'I was in this tough household. A lot of abuse. And boxing helped me' - 'Irish' Gerry Cooney meets Eamon Carr
Boxing legend Cooney is happy to have lived the heavyweight dream and lived to tell the tale
Heavyweight boxer Gerry Cooney made his pro debut with a first-round knock-out when he was 21. Within four years he’d stopped 22 opponents in 25 fights. The rest he won on points.
Gerry, from an American-Irish Long Island family, was a ferocious human wrecking ball, with a destructive left hook.
In 1981, it took him just 54 seconds to leave Ken Norton a battered heap in the corner.
“If Norton came forward, he was a killer,” recalls Gerry. “I thought it was going to go ten rounds that night. When I went out, I always wanted to touch the guy with a shot and let him feel my power. He buckled little a bit and I thought, “What the f**k was that about?’”
Gerry supplied the answer to the question.
“So I spun him into the corner and went to work on him a little bit to see what happens,” he says casually. “Once I caught him with the uppercut, it was over.”
Ron Lyle was another title contender he dispatched in the first. Jimmy Young was put away in the fourth.
In his emerald green trunks, Irish Gerry blasted his way up the rankings.
And here he is at 62, on a Sunday morning, working his way around St Saviour’s BC on Dorset Street, showing the young boxers a few tricks of the trade, sharing valuable coaching tips and generously giving his time.
“I’m very lucky to have had this opportunity,” says Ethan Charles, a 60kg novice. “He showed me how to jab and cross and punch correctly.”
But Gerry isn’t finished.
“Hit that,” he says, working the pads. “Stay back. Nice and easy, baby. That’s a great jab. It’s going to take you places.”
Rivie McCormack is from Irish boxing royalty.
The young Dubliner knows her way around a ring. But here’s Gerry encouraging her to get in close, drop her shoulder and sink a right body blow into the heavy bag.
“They can’t hit you there,” he advises. “Now come across with the left. That’s it.”
As Gerry delivers a two-fisted demonstration, the thuds are sickening. If the heavy bag had a rib cage, we’d be taking it to hospital.
Later, over a mug of decaf coffee, Gerry explains, “I had somebody to help me. I was in this tough household. A lot of abuse. And boxing helped me.
“But there was always somebody there to help me along. So I want to be that guy today to help some kid be a little better and not take that right hand on the chin.”
The big man (he’s 6’6”) pauses as his troubled past flashes before his eyes and then adds quietly, “I get a chance to do that everyday. You can’t beat that.”
In June 1982, Gerry got a shot at the WBC world title.
The man he met in the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas was Larry Holmes, who’d already staged eleven successful defences of the title he’d won four years earlier when he beat Ken Norton on a split decision over 15 torrid rounds.
Among those Holmes had denied were Earnie Shavers, Muhammad Ali (in his second last fight), Leon Spinks and Trevor Berbick.
Always hip to the main chance, promoter Don King dubbed Cooney ‘The Great White Hope’, which added an unsavoury edge of racial tension to the already feverish mix.
Holmes (39-0) versus Cooney (25-0), two unbeaten giants unleashing hell on each other in the sweltering heat, was the mega-fight of its day.
Cooney, who was docked three points for low blows, could have been ahead on two of the judges’ cards by the time Holmes unveiled a technique or two that the challenger hadn’t counted on.
Gerry’s cornerman, Victor Valle, waved it over in the 13th.
Beaten for the first time, Gerry had difficulty coming to terms with the loss.
Knowing it had been close, he cut loose on the party fuel that signalled the start of a seven-year-long lost weekend.
Despite a sense of injustice at having been denied a rematch, Cooney became friends with Holmes.
When I remark that this speaks well of Gerry’s character, he looks at me with compassion.
“Listen, when you’re fighting and the bell rings, he has a sword and I have a sword,” he begins. “He wants to kill me and I want to kill him first.
“But old fighters, we all have this camaraderie. You understand the drill, the struggle, the pain and what we went through. After the fight’s over, you make peace and be grateful you had the opportunity.”
“Holmes was a better man that night,” adds Gerry. “He was one of the best heavyweights of all time. But he knew I was in there with him. The thing is that we made it through and survived it.”
The big man didn’t just survive and go on to marry and have a wonderful family. Unlike many, Gerry held on to his money.
“I knew the rainy day was coming,” he reveals. “And I hated the rainy day because my old man was going to come home and I had to face him.
“Ninety nine percent of fighters wind up broke. I knew it was a going to end sometime and I wanted to be secure. So I protected myself. So I had this guy watch that guy.
“You think that was easy?” he asks. “It was hard. Every day I got in the room with five big sparring partners that wanted to kick my ass. Every day. So I had to keep developing.
“I knew what I was doing was hard. I was alone. I was in there with strangers, looking to hurt me all the time. I wanted to be safe. You think I ain’t going to f**kin’ look after my s**t?
These days, Katie Taylor is one of the fighters who’s grabbed Gerry’s attention.
“She’s great,” he enthuses. “She’s beautiful and she’s talented. I love what she does.
“I love what she’s done for women’s boxing but she needs to have someone help her grow a little more in the game because she’s in the upper echelons and can’t get away with yesterday’s talent.”
What would Gerry recommend?
“I worry that she’s still fighting a little bit like an amateur fighter,” he says. “You got to do some different things when you turn pro. Because you’re meeting these women who’ve been fighting for a while. You got to keep changing.”
He had to experience some painful memories for his book, Gentleman Gerry: A Contender in the Ring, A Champion in Recovery.
“I learned five things,” he says. “I was no good. I was a failure. I was not going to amount to anything. Don’t trust nobody. And don’t tell nobody your business. I had to unlearn that.”
He’s also made peace with his biggest regret.
“Michael Spinks didn’t belong in the ring with me,” he says. “If I’m in shape, I eat him, I tear through him.
“I was a walking dead man that night and that’s my big regret. We got to let those mistakes go. If I live with those mistakes, I’m never going to go nowhere.”