The silver Mark VI Continental is idling in front of the Central Savings Bank in a shopping mall off Pulaski Road in Huntington, N.Y. The driver's seat is empty because the car's owner, Gerry Cooney, has gone into Harmon's drugstore next to the bank to buy a pack of chewing gum. Two minutes pass, then five. "What's taking him so long?" says his girl friend, Nancy Griesel, sitting in the passenger's seat. Shoppers are walking past the drugstore and the bank. Suddenly, a woman stops and opens her mouth in disbelief as the drugstore door flies open and Cooney, moving backward in a crouch, bounds onto the sidewalk, looking wildly left and right.
"Get back, everybody!" Cooney cries.
He is brandishing a pink water pistol that he has just bought for 99¬¨¬®¬¨¢ and filled with water in the drugstore John.
"Don't anybody move!" he shouts. He flashes the pistol from one side to the other and starts backing toward the car. "I'm getting outta here!"
A man steps out of the bank and stops, astonished, then smiles. "Hey, Gerry Cooney," he says.
Cooney ignores him. There is a look of desperate panic on his face. "Choo!" Cooney says, as he sprays the building with a stream of water. "Choo-choo-choo-choo! Get back! Everybody!"
Reaching his car, Cooney jerks open the door and jumps in.
The big Mark VI roars away, leaving a half-dozen 'shoppers standing on the sidewalk, staring, as Cooney holds the pistol out the window and blasts his way to Pulaski Road: "Choo! Choo-choo! Choo...."
Gerry Cooney lives in a world unfettered by complexities. 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. It's quite incongruous on the face of it. Here is this huge man—6'6" and 225 pounds, with a left hand as devastating as any boxing has seen since the prime of the late Joe Louis—here he is, the undisputed No. 1-ranked heavyweight challenger, right behind champions Larry Holmes (WBC) and Mike Weaver (WBA), bounding out of Harmon's with a water pistol and making his getaway in a brand-new $25,000 automobile, while chewing a piece of gum to freshen his breath preparatory to a visit with his beloved English teacher, Geraldine Gorman, at Walt Whitman High School. Cooney always visits Gorman before he leaves town to set up camp. On this April Fool's Day, he's about to take off for the Concord Hotel in the Catskills to begin training for his May 11 fight with Ken Norton at Madison Square Garden, the fight that is expected—if he wins it—to lead him straight to a title shot this fall against either Weaver or Holmes.
And here he is now, sneaking through the familiar halls of his old high school, up to Room 622, pistol in hand. Mrs. Gorman is giving her 18 students a lecture on Ionesco's play Rhinoceros when she spots her former student outside the door. "Don't look now," she tells the class, "but I think we're about to be invaded."
Cooney bursts through the doorway, plants his feet apart and waves the pistol around the room, like a TV narc making a bust. "Close your books! Everybody on the floor! Get down...." The room rings with laughter. "Don't talk back to me! Do like I say. Close your books!"
Mrs. Gorman is a graying, matronly woman with a warm face and radiant, joyous manner. On most of Cooney's visits they do a snappy-patter routine. They have it down.
"Now be nice, Gerry," she says sweetly, walking to a desk near the door. "Do you remember when you used to sit here in my class?"
"You used to move me around," he says, now sitting at her desk with his feet up, sounding and looking like a sweat-hog from Welcome Back, Kotter. "I sat over there. I sat here. I sat everywhere. She thought I was cheating. I was!" He picks up her glasses and puts them on, well down beneath the big lump on his nose, and peers over them. Students are shaking their heads.
"Everybody, it's hard to believe that this guy was once as good as could be," Mrs. Gorman says. "Do you remember the first time he visited me this year? He said, 'I'm here to marry you, Mrs. Gorman.' Now look who he brings along, this lovely girl Nancy. He met her in his junior year, and now she's come back into his life. And he says he's here to marry me?"
Cooney grins mischievously. "You and I are going to Cuba, baby. Just me and you."
Mrs. Gorman faces the class and spreads her arms. "Would you marry Gerry Cooney? He'd be coming home with someone else all the time."
"Wrong, wrong, wrong!" he protests.
"Gerry, I'll tell you what," Mrs. Gorman says quietly. "When you've won the championship and you have a movie contract and a TV show—stop winking at me! You don't impress me at all—then come around. And what are you going to do when you win the championship?"
"I've got to win my next fight first. If I don't, there's no sense talking about fighting for the championship."
"Well, how do you feel? It's getting closer, Gerry."
"I can deal with it."
"Do you have dreams about it at night?"
"No, but I think about it sometimes. I think about it a lot." His voice softens. "I think about you a lot, too...."
"Ohhhhhh," groans the class.
"You know what she told me?" Cooney says, rising to his feet. "She told me 30 times she wouldn't marry me. Then she read in the paper that I was making a million dollars for the Norton fight and she said, 'All right, I'll marry you.' "
When the laughter subsides, she pleads, "Whom do you believe? Him or me?"
"Him," chimes the class.
"Do you know Margaret?" Mrs. Gorman asks, indicating a girl in the second row.
"Right," says Cooney, looking at Margaret, nodding. "I've met her."
"Very smart," Mrs. Gorman says.
"Is she really? I'd be sitting right next to her if I were in school."
"Margaret, if you were in this class with Gerry Cooney, all of a sudden he would be very attentive to you and then one day he would say, 'Margaret, could I borrow your homework?' "
For 20 minutes they banter back and forth like this, teacher and ex-student, alternately serious and funny. "Mr. Cooney," the teacher finally says, in that formal tone that marks the end of recess and the start of bookwork, "I've got a lesson to teach. It's been lovely.... Would you please tell them how lucky they are to be in school?"
"Tell 'em what?" Cooney snaps incredulously. The class howls. "No, no," he says. "She's telling you the truth. You know, when I would cut out of school, I'd always come to her second-period class before I'd leave. She's a terrific lady."
"I just want you to know I'm thinking about you, praying for you, and talking about you, keeping everything going for you," says Mrs. Gorman. "As usual, I'll see you after the fight. Good luck. And thank you for stopping by." Cooney bends down and kisses Mrs. Gorman. The students applaud. Mrs. Gorman walks her engaging, if once indifferent, scholar to the door. She has asked him twice if he remembers Rhinoceros, but he has playfully avoided answering her. The subject of the play comes up again as she says goodby at the door.
"What was it about again?" he asks.
"You remember," she says. "Everybody turned into a rhinoceros?"
"Oh yeah," Gerry says. "Like The Elephant Man, right?"
"No, Gerry, not like The Elephant Man," she says. "You take care of yourself now. And see you soon."
Gerald Arthur Cooney carries with him no memories of either athletic or academic triumphs at Walt Whitman High School. In fact, his experiences there were often painful and difficult. He had knock-knees and acne. "God," he has said, "talk about troubles." Yet the school represents for him a warm center of his world, a place not only where Mrs. Gorman still teaches but also a kind of symbol of the town and times in which he served his youth and made it, slowly, to where he is now.
Cooney was born in Brooklyn on Aug. 24, 1956, but his father, Tony, moved the family to Huntington two years later, and Gerry has never known another home. Tony Cooney was art Irishman by way of a Celtic settlement in Newfoundland. A big man, 6'3½", 220, he was an ironworker who labored around New York City fitting together the orange bones of skyscrapers.
Eileen Cooney, Tony's wife, had always wanted to live in the country, and that is what South Huntington was when they moved there in 1958, a rural outpost of big potato farms that was only just beginning to give way to two-story splits and shopping malls. Huntington lies 37 miles east of New York City, in the north-central part of Long Island, and is one of the oldest settlements in the state. It is the birthplace of Walt Whitman. Cooney grew up in a red-shingle Cape Cod home set on a narrow side street off a main drag called New York Avenue.
Tony and Eileen eventually raised six children in that house. Tom, now 27, is the oldest; he's in the maintenance business. Mike, 26, is part owner of Cinnamon's, a bar and restaurant on the second floor of a building just off Main Street in Huntington. Steve, 22, is an ironworker. Eileen, 19, works in a candy store in the Wait Whitman Mall, scene of the pistol squirtout. And Madeleine, 14, is in junior high. Gerry came third. The two girls slept upstairs; the four boys bunked in the basement.
The Cooneys never had a lot of money, but they weren't poor, either, and Tony always put food on the table. He became the shaping force in the lives of his children—a strict disciplinarian who kept everyone, but particularly the boys, busy. "They worked hard, the kids," says Eileen Cooney. "Tony had them helping put up fences. He had them working on the roof. He treated them like they were grown-ups. They all had to polish their shoes before church. And they all worked in his garden."
Gerry can remember it now. "Every Saturday and Sunday, when the other guys were out having a good time at the Mall, I was at home working in the garden." Hilton Cohen, Cooney's classmate at Walt Whitman and one of his best friends today, remembers swinging by Gerry's house on the way to meeting the gang at the shopping center. "I'd say, 'Hey, Gerry, you want to go down to the Mall for an hour?' He wouldn't even lift his head. Then his dad would say, 'You'd better go on along, Hilton. Gerry will catch you later.' Three hours later I'd come back and pass the house and there would be Gerry, in sweaty dungarees, still gardening. He'd look over and wipe his head, like 'Whew,' like 'Do something to get me out of here.' I walked on the other side of the street so his father wouldn't see me."
The garden wasn't all that Tony Cooney taught his sons to tend. "He taught us plumbing," Gerry says. "Taught us how to shingle the roof. How to change the oil in the car. How to put the spark plugs in. He even showed us how to make knots—the bowline, the running bowline, the half-hitch—that he'd learned in the Merchant Marine. He was trying to teach us to survive by ourselves, to be handymen, so we didn't have to call this guy for this and that guy for that."
And there were times when the Cooney home must have looked like a suburban franchise of New York's Gleason's Gym. Tony Cooney had always wanted to be a fighter himself—he had fought in the Merchant Marine—so when Gerry was 10 Tony built a ring in the backyard: four poles stuck foursquare in the ground and a length of rope draped around them. Neighborhood kids came over to box. The first time Gerry was in that ring he fought a peppery young tomboy named Jaime Masters, a fast friend with whom he used to build go-carts in the summer. Tony refereed. Jaime promptly bloodied Gerry's nose with an overhand right. "I was so embarrassed," he says. Thus his career, however ignominiously, had begun.
Mike Cooney recalls that his father also put up a heavy bag and a speed bag and taught the boys how to use them. "Weekends were spent sparring with him," Mike says. "First he'd get us mad, beat us one at a time. Then he'd toss us in the ring at each other. I didn't care for it, but Gerry, he always gritted his teeth. Gerry and Tom stuck with it." When Gerry was 14, the two boys began boxing at the Huntington YMCA, and it was around this time that Tom gave his brother the most vivid, unforgettable boxing lesson in his life. The two were together one night when someone started getting on Tom. Eventually it was decided to settle the matter by going outside. Gerry followed. "Tom hooked him to the body, then hooked him to the head," Gerry says. "The guy was lying there, the wind knocked out of him. I thought he was dying. I thought, 'If only I could do that.' I had never seen anything like it. Most guys who start out fighting are headhunters. Not me. I'd seen what you could do to the body. It sunk into my head."
Cooney was at Walt Whitman by then, growing like bamboo. When he was 16, he was 6'4" and 160 pounds—awkward, skinny, knock-kneed and acned. He was grievously self-conscious and shy. "Everybody laughed at me. Or at least I thought they did," he says. "I said to myself, 'I'm stupid. I must be.' People made me feel that way and I went along with it. I guess telling myself that, that I was stupid, was sort of a way out. I loved boxing. When I had all those insecurities, it made me feel like somebody. People looked at me like I was special. That helped me grow. It was a big thing in those days to hang out at the Mall. I used to tell everyone when they asked, 'Yeah, I'm going to the Golden Gloves.'
"Before I know it, one night I find myself in New York City in a line with about 3,000 people signing up for the Gloves. When I get in to see the doctor there's this big kid saying, 'Anybody in the 160-pound sub-novice can go home, because I'm winning the Golden Gloves this year.' I was scared. A big kid! Wouldn't you know, the very first night I end up fighting him?"
Cooney dropped the kid twice in the third round, won a decision and went on to win the sub-novice title, the first of his two Golden Gloves championships. So Tony Cooney had himself a fighter.
Gerry also played in the line on the high school football team—"He came to practice, but his mind was always somewhere else," says Coach Rick Cariddi—and did some wrestling, too. Still, Cooney's heart was never really in anything but boxing, so he turned to it full time, and his father drove and pushed him every day. By comparison, the time he had spent in the garden began to seem like a holiday.
Every day, all year, weather be damned, Tony Cooney woke up his sons at 5:30 a.m. for their run. He ran the three-mile course himself—a mile and a half up New York Avenue, a mile and a half back. "He never believed in wearing too much to go running," Gerry recalls. "A pair of dungarees, his boots and undershirt, a sweat shirt and a beanie. No gloves. Froze our tails off in the winter. We'd get home and he'd make us climb up the rope two or three times. He'd tied a rope to the branches of a tree. It wasn't like the fat rope you climbed in school. It was a thin rope. And you couldn't use your feet. He used to do it with us. Then we'd do exercises: sit-ups, push-ups, Chinese push-ups on your fingertips." And then the Cooney boys went to school.
"You can go all the way to the top, Gerry," Tony would tell him. "Just do what you're supposed to do. Don't waste it." After school, Cooney would rush to the Long Island Rail Road station in Huntington and catch a train to Jamaica, in Queens. Then he'd walk two blocks to a subway station for a short ride to the Queens Gym. There he would occasionally work out with Vito Antuofermo, the future middleweight champion of the world, and whatever heavyweights happened to be around. "My dad came after work and met me there to make sure I worked out," Cooney says. "We used to do this six, sometimes seven times a week, a hassle for a young kid 17 years old. I didn't understand him. I couldn't understand why he was trying to break me, busting my chops. I was in bed every night at 10 or 11 o'clock because my father said so. I liked to go out. I liked girls. But no way. One day I got mad and said to him, 'Who do you want me to win for—for you or for me?' He just looked at me."
As time went on, Gerry found himself arguing increasingly with his father—over the hours he was keeping, over the length of his hair—and saw it was causing problems between his parents. "My mother was telling him to lighten up a little bit, and he was getting into arguments with her," Gerry says. So a few months after his graduation in 1974, he left home and moved into an apartment with his brother Mike. He continued fighting, though training now at his own pace. In 1975, near the end of an exceptional amateur career—he was 55-2—Cooney shook off a hard wallop to the chin from Nikolai Aksyonov, the Soviet heavyweight champion, in a bout at Madison Square Garden, then came back like a wild man and knocked him flat cold. Four months later he won the New York Golden Gloves heavyweight title. His father saw him pound the Russian, but he was too sick to make it to the Golden Gloves finals at Madison Square Garden. Two months after that, Tony Cooney died of lung cancer. He was 55.
Cooney hasn't gotten over it yet. "My father was never sick, never," Cooney says. "And I never could envision him being sick. I always thought he'd get better. 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. 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 then, but I see it now. I wish he were here so I could tell him that I understand."
Cooney quit fighting, letting pass a chance to try out for the U.S. Olympic boxing team. He just didn't care anymore. He worked for a while on a swimming pool construction gang, then left that job and idled at home. Late that summer, just sitting around, he got the urge to put the gloves on again. "I loved the game," he said. "I figured, 'What the heck. I'll give it another shot.' "
While Cooney was drifting away from boxing, Mike Jones and Dennis Rappaport, two Long Island real estate men, were just getting into it. Despite similarities in their line of work and in their long love affairs with boxing, the two share little else. Jones, 45, is a family man, conservative in style and taste, while Rappaport, 35, is a street-wise bachelor given to gold jewelry and modish clothes. Jones grew up in Brooklyn and eventually settled in Teaneck, N.J., where his father manufactured children's coats. He learned to box at summer camp as a boy. He never got over it. "I used to lie in bed and dream every night of fighting for the middleweight championship of the world," he says. Jones went into the real estate business in 1963, making a fortune buying, rehabilitating and selling one-and two-family houses.
Rappaport moved even faster. He also grew up in Brooklyn, the son of a cabaret owner and amateur fighter. At age 13, Dennis ran his own business. As "Dennis the Friendly Cookie Man," he was buying cookies wholesale by the box and managing a crew of 28 kids who sold them door to door. "I was netting $150 to $200 a week in those days," he says. At various times in his youth, Rappaport sold chinchillas for $1,000 a pair, opened a karate school in Greenwich Village and sold locks and security devices. He got into real estate by using the money earned in his various enterprises to buy homes that he then rented out. But it was boxing that fascinated him. "I always had a love for this sport," he says. "When I was a kid, I almost got on The $64,000 Question, but they figured a woman psychologist [Joyce Brothers] was more of a novelty than a snot-nosed kid."
The two men met while selling real estate on Long Island. They discovered their mutual interest in boxing and decided, in 1976, to go into partnership as managers. They came to be known as either "the Gold Dust Twins" or "the Whacko Twins," depending on one's point of view. After signing the 1976 Olympic lightweight gold medalist Howard Davis, they negotiated a $2 million deal for him with CBS-TV that was regarded at the time as something of a coup. Hence the Gold Dust Twins.
Trying to get a match for another of their fighters, 1968 Olympic lightweight gold medalist Ronnie Harris, who was having trouble finding opponents, they dressed up a real estate agent in a gorilla outfit and set him loose in Madison Square Garden. Teddy Brenner, the Garden matchmaker then, called Jones in a state of apoplexy.
"Jones!" he yelled. "That crazy bastard partner of yours is here with a gorilla. Get him outta here!"
"Teddy," said Jones, "All we want is a fight for Harris."
"You want to fight Sugar Ray Seales? I'll give you $2,500."
"Not enough," Jones said.
"If you don't say 'yes' immediately, I'll hang up."
"Yes," said Jones.
Hence the Whacko Twins.
Harris beat Seales and eventually got a crack at Hugo Corro's title, but he lost the fight on a controversial decision. For his part, Davis got a shot at the lightweight title, and he also got beat. And now the Gold Dust Twins have Cooney, who is just one fight away from the biggest title shot of all. Cooney negotiated with Jones and Rappaport for a couple of months before finally signing with them in late 1976. His new managers agreed to advance Cooney $200 a week against future earnings, charging no interest, and to find him an experienced trainer. Cooney wanted Cus D'Amato, who had taken Floyd Patterson to the heavyweight title, but D'Amato wanted to both train and manage the fighter, for the twins an unacceptable condition. They had to be the managers. D'Amato was one of several boxing men who recommended Puerto Rican-born Victor Valle as Cooney's trainer.
Valle, 63, has been handling fighters since 1938, when he himself had retired from the ring because of brittle hands. He had fought four years as a featherweight—he was 46-1, losing only to a future lightweight champion, Sammy Angott—and retired with a reputation as a quick, crafty professional. Valle had sparred with Tony Canzoneri and Barney Ross before several of their championship fights, and he especially admired fighters deft at feinting and slipping punches, defending themselves. "I like that kind of fighter," Valle says. "They come out of a fight cleaner and last longer."
Valle had trained Alfredo Escalera to the WBC junior lightweight championship in 1975, but a falling-out with Escalera left him disillusioned and considering retirement. Jones and Rappaport came by just in time. When they asked Valle if he wanted to take on Cooney, Valle recalled having seen him, and scratched his head. "That big guy?" Valle asked. "Boy, he's going to be a lot of work." He said he would consider it, but first he wanted to have a meeting with Cooney.
The four men sat down for lunch in the Estoril Sol Restaurant, at 29th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. Every time Valle looked at Cooney, the trainer says, the fighter was grinning madly at him. Valle liked him immediately. Valle gave him his let's-get-this-straight-now speech, a high-volume set piece he had declaimed many times before. "You seem like a bright boy but let me tell you something," Valle said. "I am very strict. This is a business where you have to sacrifice your life. You have to give 100 percent. Even if you're not up to it. I don't take no baloney from nobody. You have to listen to everything I say. Don't waste my time! I'm not an easy fellow in the gym." Valle looked up and Cooney was still grinning at him. "You have to be without sex 21 days before a fight," he said.
"What?" blurted Cooney.
"At least 21 days! That's a rule."
Furthermore: "Don't ever lie to me!"
Also: "There are times I'm going to curse you."
But: "I will treat you like a son."
Cooney stretched out his hand to Valle. "You're my man!" he said.
"We just clicked," Valle says. "There was feeling there."
So Cooney started training under Valle at Gleason's Gym, a block from Madison Square Garden. Every weekday Cooney would leave his rented house in Huntington at about two, drive to Huntington station, and board the 2:59 train for Penn Station—a fighting commuter. The first day, Valle asked him to get in the ring and shadowbox a bit. The fighter hopped all around the ring, his arms and legs flying. "What are you jumping around so much for?" Valle asked. "You look like a kangaroo." His punches were too long, his footwork awkward. Because Cooney was born a lefty—he changed to a righthanded stance at the urging of his father—his right was virtually non-existent. He didn't know how to play the ropes, to spin off, to feint, slide, to give angles. His defense was bad, accounting for the raised bridge of his nose.
"Gerry caught on very fast," Valle says. "Other kids you keep talking and talking and they take a month to get the idea of it. When I teach something new to Gerry, he might make one or two mistakes, but it clicks. He says to me, 'Hey, I like that. That's good.' He's like a kid with a new toy. He's a little fox waiting for you to make a mistake. He's becoming a thinking fighter. He's throwing combinations. He's looking to place his punches in the right places. He's planning the fight in his head. Now there is no heavyweight who can play the ropes like him. Gerry will rip you inside, kill you inside. His left hook to the body is the most devastating I've seen."
Valle has labored to build Cooney mentally as well as physically. One day at Gleason's a couple of years ago Valle was working with him in the ring, showing him a trick, and Cooney swung and Valle inadvertently leaned forward and caught a fist flush on the chin. The trainer reeled in a swoon, tasting blood. He dimly recalls regaining his senses, still on his feet, and seeing Cooney running around the ring yelling, "Victor, you're bleeding! You're bleeding!" Blood was running out of Valle's mouth. He could barely stand.
"Forget about the damn blood!" the trainer yelled. "It's nothing!"
"But you're hurt!" Cooney cried.
"Back to work! Come on, show your goddam guts...."
With Valle spitting blood, the lesson was resumed. "I had to take that and show him it was nothing," Valle says. "I was afraid it would create sympathy and soften his mind, make him feel pity, and he shouldn't feel pity in the ring."
"He became like a father to me," Cooney says. "I couldn't have learned what he taught me from anyone else. I feel when I get in there I have to hurt them. I don't want to get excited. But I want to hurt them. It sounds sick. I see the look in their eyes when I hurt them and I see the fear in their eyes and it makes me feel in control. You can see it in their eyes. I want to hurt them. But I'm not that type of person outside the ring. I guess I'm a two-personality guy. It's developed since I've been with Victor."
Cooney is a remorseless gym fighter. He stalks, and Valle, on the apron of the ring, shouts for pressure. He was in the ring with 210-pound heavyweight Roger Troupe not long ago and looked as tenacious as a ferret. "Throw the right hand!" Valle yelled. "Now come back with the hook. Hook inside! That's it." A hook to the ribs sent Troupe sagging. "Keep down, Gerry. Keep rolling underneath. Right there! Weave in there. Short punches, Gerry. Short punches!" Troupe suddenly jabbed and Cooney threw a right hand over it, landing it on Troupe's nose. Troupe was bleeding. Now inside, Cooney rammed a hook to the side and Troupe caved into a corner, sinking into it until he appeared to be sitting on a nonexistent stool. Trainer Carmen Graziano, who used to have Joey Giardello, rolled his eyes.
"Cooney has shortened all his punches," he said. "Tremendous power in both hands. Joe Frazier had a yard-long hook. This guy throws a hook seven inches and you're down. He's like a well-equipped carpenter. He needs a chisel, he has a chisel; he needs a saw, he grabs a saw; he needs a hammer, he has a hammer."
Just as a wounded, blood-spitting Valle had insisted that Cooney continue with his lesson—Cooney had loosened all of Valle's teeth that day, damage that required $6,000 in repair work—so Valle has demanded of Cooney that he never let up in the ring, even during sparring sessions. "When the bell rings, I got to be in shape,' Cooney says. "If I just go in there and parry and parry with sparring partners, how am I going to get in condition?"
"Valle is not just a trainer to Gerry," says Eileen Cooney. "He talks to me now like I've known him all my life. He tells me what Gerry should and shouldn't do, like, 'Mrs. Cooney, we got to tell him he can't stay out late.... We've got to get Gerry to do his running.... I don't want him hurt in the ring....' Gerry loves him so much."
Valle sounded like Tony Cooney during that very first meeting at the Estoril, and he has proved to be every bit as stern a disciplinarian. Cooney was in training for the Feb. 23 fight with Norton that was postponed at the last minute when promoter Harold Smith/Ross Fields disappeared. The boxer showed up at Gleason's in a blue, three-piece, pin-striped suit. He had just had his hair styled—washed, cut, shaped and blown dry—and he was shaved to the quick. The gym was rank and musty, fighters were skipping rope and sparring, and Cooney seemed as out of place at that moment as the green-eyed, Irish lass who had come by to see him train.
Cooney didn't want to train that afternoon. It was bitter outside and he felt a cold coming on. Besides, there was a whole card of fights scheduled for the Felt Forum that night and he was dressed to kill and there were people to see and things to do and all that fun to be had in New York City. He approached Valle as the trainer stood on the apron of the ring, shouting orders at two sparring fighters. Cooney looked up at Valle like a puppy and said something in Valle's left ear.
"You do your work now, Gerry!" Valle cried. "I can't let you go like this. Now go get dressed."
"But Victor, I'll train on Saturday," Cooney replied, softly. "I'll train twice as hard to make up for it. I promise."
Valle shook his head and waved his right hand through the air. His voice rose. "Do your work now! You have got to have a schedule. Your body is a system. It has to work on a schedule, Gerry. It is very important. You can't go now!"
Cooney leaned forward, closer to Valle, and implored in a suppressed whisper. "I'll train Saturday," Cooney promised. "I'm sick, Victor. I'll get all sweaty." And, finally, out came the real reason Cooney wanted the day off: "My hair will get all wet!"
Valle looked at Cooney, his eyebrows lifting in arches, his voice rising in anger. "You can't worry about your hart. You can't miss a day!"
"But Victor, I'll get sick if my hair gets wet and I go outside." Cooney said, "I know I'll get sick."
"No you won't," Valle said. "You can wear a hat!"
"But Victor, I have to go to the fights tonight."
"Wear a hat over there! Then you go into the men's room and you comb it."
"But Victor, my hair's longer than yours. I can't just comb it. I have to blow-dry it!"
Valle's eyebrows went up again and his voice rose in a raspy bark. "You have to train! You have to sacrifice! You're a fighter, Gerry, not an actor!" And Cooney went, back to the lockers, muttering, "He's always busting my chops."
Though Cooney has won all 24 of his professional fights, 20 by knockout, there are many in boxing who doubt him still. He had two fights in 1980, stopping Jimmy Young in four rounds, leaving Young's face a bloody mess, and knocking out Ron Lyle in one, fracturing one of his ribs. But, critics say, both Young and Lyle are over the hill. Of course, the disinclination to believe in Cooney stems, at least in part, from the fact that he's a white man in what has become a black man's division. In the past 40 years the only non-blacks to hold the title were Ingemar Johansson (for one year between bouts with Floyd Patterson) and Rocky Marciano. Holmes isn't the only black fighter to call Cooney "The Great White Hope" (and "Great White Dope").
But Cooney has consistently refused to view his drive for the title in a racial context. In fact, publicly and privately, he laments that the issue of race is even raised. "I just want to be the heavyweight champion," he says. "I understand it; the subject's going to be there. But I just want the opportunity to fight for the title and to prove that I'm worthy of it. The Great White Hope stuff is aggravating."
Race aside, there are questions about Cooney's stamina—he has never been beyond eight rounds—about his ability to take a punch, the effectiveness of his right hand, and his ability to resist the kind of pressure that a Holmes could put on him.
"If Cooney is ever in a real fight, with a real fighter, what does he do?" asked Promoter Bob Arum, "Does he know how to suck it up? When push comes to shove, when someone puts pressure on him, I don't know how he'll react. I don't know what his stamina would be. The thing I have to admit is that people whose opinions I respect in boxing even more than mine think Cooney is a hell of a prospect."
Like Gil Clancy. Until he became the matchmaker at the Garden 2½ years ago, Clancy was one of the most respected trainers in boxing. He was the co-manager of Emile Griffith, a five-time champion. He has been watching Cooney since Cooney's amateur days. Clancy says that it is simply not true that the fighter has never taken a punch, pointing to the wallops he took from the Russian, Aksyonov, from Dino Denis, whom Cooney knocked out, and others. "Denis hit him with a good right hand and it didn't even bother him," Clancy says. "Cooney got mad. And people make too much out of that no-right-hand business. He used both hands in stopping Jimmy Young."
Consider, Clancy says, the recent 15-round title fight between Holmes and Trevor Berbick. "Those guys go 15 rounds and they look like they just finished playing Ping-Pong or something. When you go in the ring with Cooney, he puts marks on you. If you're in there for three minutes with him, you look like you've been in there three hours. That's the way Joe Louis used to be."
The fact is, of course, no one yet knows how good Gerry Cooney is or how deep he goes. The fighter refuses to be drawn into such discussions, just as he adamantly refuses to strut his world proclaiming any notions of superiority he might have. Before a fight, Eileen Cooney says, he calls her up and says, "I hope I do good, Mom." He doesn't lack confidence, he says, but he will simply not lay any claim to what he feels he hasn't yet earned. So he waves away all talk of the title when even Geraldine Gorman brings it up, saying he must beat Ken Norton first.
"I used to dream what it would be like to be heavyweight champion of the world," says Cooney, "but I never let it interfere too much with my life. If you really want something bad enough, you can have it—sometimes. My father would be proud I'm ranked No. 1 in the world. But really I'm only halfway there.
"Do you know what I would really like? I would like to go to my 10th class reunion as the heavyweight champion of the world."
There is a long pause. He is driving through Huntington now, listening to Christopher Cross singing Sailing, and his own mind is sailing. "Yeah," he continues, "I want people to see I haven't changed at all since high school. When I was in high school, lots of people thought I was crazy, being a fighter. I just want to let them know that I made it. I think that would be really nice. Go. to a" 10-year class reunion, just as I had left school: the same person, except as heavyweight champion of the world."