Through Their Eyes:
Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney
By Thomas Hauser
On June 11, 1982, Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney entered the ring at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas for one of the most highly anticipated fights of all time. In some respects, Holmes-Cooney marked the long-overdue end of an era. It was the last major championship bout to be marketed – and not subtly – as black versus white.
Cooney was “the great white hope.” He didn’t want it that way. Ironically, years later, he would learn that one of his maternal great-grandmothers was black. And Holmes was angry, believing that his journey through boxing had been on a road paved with jagged glass while Cooney had traveled on a red carpet.
Millions of words have been written about Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney. But the two men who did battle that night have a unique perspective. I talked with them recently. The memories that they shared with me follow.
In the Dressing Room Before the Fight
Holmes: I did what I always did to get ready . . . Wait for the time to go by . . . Stretch . . . Shadow box . . . Stay limber . . . Work up a sweat . . Windmill both arms . . . Then someone came in and said, “Larry, it’s time to go.” I asked, “Is Cooney out yet?” The guy said no. And I told him, “I ain’t going first. I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” He said, “That’s the way they want to do it.” And I said, “It’s not the way I’m doing it. I’m the champ. Hell, no.” So Cooney went first. And right before I left for the ring, I said a prayer, “Lord; don’t let me hurt him, and don’t let him hurt me.” I wanted to knock him out. But I never wanted to hurt anyone in boxing so that they weren’t okay after the fight was done.
Cooney: I was angry about the black-white thing, the way it had been built up and the way Holmes had talked about me. There was nothing I could do except keep my mouth shut and not make it worse. But I was so mad that it was the first time in my career I didn’t have butterflies in the dressing room before a fight. I just wanted to go out and hit him.
The Ring Walk
Holmes: Walking to the ring, I saw a lot of white people and a lot of people wearing green. There was people shouting, “Nigger; he’s gonna kick your ass.” They hated me when I fought Ali. And they hated me when I fought Cooney, but this was a different kind of hate. I kept saying to myself, “Don’t lose your concentration. Stay focused on the fight.”
Cooney: I heard the crowd and knew it was behind me. I couldn’t see the top of the stands. They seemed to go on forever. People were reaching out to touch me, grabbing at me. I tried to stay focused and went through my game plan. Use the jab, get inside, everything I had to do to win the fight.
The Ring Introductions
Holmes: They introduced me first. That was wrong. I was the champ. I didn’t know they were going to do that. All I could do was say to myself, “Okay, it’s done. There’s nothing you can do to change it now. But when you leave the ring, you’re still gonna be the champ.”
Cooney: I knew they were going to introduce Larry first. That was Rappaport and Jones [Cooney’s co-managers, Dennis Rappaport and Mike Jones] and Don King [Holmes’s promoter]. I couldn’t have cared less.
Referee Mills Lane’s Instructions
Holmes: I remember Gerry looking down during the instructions. And when we touched gloves, I told him, “Let’s have a good fight.” A lot of people were paying a lot of money to see Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney fight. I wanted them to get their money’s worth.
Cooney: I wasn’t looking down. When I fought someone, the last impression I wanted them to have of me before the fight started was of me looking at their body, at their ribs because that’s where the punches would be coming. Then Mills Lane said, “Let’s get it on,” and Larry said, “Let’s have a good fight.” I still wanted to hurt him. But right then, all the racism went out the window. This was a fight, two guys trying to beat each other. That’s all it ever should have been, not a big racial thing.
Holmes: In the second round, I threw a one-two that landed on the button and knocked him down. But I still had to be careful because Gerry was a big puncher and he had a lot left. There was a punch he hit me with – a left hook to the body [in round four] – that hurt me bad. The bell went “ding” and ended the round a second after that, which was good because I wasn’t feeling so good right then. And the other time he hurt me was with a low blow [in round nine]. The referee gave me time to recover and deducted two points. Gerry was strong. He hit hard. But I wore him down. I was beating on him pretty good when Victor Valle [Cooney’s trainer] stopped it [in the thirteenth round]. The way I felt at the time, I wished it had ended with Gerry on his back and the referee counting to ten. But I’d won so I was happy.
Cooney: So much of what I’d heard before the fight was, I couldn’t go the distance. And I fell into that trap. I worried too much about going the distance instead of fighting my fight. In the second round, I got dropped. I remember asking myself, “What are you doing down here?” I know I hurt him a couple of times, but he covered up how hurt he was. Mills Lane took a couple of points away from me. That was deflating. I should have told myself, “Okay; I’m going to knock him out.” Instead, I got discouraged. By the thirteenth round, I was tired and I was almost like, “Go ahead; hit me. You can’t hurt me.” Victor Valle wasn’t going to let that happen and stopped the fight. Larry had all the tools. He was patient. He was a very smart fighter. His experience won it for him. The truth is, I wasn’t ready for him that night. I needed a few more fights.
The Next Day
Holmes: The next day, Gerry and I did an interview with Howard Cosell. Before it started, I told him, “You’re a good fighter. You fought a good fight. Don’t let people get you down.” You know how people are. The critics, the boxing writers who don’t know s— about boxing. A lot of them turned on Gerry after he lost. “Gerry Cooney is a bum. Gerry Cooney can’t fight.” Trust me. Gerry Cooney could fight. I know. I was in the ring with him. If Gerry Cooney was young and fighting today, he’d be the best in the world. He was one of the best back then. It’s just that he fought a guy who had more than he did that night.
Cooney: I really thought I was going to win the fight. When I lost, I didn’t know how to process the emotion. It seemed worse than it was. I felt like a failure. I kept thinking about all the people I’d let down. My father beat me every day when I was a kid and told me I was nothing. I try not to think about that today. I’ve dealt with it and come to terms with my past. But the day after the fight, I was thinking maybe my father was right. It didn’t help that the doctor who stitched me up after the fight had booze on his breath.
Holmes: There was a distance between me and Gerry after we fought. But I called him from time to time. I do that with some of the guys I fought, just to talk. Win or lose, we shared something important. Then, after a while, Gerry and I started showing up for each other at events and got to know each other as people. I learned about some of the problems he had in his personal life. And I respected the fact that he dealt with his problems in a good way. He doesn’t let the bull—- life throws at you get to him anymore. And the way I feel now; I like Gerry. He’s fun to be with; he’s articulate; he’s a good guy. I’m a nice guy too, so it makes sense that we should like each other.
Cooney: Larry Holmes was one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. He was a real champion. As time went by, I came to understood that it was a good fight; that I belonged in the ring with Larry that night. Then he reached out to me and things got good between us. You know; more people in the world were paying attention to Larry and me than anything else that happened that night. That’s pretty cool, knowing I was part of that. Looking back, I appreciate now that it was part of my life journey. I wish I’d performed better. But I’m fortunate to have been part of boxing history and to have had that moment.
Former heavyweight boxer Gerry Cooney and boxing writer Thomas Hauser join Gametime with Boomer to discuss Gerry’s book Gentleman Gerry: A Contender in the Ring, a Champion in Recovery. VIEW THE SHOW BELOW.
Thomas Hauser’s email address is [email protected]. The above article is excerpted from his book -There Will Always be Boxing – published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.