elite boxer’s punch. And no one in boxing threw a deadlier punch than Gerry Cooney’s left hook.

For Cooney to use that left to win the heavyweight championship of the world, he needed to throw a good-enough right and move in the ring enough to find an opening for the left.

Scientists have attempted to assess the force of a punch. A study of seven Olympic boxers—from flyweight to heavyweight—found 447 to 1,066 pounds of force. Another study shows the impact of a boxer’s punch as high as 1,420 pounds of force. That force comes not just from the boxer’s sheer strength, but also on his flexibility and quickness. A big boxer who’s tight and stiff can’t produce as much impact as a smaller boxer who’s lithe and relaxed.

What impact does such a hard hit produce? Researchers estimate that the 1,420-pound punch would produce an impact of 53 g—the equivalent of 53 times the force of gravity. Drop a book on the floor. Now imagine that book falling 53 times harder. Now imagine the body and muscles of the boxer behind that force. That’s the impact of a devastating punch of a heavyweight.

While you’re at it, think of that punch slamming into a skull. Think about a three-pound substance with the texture of tofu, the brain, cradled inside that skull. Think about how that that substance—where, somehow, 100 billion neurons constantly fire, each one making 5,000 to 10,000 connections with other neurons, adding up to an unfathomable 500 neural trillion connections, a never-ending dance that makes a person a person—getting slapped around inside that skull, like a wet sponge getting thrown against a wall. Now think about the jagged edges inside that skull, ripping into the soft brain.

Cooney threw the most devastating left hook since the immortal Joe Lewis. That hook, arcing into the breadbasket, took the wind out of opponents with one direct hit, with a force better than half a ton. That was a good setup for a couple of blows to the head. That’s all it took, really, for Cooney to win. The rest—the dancing and shuffling, the chasing and the play on the ropes—was just for show.

His sparring partners provided the early evidence of Cooney’s education. Cooney towered over those them, stalked them, and then hit them hard. He broke noses and jaws and ribs. It got hard to find sparring partners. Some of those sparring partners had real dreams of their own. Larry Holmes, for example, once apprenticed as Muhammad Ali’s sparring partner. But Cooney was lethal.

“He is the most powerful puncher I’ve ever seen,” said Joe Bugner, one of his sparring partners, who was good enough to last twelve rounds against both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. “Frazier had a more vicious hook, but Cooney’s has more force.”

Gerry Cooney, by now six feet six inches and two hundred and twenty-five pounds, could beat almost any boxer in the world with his left. But no single weapon makes a heavyweight champion. He needed a serviceable right and the ability to move in the ring. Boxing warfare, yes, but it’s also chess-like in its strategy.

So Cooney worked, painstakingly, with Victor Valle to expand his repertoire.

Fight people compared him Cooney to Joe Lewis and to Rocky Marciano and John L. Sullivan, the great hitters of boxing history. They didn’t compare him to Muhammad Ali, who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee and later invented rope-a-dope to trick George Foreman when Forman was the hardest puncher in the business.

Victor Valle wanted Cooney to become a complete boxer. Cooney had a chance to win the heavyweight champion of the world by landing one left hook on an opponent’s guts or jaw. But first he had to get in position to throw that hook. So Valle’s job was to show Cooney how to stay in the fight long enough to get that opportunity.

Cooney’s right was as suspect as the left was devastating. His team, Victor Valle, Mike Jones and Dennis Rappaport, didn’t know what to do about that. Sometimes they had Cooney work exclusively on the right, trying to make it a hammer. Sometimes they told him to use the right for defense. Finally they decided to use it as a shield and setup for the left.

Early in his pro career, they wanted Cooney to use the right as much as possible. They wanted to hide the power of his left, like a hustler playing like a klutz before clearing the table. Back in those early days, Cooney even asked a reporter (me) to avoid writing about him as a natural lefty. Make ’em think all I have is the right and then—bam!—knock ’em out with the left.

Of course, that strategy could never work. Cooney almost never landed a right in racking up a 25-0 record before Holmes. Even if he did use the right more, he couldn’t hide that devastating left if he tried.

Anyway, Cooney needed just an adequate right, not even a good one, to set up the left. “You can’t be a one-handed fighter,” Cooney said. But he was as close as anyone came to just that.

In the days leading up to the Holmes fight in 1982, Cooney still lacked confidence in his right. “If there was anything good that came out of the postponement, it was that I got more time to work on my right,” Cooney said.

As the taught Cooney to throw a serviceable right, he also taught him to be relentless in the ring. Over time, Valle tapped into the anger that Cooney accumulated growing up in an abusive household. “I took a lamb and made him a tiger,” Valle told one reporter, “He used to say, ‘Victor, the guy’s nose is bleeding.’ And I’d say, ‘Get that nose out of the way.’”

“Gerry is a ripper,” Valle said. “He destroyed Dino Dennis and Jimmy Young within the last year. In the past, he was sometimes dainty about hitting his sparring partners, but I told him he is a fighter and that he must win by punching and hurting the other guy in the ring. He’s got the message now. He knows that once a fighter climbs over the ropes into the ring, his life is on a thread. The faster he can get out of there, the better off he is. Now, in the ring, he is a killer. Outside, he is one of the most gentlemanly of people.”

Cooney had that split mindset, like a cracked bell, his whole career. His right was mediocre, his left lethal. He feared no one, but he was running away from the defining reality of his life. He was a sweetheart but a monster in the ring. He wanted the heavyweight title, but he was starting to hate boxing.

Gerry Cooney’s split mindset was never more evident than in the locker room before a fight, when Victor Valle and Gerry Cooney paused for a prayer.

“We put our arms around each other and say the Lord’s Prayer,” Valle told a reporter. “We feel clean and purified after that, like a toreador making a confession to God in case anything happens. You need the prayer to remind you to win in a way without killing the other man.

“Then I talk tough. I tell Gerry, ‘It’s gonna be you or him.’ I say, ‘Let’s go in there and get this man out of the way.’ I say, ‘Let’s kick his butt.’”

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All photographs by Isabel Chenoweth

Circus

Professional boxing was divided into two factions in the early 1980s—the World Boxing Association and the World Boxing Council. Mike Weaver was the WBA champion and Larry Holmes was the WBC champion. Gerry Cooney was the No. 1 challenger in both worlds.

Dennis Rappaport wanted Gerry Cooney to fight Weaver first. He was an easier target and would set him up to fight Holmes and unify the championship of the world. But Mike Jones wanted Cooney to take on Holmes. He was the better fighter—he had been champion for longer than anyone since Joe Lewis—and would bring a bigger payday.

Whoever Cooney fought, his managers demanded parity. The managers claimed that Cooney was about to become the biggest sensation in the wide world of sports.

“Gerry Cooney will be the biggest attraction in sports history,” Rappaport said. “As we reach the top of the mountain and Gerry’s hand is raised as the heavyweight champion of the world, there will be a love affair between the public and Gerry Cooney.”

And: “Gerry loves old people and children. And they love him. It’s almost magical the way people react to Gerry. He has once-in-a-lifetime charisma.”

And: “Instead of getting high on dope, Gerry will make kids get high on life. We’re going to make more converts than Billy Graham.”

And: “What you see with Gerry is what you get. We’re going to sell reality. There’s going to be a love affair between the rest of the world and Gerry Cooney.”

Rappaport predicted that Cooney would be the first billion-dollar athlete in the world. All Rappaport and Jones were demanding was a down payment for that status.

When it came time to negotiate with Holmes, Rappaport and Jones had an advantage. Holmes, an underappreciated champion, wanted respect. Holmes never escaped the shadow of Muhammad Ali. Holmes tried to imitate his mentor, the man who he fought as a sparring partner, but the imitation was needy and unconvincing. Holmes’s mockery of opponents, Ali style, fell flat. Now Holmes was getting old. He wanted to defeat the top-ranked challenger and get one last payday before retiring as the undefeated champion.

Finally, the two sides agreed to fight in the spring of 1982. Each fighter would get 35 percent of the total haul; each was guaranteed at least $10 million. Some of the loot would come from the gate at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, where 32,000 would gather in the desert heat to witness the fight. The rest would come from simulcasts at movie theaters and race tracks.

Cooney was white and Holmes was black. Both sides had egotistical managers who wanted to create a stir. So, of course, race framed the public relations about the fight.

The promoters cast Cooney as the “great white hope,” that hoary old label that went back to Jim Jeffries and the other white fighters who gamely tried to overthrow the black champion Jack Johnson from 1908 to 1915. Ever since, people uncomfortable about blacks and Hispanics, fearful about their own whiteness, had searched for a new great white hope. With the exception of Ingemar Johansson, a Swede who wore the title belt for one year in 1959, Rocky Marciano was the last white to hold the title. He retired in 1956, the year Cooney was born.

Holmes’s manager, Don King, used the race angle for his own purposes. He complained that only a white man would get as much as hype as Cooney against a proud and established champion like Holmes. He laughed at Cooney’s claims to be a real challenger. At the press conference announcing the fight, Holmes leaned over to tell Cooney: “We know it’s a color thing. You’re white. That’s the reason you’re making this much money.”

Cooney dismissed all the race talk as reverse discrimination, hot words in those days for aggrieved white working-class people who thought the civil rights movement had gone too far. But Cooney’s managers—and lots of his followers—loved the angle. His managers talked up his Irish background and Gerry wore Irish caps and shorts with shamrocks.

Muhammad Ali briefly entered the fray. After visiting Cooney at his training camp in Palm Springs, he declared Cooney “great right hope.” Which only angered Holmes more. After that, members of Cooney’s camp wore shirts that read “Not the White Man, but the Right Man.”

Holmes ultimately struck the truest note. “I feel we all got a little prejudice in our hearts,” he said. “I deal with people for what people are worth.”

Ironically, both Cooney and Holmes had used their celebrity to tamp down racial conflict in their hometowns. Faced with violence between black and white gangs in Long Beach, Father Thomas Donahoe, an old Cooney family friend, asked Cooney to come to the Long Island town to talk to both sides. Cooney was also popular among blacks at Gleason’s Gym. “Gerry’s well-liked in here,” said one black fighter. “His head ain’t big, if you know what I mean.”

In his hometown of Easton, Pennsylvania, Holmes once walked into a tense showdown of blacks and whites. “One guy took out a shotgun,” an old Easton friend remembered. “Larry walked up to him and took the gun away. That was the end of it.” But still, Holmes had to defend himself against charges of racism. He pointed out that two of his brothers married white women. “If I was prejudiced what would I say to my little nieces and nephews?” he asked. “How we gonna get together at Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter?”

Competitive and manipulated, Cooney and Holmes grew to detest each other. And each stoked the hatred, taunting each other like drunks at a bar.

After Holmes beat the onetime champion Leon Spinks in June 1981, Howard Cosell interviewed him ringside—and then invited Cooney to join them. To Holmes, it was the ultimate insult, taking attention away from his latest triumph. “Howard, I’m going to slap his face if you bring him over here,” Holmes said before standing and moving toward Cooney. “You come over here we’re going to fight right now, right here,” he said to Cooney. Maybe he meant to be funny, like Ali. But it didn’t work.

Later, Cooney joined Cosell. “It just goes to show what I’ve been saying, that he’s a poor champion,” Cooney said, like a kid who provokes a tussle on the playground and then feigns his innocence. “How does a heavyweight champion of the world conduct himself in such a manner?”

Originally set for April 1982, the title fight got postponed when Cooney injured his left shoulder. So the media had little to do but report the two sides’ charges and countercharges.

They debated whether Cooney was ducking the fight. Old-timers recalled that, in 1950, Rocky Graziano faked an injury to avoid a fight with Jake LaMotta. Holmes dismissed Cooney’s ailment. “Cooney’s sore because he hasn’t fought in a year, that’s why,” he said. ”If you’re a fighter, you’re always going to be sore. I’ve had a big knot in my right arm, it’s been killing me for a couple of weeks, but it never occurred to me to call off the fight.”

But Cooney won the public relations war. When Holmes refused to pose for Sports Illustrated, Cooney landed on the cover—which angered Holmes. Time, meanwhile, put a picture of Cooney and Sly Stallone on the cover. That only angered Holmes more. He walked off the set of a photo shoot with Cooney. Cooney just shrugged, then mugged for the cameras.

In the days leading up to the fight, Americans prepared to embrace a new champion. President Ronald Reagan had a direct phone line installed in Cooney’s dressing room in Caesar’s Palace so he could call to congratulate Cooney after his victory. No such line was installed in Holmes’s dressing room.

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All photographs by Isabel Chenoweth

The Fight

“Stop it!” Victor Valle called out to referee Mills Lane. “Stop it.” But Lane continued to call out the count.

Gerry Cooney hung on the ropes, Daliesque. It was the thirteenth round, and the end of the longest fight in his career was imminent. Cooney grabbed the ropes and pulled himself up.

Lane counted to eight. “His eyes looked clear and I would have continued it,” Lane would later say. “The rule is that if a fighter is held from falling by the ropes, he deserves a count.”

Then Valle rushed into the ring. He wrapped himself around Cooney, ending the fight.

“I didn’t want him to get a beating,” he said. “I love this boy too much for that. I have always said that Gerry was like a son to me. I just did what anybody would do if their son was getting hurt.”

Round 1 : The fight began with Cooney moving slowly, awkwardly, tentatively. Holmes wants respect? Cooney gave him that respect; he was almost deferential to the champion.

Cooney opened with a hello-jab from the left. Holmes, circling, landed two quick left jabs. Cooney swung for Holmes’s midsection, but Holmes evaded the blows with a pirouette. As Cooney moved in, throwing soft arcs, Holmes landed a hard left jab.

In Cooney’s corner after the round, trainer Victor Valle implored him to fight his fight.

“You gotta double-jab, not single-jab, Gerry,” Valle told Holmes between rounds. “Single jab is no good.”

“This guy’s shit. [Be] cool, relaxed. … When he goes wild, don’t go wild with him. Just take your goddamn time.”

Round 2: Holmes came out dancing, avoiding the ropes, where Cooney had trapped and pummeled other, lesser opponents. Cooney held back, looking for an opening but not finding one.

He couldn’t hit Holmes hard. His long, slow punches did little damage. Cooney tried soft right and left. Then, suddenly, Holmes threw a left, past Cooney’s outstretched right, and followed with an overhand right to Cooney’s right forehead.

Cooney stumbled backwards, circling clockwise, spinning to the ground, down to his knees, where he slid and quickly grabbed the rope to get up.

But Holmes could not knock him out. Cooney wobbled on rubbery legs for the last 30 seconds of the round. But he survived.

Round 3: Holmes didn’t dance this time. He lumbered and back-peddled as Cooney stalked him. Cooney cornered the champion but, to Valle’s frustration, abandoned his right hand.

Afterwards, Valle tried the old training technique, isolating a skill for slow-motion analysis. “When you want to throw the right hand, go down,” Valle told him, crouching to demonstrate, “and then throw it,”

Round 4: The crowd began chanting Cooney’s name. Holmes showed no inclination to dance and Cooney, looking for an opening, finally landed a couple of lefts. Holmes responded with a flurry, but Cooney pinned him on the ropes and landed a hard left to the ribs. The two boxers got tangled. The bell rung.

Cooney won the round, but between rounds Valle implored him to move his head to avoid Holmes. To beat Holmes, Cooney needed to make him throw long, empty punches that would tire him. Then he needed to attack. “If you jab once, you gotta jab twice,” he pleaded.

As Cooney moved toward the center of the ring, Valle added one more more piece of advice: “Keep your cool, Gerry.”

Round 5: After Valle coached him in the corner during the break, Cooney sprang up and into the ring and danced. This could be his round.

Cooney chased Holmes and landed some jabs. He scored a left and pushed Holmes into a corner, but Holmes spun out and into the ring again. Cooney moved in again, but in the midst of his retreat Holmes saw an opening and surprised Cooney with a hard overhand right to the chin.

The two traded punches. Some landed, some didn’t. But by the end, Holmes was dancing again.

Round 6: Now Cooney landed a flurry of punches, but Holmes avoided getting pinned against the ropes. So Cooney chased him, jabbing, throwing the occasional roundhouse before connecting with a low blow.

Holmes responded to that low blow with a fury, pounding Cooney’s head with his right, pressing him against the ropes. Cooney staggered, absorbing the blows but refusing to go down. Can Cooney could take a hit? Well, yessir, he can take lots of hits, hard hits, in rapid succession. But he’s got to make Holmes take some hits, too.

By now, Holmes had inflicted real damage, a cut on the corner of Cooney’s left eye. The champion had given himself a target as the bell for round 7 sounded.

Round 7: Cut, Cooney now came after Holmes, with a series of punches. The champion studied the challenger, looking for an opening to reopen his cut. Holmes started dancing again, throwing jabs with his left. When Cooney found a slow rhythm, Holmes interrupted it and resumed his punishing left jabs. But Cooney refused to get backed into the ropes.

Between rounds, Victor Valle was concerned.

“Gerry, you’re standing too fucking straight,” he said. Valle paused as Cooney’s team worked on his bloodied eye. Valle looked at the eye. “It’s not good so you cannot stay straight. You gotta move in. You gotta move in and rough this guy.”

Round 8: But Cooney couldn’t rough Holmes. Halfway into the round, Holmes landed a roundhouse punch and Cooney’s mouthpiece flew out. Holmes quickly pounded his face, but could not close Cooney’s eye.

Cooney now had made it through eight rounds with the champion and his white shamrock trunks were splattered with blood but he was still standing, still had a chance to land one of his 53-g lefts.

Holmes trainer, the legendary Ray Arcel was not pleased to see Cooney still standing with that unexploited cut. He barked at the champion: “Don’t let this bum take your title.”

Round 9: Now the cut got worse. Blood streamed down Cooney’s face. But Cooney’s aggression did not flag. He chased Holmes, landing a salvo of blows to the champion’s midsection. Holmes, in turn, struck Cooney hard with a right. But back came Cooney again, even as Holmes again staggered him with a right.

Then, as Cooney dipped his left shoulder, getting ready to pound Holmes in the midsection, he instead hammered Holmes in the groin.

Holmes doubled over. His mouthpiece flew out.

Referee Miles Lane sent Holmes to his corner to recover. He penalized Cooney two points for the foul. Holmes stayed in his corner for two minutes. “I never had been hurt like that by a low blow before,” Holmes later said. “I never had hurt that way.”

“Cooney was tired,” Lane later said. “He said ‘I’m sorry’ a couple of times.”

Round 10: Gerry Cooney entered the ring with more energy and focus than ever. He hovered over Holmes, tilting to one side and then the other. The fighters exchanged blows. But the evening was getting late. Cooney pummeled Holmes’s body, again and again, but he couldn’t land a decisive blow.

Holmes, pressing his advantage, landed two hard rights and Cooney staggered. Holmes didn’t let up, landing punch after punch. Cooney countered with a combination.

“Now get rough, goddamn it,” Valle screamed. “Get rough!”

Round 11: Cooney landed another low blow, but his fabled left was by now doing little harm. When he summoned all his power, he couldn’t score. He pounded, again and again, at Holmes’s arms, but he had no follow-up. The right? It barely landed, and when it did, it caused no damage.

Round 12: The break before the twelfth brought only desperation from Victor Valle. “Double! Double!” he pleaded, hoping for back-to-back hooks. But Cooney, exhausted, couldn’t deliver.

Holmes now danced like his old mentor Ali, circling Cooney, jabbing at him. Cooney responded with soft lefts that didn’t land. Still, Cooney moved in on Holmes. Finally, Holmes found an opening pounded Cooney’s eye. Cooney couldn’t the punches coming anymore.

Round 13: The final round starts with stupidity. Cooney, bloodied and weakened, called out to Holmes, “Go and get me. You can’t hurt me.” Years later, Cooney cringed at the memory. “I was stupid,” he sys. “Instead of going out and saying, ‘Let me see if I can knock him out.’”

Holmes went into the round with a plan. “I have to make him drunk before he falls,” Holmes told himself.

For a moment Cooney caught a second wind and landed three blows to Holmes’s midsection, but that only enraged Holmes more. Now Cooney’s eye was shut. He took hit after hit. Then his legs wobbled and he went down.

“Stop it!” Victor Valle called out to the referee. “Stop it.” When Lane did not intervene, Valle jumped into the ring and embraced his man.

 

Descent

So the big question confronting Gerry Cooney, as a fighter anyway, was settled in the desert on June 11, 1982. Yes, Gerry Cooney can fight; he can battle the heavyweight champion of the world; he may even become the heavyweight champion.

But behind the scenes, the mythology that Cooney built—of a happy young man, fighting to honor his dad’s memory—disintegrated.

After the fight, Gerry Cooney embraced the life of a celebrity. He laughed and drank and did drugs. He charmed and slept around. Fair enough: celebrities will be celebrities. But then came reports that suggested a breakdown. Cooney found himself in bar fights, once getting arrested for disorderly conduct.

Even more disconcerting to his supporters, Cooney seemed to run away. He refused to return phone calls from his managers or trainer. He refused to train.

Dennis Rappaport called. Mike Jones called. Victor Valle called. “Time to get in the ring again, Gerry,” they said. “Let’s get training again. We’ll beat Holmes next time.”

But Cooney didn’t return any calls. He wondered whether he even liked boxing anymore. Boxing was the vehicle to vent rage and prove his dad wrong. But now he was emotionally exhausted.

“I haven’t even heard from him since right after the fight,” Valle told reporters. “I’m very surprised. I’m very hurt. … I wish he’d stop playing around and get himself in the gym.”

Valle continued: “We did a lot of hard work for six years to let it go just like that. I’m not thinking about the money. I never did. I was born poor, and I’ll go with nothing. He had money before, too. I don’t think the money changed him. He was never a starving fighter. When he fought, he had money. And he’d make even more money if he comes back and wins the title.”

Once celebrated on magazine covers, Cooney’s disappearance opened him to ridicule. Bert Randolph Sugar, the editor and publisher of Ring, cracked: “He has taken his money and gone to Venezuela, as Harry Belafonte was wont to say. … In Vegas against Holmes he was a one-armed fighter. He turned out to be more white hype than white hope.”

Even though people still wanted a piece of him—for cruises, celebrity golf, TV shows, endorsements—he heard boos for the first time.

Years later, Cooney remembered his retreat. At his moment of triumph—he lost the fight but proved the doubters wrong—Cooney crashed.

“All the bad shit in my life came back to me. My father told me I was worthless and I was always trying to prove him wrong. But now I was walking that line, drinking and partying. Psychologically there was some kind of fear inside of me.”

Gerry didn’t fight again until September 1984. He won two fights with TKO’s that year.

In December 1985 Cooney got in a fight outside a bar in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He got disorderly conduct charges dismissed by agreeing to fight a four-round bout for charity.

He didn’t get into a ring until May 1986, when he knocked out Eddie Gregg in the first round. His life got more toxic. Cooney drank and smoked throughout training. He only stopped a week before his bouts.

In June 1987, five years after his courageous fight against Holmes, Cooney lost to Michael Spinks, Leon’s younger brother, on a TKO in the fifth round.

Any other time, Cooney would have demolished Spinks. Spinks beat an aging Holmes two years before, in 1985, to become the first light heavyweight champion to win a heavyweight title since 1908. Spinks beat Holmes again in a split decision and then TKO’d Steffan Tangstad, a two-time European champion. But Spinks didn’t care about the heavyweight title. When he refused to fight the top challenger, Tony Tucker, he was stripped of his title. He didn’t care. He wanted the bigger purse that a fight with a floundering Cooney would bring.

Cooney lumbered around the ring. Spinks circled to his left and pounded Cooney with a flurry of rights and enough lefts to keep Cooney exposed. Cooney had his reliable weapon—that left hook, hitting the midsection first—but he was no match for Spinks’s many weapons.

Cooney always drank and smoked during training. His joke to the naïve reporter years before—that he trained by drinking—was now actually true. Before previous fights, he stopped partying a week before his fights. This time he stayed out late, drinking, until the very day of the fight. He was fat and sluggish, his eyes bloodshot, when he entered the ring against a lithe and quick Michael Spinks.

“It took two and a half years to make the fight happen and I just gave up,” Cooney remembered decades later, in the basement den, the walls filled with magazine covers documenting his fame. “I was drinking and not taking care of myself. I was drinking until the fight. That was my one regret.

“He didn’t belong in the ring with me,” Cooney said of Spinks. “I cut him. But I was so out of it, I didn’t finish him off. If I cut you, you’re dead. I was a good finisher. I was not prepared mentally. Because I was numbed out, I was not there for the fight.”

 

Bottom

Later that year, Gerry Cooney got into an argument with his brother Tom.

“He got drunk and came to my house and was waving a gun around and I called the police and I popped him,” Cooney says. “This lady’s at my house. She looked at me. ‘What you looking at me for?’ I had a drink in my hand.” Today he no longer remembers who she was or why she was there.

But looking at the glass of Scotch—he was drinking before lunchtime, as usual—Cooney couldn’t ignore his problems anymore.

“What’s going on with my life?” he remembers asking himself, in his plaintive whisper.

That night Cooney turned on TV and saw a story of an alcoholic who quit drinking and saved his life. Cooney called a rehab place in the Hamptons but hesitated. He wasn’t ready to check himself in.

For whatever reason, it wasn’t so hard to go to AA. He says it wasn’t hard to make the declaration: “Hi, I’m Gerry and I’m an alcoholic.”

So he sat in a circle with other alcoholics—celebrities, Wall Street traders, executives, housewives, working class people—and declared his shortcomings and asked for help.

Was it tough?

“No,” he says. “You got to understand, [life] wasn’t working for me. I was just tired of it.”

Most recovering alcoholics get cocky after a few months of sobriety. One of his AA friends warned Cooney about that: Oh, oh, careful. You’ll probably think you have this thing beat after a few months. But you won’t.

True enough, Cooney started drinking again within three months. He was back in his old ways, drinking all day, quarreling, avoiding his managers, regretting his blown opportunity. His anger at his father—and his mother for enabling him and his siblings for not doing much better—festered.

Finally, he hit bottom for real. He went back to AA. He quit drinking again on April 21, 1988. He’s been sober ever since.

Cooney got therapy, but he credits AA for saving his life. “AA gives you specific things to do,” he says. He started going to meetings every day. He still goes to five meetings a week at 6:30 in the morning. He smiles. “You know you’re a real alcoholic when you show up that early,” he says.

By the time he joined AA for good, Gerry Cooney was retired for the second time. But he came out of retirement in 1990, at the age of thirty-three, to fight George Foreman, the former champion.

The two heavy hitters looked flabby in the ring: “Rocky” meets “Grumpy Old Men.” They circled each other slowly. Cooney caught Foreman in the first round with his trademark left to the body and a right to the head and boxed him in a corner.

“I hadn’t fought in years and I got caught with an uppercut, instead of moving,” he remembered years later. “It wouldn’t have happened to me today.”

But something was different now.

“I was in good shape. I never did it sober before. I hadn’t drank in less than a year. You need more time. … My timing wasn’t there and I got caught with a shot.”

Foreman knocked him out in the second round. Cooney left the fight—and his career—a loser but clear-headed for the first time.

“I realized I never liked fighting,” he says. “But I was sober now, straightened out.”

“What it did for me, it helped me turn the page. OK, I’ve had a great time. I walked through this experience, 100 percent the right away. I got knocked down, I got up and dusted off my pants.”

And you were free for the first time in your life?

“Right.”

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All photographs by Isabel Chenoweth

Giving Back

Despite years of abuse from his father, a struggling family, the Wacko Twins, Don King’s taunts, alcoholism and drug problems, loveless affairs, Gerry Cooney calls himself one of the lucky ones.

He made millions and kept his brain. Twenty years ago he married Jennifer Richards, a beautiful blonde from Jersey with a degree in finance from New York University. A friend arranged a double date. He was set up with another woman—“a bimbo,” he laughs—but walked out holding Jennifer’s hand. She has given him two children and a claim on the suburban dream. He lives in a big house on a hill in Fanwood and putters around town most days. He waves to the other dads and barbers and PTA moms. He makes money by giving talks and playing golf with corporate executives.

He has become friends with some of his opponents. After those ugly months before and after their 1982 title fight, he and Holmes are friends now. They get together for events to commemorate the fight, which grows in stature over time.

Cooney has become part of the iconography of his times. People recognize him wherever he goes. He was a character on an episode of “The Simpsons”:

 

Gerry: Hello. I’m retired heavyweight boxer Gerry Cooney. Welcome to Mr. Burns’ Casino! If there’s anything I can do to make your visit more enjoyable, please just let me know.

Otto: Er, great. See ya!

Gerry: Uh, don’t forget to apply for our V.I.P. Platinum Club for special discounts on—

Otto: Hey! I said, bug off!

(Otto punches him in the jaw, and he collapses)

 

The 1982 fight with Larry Holmes inspired “The Great White Hype,” a Samuel L. Jackson film. Cooney played the bit part of a cake maker in “The Mob Queen,” a 1998 comedy about a mobster’s attempt to give a crime boss a birthday present. For a while, he was a part owner of three different minor-league baseball teams. He sold his stakes when he met Jennifer. “It was just too much travel,” he says now.

Other boxers don’t do so well. Few make or keep much money. Few avoid alcohol and drug abuse. Few maintain healthy relationships. Few get an education. Few have trustworthy agents or advisors. Cooney shakes his head when the troubles of other boxers—struggling with mental illness, drugged out or drunk, sleeping in cardboard boxes—make headlines.

For years Cooney lent his name to Hands Are Not For Hitting campaign against domestic violence. He works with young boxers, men and women, who struggle with their own demons of abuse.

Despite decades of scandals—stealing by promoters, death in the ring, corruption in the governing bodies—no one has established any real structure or rights for the fight business. And so, in 1998, Cooney started an organization to provide counseling and job services to boxers. FIST—Fighters Initiative for Support and Training—worked with 300 boxers. Caseworkers arrange counseling for substance abuse, job training, and the trauma of mangled careers and families. The organization ceased operations in 2007 after problems of nonprofit certification with federal and state authorities.

Fighters are so burned that they never trust anyone. Many scam the very people who try to help. Cooney recalls one ex-boxer who submitted a $350 taxi bill for a job-counseling meeting that he never attended.

“He was trying to con me,” Cooney says. “Sometimes they just don’t want to work.”

He pauses, ponders the fighter’s curse. “Fighters were screwed over in life, so they come in and want to screw others,” he says. “It’s a process. You have to understand that. All they do is fight in life. They’ve got to learn structure, aptitude tests, what you want to do. You have to work on commitment and showing up. Case managers [have to say], ‘Don’t bullshit me.’”

Cooney doesn’t have sympathy for everyone. Asked about Mike Tyson, he told The New York Times in 2011: “People feel sorry for him. I don’t. When you get to be around 27, you have to realize it’s almost over. You have to start to protect yourself. He never did that. So he lost everything. He made $300 million. And he’s broke.”

Politicos in New Jersey once asked Cooney to take over as chairman of the State Athletic Control Board, an $80,000 no-show job long on ceremony and short on substance. Cooney considered it but declined. New Jersey politics? Who needs it?

Cooney works with troubled kids in Paterson. He teaches boxing and life skills, eats pizza, and talks. “I help them get rid of their energy,” he says. “Once they get rid of their anger, they don’t need to fight any more.” They can make more selling drugs than working at Walgreens. Cooney tells them there’s a third way—learn boxing with him, then teach others.

“They can say they learned boxing from Gerry Cooney,” he says. “It’s really hard for them. I do what I can do. I let them know my story. ‘You’re not the only one. You have to work.’”

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All photographs by Isabel Chenoweth

Zen Master

Every Saturday morning Cooney teaches middle-aged men—on one morning a few years ago it was a high-tech financier, a lawyer, and a magazine editor—the sweet science. They go to the basement of a club called Fist2Fist and spar. Cooney, now in his late fifties but still rock hard, works them intensely for two hours. The men go against Cooney for three rounds at a time.

“Oooooooooooahhhhh!” Cooney says, his voice rising, as the business professionals pursue him. He pads softly with his cantaloupe-sized fists. He always leads with his left.

“Ahhhhhh! You trying to hit Cooney?” He chuckles. “Ooooooohhh!” His voice rises. He laughs out loud again.

He encourages his charges to move, hold their gloves up, chase him, look for openings. One gets frustrated with Cooney’s easy deflection of his best hits. He chases Cooney, who backs around the room, off the mat and into a corner and along the mirrored wall and back onto the mat again. Cooney laughs, ooooohhhhs, baits the high-tech executive, who gets more and more upset. Cooney soothes his feelings.

“Watch the hook, bro! I’m trying to get you guys to understand, you gotta fight your fight. Don’t let me fight my fight. … Head down! It’s right there, bro. Good, relax. Have fun! Have fun! Why do it unless you have fun?”

Later, he reflects on the middle-aged boxers, especially one who got angry with Cooney’s challenges.

“He’s very hard on himself, a lot like me in a lot of ways. He was really frustrated because he never had this and now he wants more of it. He wants to be 20 again. So I keep checking him. I teach them how to work all the fear and what’s going to happen and how to react.

“No one gave me that, if I had someone who gave me that, I would have been 50 percent better.”

For Cooney, the real lesson is not becoming more ferocious, but relaxing and having fun—forgetting about distractions and regrets, concentrating for a brief moment on boxing.

See, something strange has happened in the years since Gerry Cooney boxed for a living.

First, he has admitted that he doesn’t even like boxing. Never did, in fact. Fighting was a vehicle to please his implacable father and to do something for himself—to vent his rage and confusion. So good riddance to all that.

And yet, the sport is so much of his life, he can’t get away from it. He can’t help but shadow-box with strangers. People come up to him—in Starbucks, on the Little League field, in the barber shop—wanting to talk about boxing. At a Starbucks, a couple of twentysomething Wall Street types nervously approached Cooney after whispering and hesitating for several minutes. They introduced themselves and Cooney responded like they were long-lost cousins. He gave them his phone number and told them to come to his gym and train. They left dazed.

Cooney’s hate-love relationship with boxing is like Andre Agassi’s with tennis. For both, the sport brought fear and anger and frustration and abuse—but it also brought achievement and wealth and fame and esteem. Once they go all in, sport becomes as much a part of an athlete as blood or sinews. Rather than clinging to that hatred—and continuing to hate themselves—Cooney and Agassi have come to appreciate their sport’s torturous beauty.

For as long as he lives, Cooney won’t have to worry about working or money or winning friends. He can avoid most of the hassles of everyday life. He glides from his comfortable home to celebrity events, from Little League games to talks on cruise ships.

He never won the big fight and wasted the most devastating punch in modern boxing history. He remains a joke to wise guys who want to talk about the great white hope who blew his chance. He knows his fame is based on something that happened a quarter-century ago. He knows boxing made him who he is—first a striver, a pleaser; then an international success; then a tragic, destructive figure; then a story of redemption and faith.

But that’s not how he wants to close the story. After boxing the New York lawyers and businessmen, Cooney returned to his home. In a den filled with mementos of his career, he talked about boxing and alcoholism and abuse, family and luck and redemption.

It’s a good thing, Cooney now says, that Holmes beat him at Caesar’s Palace all those years ago. The consequences of winning—a world of fake friendships and impossible expectations—would have plunged him into even deeper despair and denial.

“If I won that fight, I’d be dead now,” he said.

He pronounced himself happy, for the first time. Then got in his car and got lunch at a deli downtown, bantered at a barber shop, and drove to the Little League field to see his son Jackson play.

On the drive, he punched in a song by Jackson Browne, the 1970s California balladeer. It was “Somebody’s Baby.”

“You know we named Jackson after him?”

He sang along, not at all self-conscious about his choice of the sensitive troubadour of the 1970s. Somehow, that goofy personage that enchanted sportswriters in the 1980s was back. But he wasn’t faking the merriment this time. He has grown up, put away the water pistols. He’s not acting, or acting out, any more. Now he is just happy to be.

At the Little League game, he sat with his wife in lawn chairs behind the backstop, soaking sun and greeting other parents. He wore a wool Irish cap and sunglasses. His father-in-law stopped by. They talked about the deep counts and the overthrows. His daughter, Sarah Elizabeth, still wearing her outfit from a ballet lesson earlier that day, danced loops near the adults. A second son, Christopher, was somewhere else this day. Gerry reached into a cooler for a soft drink.

Gerry Cooney has always liked telling corny jokes. He used to love the one about his dream that he ate a giant marshmallow and woke up to find his pillow gone.

These days, his jokes are like Zen koans, stories designed to tease out complex human truths.

“A guy’s in the boat with God. God is steering and the guy’s rowing. The guy gets tired and says, ‘God, can I steer?’ And God says, ‘Yeah, but I don’t row.’”

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