At the Convention Hall in Atlantic City last Sunday, 23-year-old Gerry Cooney sat in his emerald-green dressing gown and laughed and laughed from pure euphoria. What had just opened in front of him was the high road to the heavyweight championship of the world.
And to think that only a few days earlier his name had failed to ring a bell of recognition in the hotel where he was staying, a stone's throw down the boardwalk from the ring in which he had just fought. At that earlier time, wearing a tired, unbelieving expression and looking all the more gloomy because of his thick black mustache, he had been explaining on the phone that all he wanted was some pineapple juice. There was 6'5" of him draped over the bed in the Boardwalk Regency Hotel. He was thirsty and hot after three rounds of sparring, and room service seemed bent on reading him the whole cocktail list.
"No," he said patiently, breaking into the recital, "nothing alcoholic, just pineapple. Listen, could I have it fast? This is, uh, Gerry Cooney, the boxer. Fighting here this weekend." At the other end, a gabble. "No, C-o-o-n-e-y," he said. Score Round 1 to room service.
But very soon Gerry Cooney could be on his way to heights where such ignominious treatment would be unthinkable, where calling room service would be someone else's chore. He was undefeated in his 22 fights as a pro, had scored 18 knockouts. Some people had reservations about the quality of the opposition he'd faced, but he was the No. 1 heavyweight contender in the eyes of the WBA and No. 3 according to the WBC. And now, against 31-year-old Jimmy Young, Cooney was facing his biggest test to date. With a good win against Young he could take off.
But Jimmy Young a test? The Incredible Bulk, the flaccid, overweight travesty of the Young who had beaten George Foreman in 1977, who had come so close to taking Muhammad Ali's title in '76? The Young who seemed finished after his two successive losses to Osvaldo Ocasio? Who in June '79 waddled into the ring in Madison Square Garden to fight Wendell Bailey weighing 235 pounds? Whose last fight, against Don Halpen in McAfee, N.J. in March, was just part of the undercard?
No, not that Jimmy Young at all, insisted George Benton, the ex-Philadelphia middleweight who trained Leon Spinks for his winning fight against Ali and who has handled Young's last three fights, including a win in London over John L. Gardner, the British Commonwealth heavyweight champion. Benton displayed his fighter in the gym last week at Pleasantville, a short ride from Atlantic City. "Looks like Hercules, don't he?" Benton proclaimed. "From what he used to look, I mean. Weight's right down. He was 220 yesterday. And at that weight he is formidable!"
Cooney knew he would not be meeting old fatty Young, but the new, trimmer model. "He's getting back into it, so I think it's time for him to go," Cooney said. "He can make it difficult for anyone he fights—make it, kind of, not a very powerful fight. He knows how to get away from punches."
And what Cooney had to offer, above all else, was his power punch, his big left hook. "He'll stop him in six," Cooney's co-manager, Mike Jones, forecast before the Young fight.
"I just hope to win," was as far as Cooney himself would go, although he conceded that he had been a little irritated by Young's reported remark that all Cooney had was one big punch and that "I've been in with punchers all my life."
"So what does he want to worry about me for?" Cooney demanded. "But I sure think he's going to have to worry. I'm getting up for this fight." To prove it, he had gone through 150 rounds of sparring in training. It was the hardest he had ever worked, he said.
It was almost all in vain, though. Out at the Pleasantville Recreation Center last Thursday afternoon, a ringside chair had collapsed under Cooney. "We gave the good ones to the Senior Citizens," the janitor said, apologetically. Cooney himself sat on the ground, uninjured, holding the pieces of the chair uncomprehendingly, like King Kong holding bits of airplane on top of the Empire State Building.
That was the afternoon's only note of farce, though. After sparring, Cooney attacked the light bag so ferociously that it deflated. "Finest destroyer of a light bag in the world today," Jones said with proprietary pride. "Anybody got chewing gum?" Cooney demanded laconically. "I've got a dollar-a-day habit."
Young, meanwhile, had been laconic in the gym, too, yawning hugely and quitting the light bag a minute before Benton had him scheduled to do so. "He ain't busy enough," Benton said unhappily. But certainly Young looked far fitter than he did last year—smooth, serene, maybe a touch pudgy, but then he always looked a little pudgy. "Long as he don't come in over 230..." said Benton, a worrier.
He needn't have worried. On Saturday, Young weighed in at 223; Cooney, four inches taller, at 224½. It looked as if it would be a real test, after all.
Young must have known he had to be ready; if this fight turned out to be the big hello for Cooney, it would be the long goodby for him. His future would be fighting for smaller and smaller purses, lower and lower on the undercard. He looked glowingly fit, but from the start of the bout he made it clear that the tactics expected of him—keeping low, keeping out of trouble, lasting the 10 rounds and hoping for a decision—were not going to be used.
Don King, the promoter, had loudly announced, "I am staying just for this first round." But even though it proved as tentative as most first rounds, there was enough in it to keep King in his seat. The round was Cooney's all the way. He scored with enough lefts to win it clearly. But Young kept coming at him, pushing in short body jabs with either hand. Some of the jabs looked suspiciously low, and a second in Cooney's corner screamed, "If he hits you low again, take his head off, Gerry!" It was going to be a test, all right.
The referee seemed to see nothing, though, and in the middle of the second round, Young was able to unleash what his trainer, not so secretively, had talked of as his secret weapon—a big right coming over the top. "I've got to get out of here," said King at the end of the round. But he stayed in his seat.
What he saw in the third round was enough to keep that electrified-looking hair of his standing straight up for years to come: Cooney coming out of his corner blazing, hammering Young into the ropes, setting Young up with rights, coming down on the body, staggering Young with lefthand blows to his head. Then, about a minute into the round, Cooney threw a straight right lead followed by a left uppercut. The second might have been the more powerful blow, but the first cut Young over the right eye, toward the bridge of the nose. All through the round, Young was in deep trouble, but he courageously kept on counterpunching while Cooney showed he could swing that long body of his out of trouble in a way more speedy, more deft than had been anticipated.
There was something else new, too. That right hand of Cooney's. Where did those enormously effective rights come from?
Later, Cooney explained. He'd long known about his weakness on the right side, he said, and he'd gone to one of the New York Islanders' physicians about it. "He put me on a weight-training program," said Cooney, "and he developed my right shoulder muscle."
In the fourth, the terrible drubbing went on. Young, surprisingly, was staying out of his foxhole, standing up, fighting back—but the bleeding from his cut grew worse. The fight couldn't last. The punishment Young was taking was too much. And before the bell could ring for the fifth round, it was over. The ringside doctor called it off. And Don King was still in his seat.
"People have been skeptical, huh? Well, maybe today we made a few believers," Cooney said afterward. It now seems inevitable that a shot at one of the world titles—more than likely that of the WBA's Mike Weaver—will come this year. The test that Gerry Cooney passed with such ease last weekend should've ensured that.