It was with almost an air of relief that Gerry Cooney informed a small audience in a temporary gym at upstate New York's Concord Hotel last Friday that it wasn't his fault he wouldn't be able to spar that day. "My trainer is very sick," explained Cooney, who, his massive back muscles willing, will fight WBC heavyweight champion Larry Holmes for the title on June 11 in Las Vegas. The challenger knows full well that the once-postponed megabuck fight cannot withstand another hint of damage to his 6'6", 228-pound body.
Because of assorted back ailments, Cooney had to cancel first a December fight against Joe Bugner and then a January exhibition against Bugner. And subsequently his aching back forced the cancellation of a March 15 date with the skeptical Holmes. After taking a standing eight-count, the title fight—for which the combatants will each earn $10 million—was rescheduled for June. "It's all a damn plot," Holmes has fumed. "Right from the start they were hollering to fight in June and, damn it, they got their way. I thought from the start that injury was jive, and I still believe it."
The injury, as described by Dr. Edwin Campbell of the New York State Athletic Commission, was "a tearing of the erectea spina, those muscles posteriorly attached to the upper vertebrae in the dorsal region and to the trapezius muscles. The injury is all in the back but has to do with the muscles that comprise the shoulder girdle. That means when Cooney uses his shoulder, he feels the pain in his back."
The shoulder Cooney indirectly injured was his left, which is the side from which Cooney, a converted southpaw, has unloaded the heaviest shots of a career that includes 22 knockouts and a 25-0 record. But the power of his left hook, while reducing his rivals to helplessness, has left him woefully short on experience. He has spent a total of 15 minutes, 43 seconds in the ring against three elderly opponents since mid-December of 1979. And since Oct. 24, 1980, when he knocked out Ron Lyle, 38, in 2:49 of the first round, he has toiled exactly 54 seconds, all the time he needed to render Ken Norton, 36 going on 41, senseless on May 11, 1981. In his 25 bouts, Cooney has fought only 64 complete rounds and parts of 22 others.
"That sucker ain't even paid his dues," snapped Holmes before putting on exhibitions against three sparring partners last week in Cleveland, the first stop on a cross-country promotional tour designed to rekindle interest in Holmes vs. Cooney. "And he has the nerve to fight me. During a press conference in New York a couple of weeks ago I was going to slap him alongside the head, but I was afraid he'd wake up and run away."
Holmes, who won't begin training seriously until early May, laughed. "Actually, I wasn't really going to slap him," he said. "I was just trying to hype the damn fight. Don King said it was dying and that I'd better get somethin' going—to put on a show like Ali used to do. Hell, the fight was dying. Pay-per-view TV was pulling out, taking back its letters of credit. So I acted up. I started yelling at Cooney, trying to raise a little hell, and he just sat there and glared at me. Later he was telling somebody he felt like punching me in the mouth. I told him, 'Hey, sucker, why are you saying that stuff now? Why didn't you say it when they was snappin' the pictures?' Now I got to work my poor butt off and run all over the world promoting this thing because he's too dumb. Hell, I'm tired already."
"No sense in jiving ourselves," admitted King, who's promoting the bout. "This fight was just about out. My credibility was at an alltime low. Larry was really anguished about it, let down. With him barking at me and the other guy not being able to explain his injuries, it was just about dead, man. I had to run around promising people that it was really going to happen. I ran myself reckless. Now Larry has got to get out and do some work, to keep busy.
"We got a nice tour mapped out for Gerry, too. He'll be in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, maybe a couple of other places. He wants to have his St. Patrick's Day celebration at Caesars Palace on July 11th." There was a moment's pause, then the correction. "Of course, I mean June 11th."
Cooney knows the date, and he knows what he has to do to get ready. He has been working on rehabilitating the torn muscle since Feb. 17, the day he was told by three orthopedic physicians that he could forget about fighting Holmes in March. The same medical trio examined Cooney on March 26 and found the muscle tear remarkably well healed. He was told he could resume using the left arm, but very sparingly at first.
"I think Gerry learned his lesson," says one of his co-managers, Dennis Rappaport. "He first tore the muscle on Jan. 11, right after he went back into training for the exhibition with Bugner. In his first round of sparring he knocked down Walter Santemore, and nobody knocks him down. Then in the second round he threw a hook over a right hand and felt an intense pain. He should have stopped right then. But he wanted to finish out the round."
Cooney remembers the moment. "The pain was terrible, but only for a moment," he says. "Then I tried to throw another hook and it was excruciating."
But it was nothing like the pain he felt the day they told him the fight would have to be postponed. "I couldn't believe the things the people were saying," Cooney said. "That I was scared. That I was only fighting for the money. Damn, the easiest thing for me to do was what everybody said I should be doing: just to go in and fight. If I was only looking for the money I would have fought and not said a thing about the injury. But I didn't want to screw the people, and boxing, and myself. So I took the long way, the hard way; I said, 'I can't fight.' Holmes said I was scared, but I was only scared that the fight would never take place. You never know what Holmes is going to do. He could've said, 'Screw Gerry Cooney, he had his chance.' But scared to fight him? No way. If I was scared, why would I have signed to fight him in the first place?"
Before Victor Valle, Cooney's 65-year-old trainer, awoke last Friday with a 103° temperature, the 12th challenger to Holmes's crown had tested the left arm with four rounds of midweek sparring. He worked two rounds with Santemore on Wednesday, two more on Thursday. He was far from honed, but "The arm felt great!" he exulted. "Not a twinge of pain. It felt real good to throw hooks and jabs again. But I'm in no hurry. The doctors said the worst time is when you first feel good. It's like when you have a cold and then you start to feel better. You want to rush out and do things, and you get sick again. Not this time. My conditioning is great. I'll work into sparring gradually. This time I'll do it right."
Friday, without Valle working at ringside, he refused to step up his sparring, as he was scheduled to do. Instead, he was content to put in six rounds of playing pitch and catch in the ring with his No. 2 trainer, Victor Valle Jr., who is at least a foot shorter than Cooney. Armed with undersized catcher's mitts, the younger Valle mostly attacked as Cooney practiced picking off the intended blows. The Associated Press mistakenly reported that Cooney had sparred six rounds. No matter. The major news of the week was that the giant had resumed training, that the fight was on.
"When I wake up my fingers are crossed," King said. "When those two men climb into that ring and the bell rings I'll look up and say, 'Thank you, sweet Jesus, thank you.' "