The Class of His Class

Heavyweight champion Larry Holmes laid claim to greatness by beating Gerry Cooney
Heavyweight champion Larry Holmes laid claim to greatness by beating Gerry Cooney
June 20, 1982

The last thing to go was his will to continue, and surely there was poetic justice in that. Of the crucial resources in which he had been thought deficient—stamina, seasoning, boxing skills, a resilient chin—his heart was most suspect. Now, in the final 30 seconds of the 13th round, his punch and legs gone, his hands mere decorative ornaments as WBC Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes battered him, Gerry Cooney says he saw himself briefly as Jake La Motta fighting Sugar Ray Robinson.

"I was saying to myself, 'Go on, hit me! You can't hurt me!' I felt like Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. 'Put me down! You couldn't put me down, Ray!' It was very foolish, a stupid thing to do, but I wanted to show him. Show him I had guts, I guess."

The artful Holmes had fought cleverly and with his accustomed caution for the first 12 of the scheduled 15 rounds, and now he had Cooney precisely where he wanted him. The challenger's celebrated—if on this night ineffectual—left hook had lost its oomph in the middle rounds, his rather ponderous jab had become more a stay-away punch than an offensive weapon.

Holmes began the 13th with a snapping jab of his own. Cooney moved in slow motion, his jabs and hooks drifting and weak. Holmes hit him with a right lead, then a hook, then another jab, sending Cooney sagging to the ropes. Cooney unsettled Holmes with a hook, but he regained his balance. Holmes threw a grazing right. Cooney's left eyelid had been cut in the sixth round, and he blinked at the champion, looking dazed, lost.

Cooney was ready to go, and Holmes knew it. He studiously measured the challenger for the decisive right, reaching out his left and touching Cooney's head, pawing at the challenger. Holmes drove a powerful overhand right to Cooney's head. The challenger staggered but didn't go down. Holmes then stunned Cooney with two more jabs. Another right caught him in the head. And then another. Next, Holmes drilled home a left.

Holmes was hitting him at will and Cooney no longer had an offense; as the round wound down and he grew wearier, he couldn't effectively defend himself either. He was slogging about the ring. Suddenly Holmes rocked Cooney with a left and then a hard right. Cooney tottered, his back toward the ropes.

"Go on, hit me!"

Holmes crashed a follow-up right to Cooney's head.

"Hit me!"

Holmes hit him with a third. Then a fourth. Then a fifth. Cooney stood facing Holmes, as if transfixed. The challenger took another right, and a left uppercut, and, finally, a slashing right that propelled him into the ropes. As he fell, he draped his right arm over the top strand of the ropes and touched the canvas with his left glove, which constituted a knockdown. Cooney's trainer, Victor Valle, came up the steps to the apron of the ring. Cooney pulled himself squarely back onto his feet, Holmes backed off, and Referee Mills Lane looked into Cooney's eyes. "I thought his eyes were still good," Lane said later. "I was going to give him another chance."

As Lane started to count, with eight seconds left in the round, Valle proceeded across the ring, signaling to Lane to stop the fight. Lane waved him back, but Valle resolutely, and mercifully, advanced, clasped his fighter in his arms and laid his head against his chest. Technically, Holmes won on a disqualification the moment Valle stepped into the ring, but there was no doubt that Cooney was out on his feet and that Holmes had put him there. Had Valle let Lane finish the count, the 13th would have ended before Holmes had had a chance to finish his work, and Cooney would have had a minute to recover for the 14th. Another round of this, however, would have been cruel and purposeless punishment.

"I'm O.K.," Cooney protested, as Valle led him to his corner. "That's enough, son," Valle said. "That's enough."

It clearly was. Thus the richest fight ever for a heavyweight championship of the world came to a sanguinary and sudden end, as most observers expected it would. The bout that had been tracked by controversy for 18 months finally was played out, to a fair and definitive conclusion, last Friday night in a ring set up in a packed, 32,000-seat stadium erected on a parking lot at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Millions around the world watched it in closed-circuit outlets and on pay-per-view television, and early returns indicate that the show played to large crowds, especially in the eastern U.S. Not a seat went unsold in any of the 78 closed-circuit locations in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and 52,974 watched it at The Meadowlands race track in New Jersey.

What inspired this interest was that the fight matched two undefeated and very different heavyweights, men quite apart in almost every particular, from size to fighting style to racial and social background. Holmes, 32, came to Vegas with a record of 39-0, 29 by knockout, and with a reputation as a superb boxer and ring tactician and for having a chip on his shoulder and a stinging left jab.

Having had the misfortune of following Muhammad Ali as the world's preeminent heavyweight, Holmes had spent most of his four years as champion resentful at what he viewed as lack of recognition of his fighting abilities. He turned his hostility on Cooney, 25, who came into the ring with a record of 25-0, 22 by knockout, a devastating left hook and a rep as a fearsome finisher.

The 6'3", 212½-pound Holmes, a black man, grew up poor in Easton, Pa. and clawed his way to the top after years in obscurity as an Ali sparring partner and club fighter. The 6'6", 225½-pound Cooney was raised in suburban Huntington, N.Y., ascended quickly and without interruption through the depleted heavyweight ranks to become the No. 1 contender in September, 1980 after his knockout of Jimmy Young.

Holmes was openly contemptuous of Cooney's rise, saying the challenger got there because he was white, and it made Holmes feel no less the unrecognized champion when he was forced to agree to share equally in the purse, forecast by the promoters to be as much as $10 million for each boxer.

As the fight grew near, it became evident that Holmes was sharp and fit. He was working hard and looked keen in the gym. Cooney, though known as an enthusiastic gym fighter, often seemed spiritless during his workouts. After one training session in which sparmate Joe Bugner jabbed him at will, Cooney told a confidant, "I can't get any boost, but don't worry about it. I'll be all right."

But Cooney never left the doldrums. Three days before the fight, during the challenger's final workout, sparring partner Walter Santemore banged him repeatedly with right hands. At the end of the session, in an aside that would have been funny had it not been so true, Cooney told the assembled fight fans, "I looked like his sparring partner today."

The bout had originally been set for March 15, but it had to be postponed in February after Cooney tore a muscle in his left shoulder. There was speculation that perhaps he had another injury, but Cooney denied it. There was also the thought that he might be rusty. He had fought only three times, for a total of less than six rounds, since Dec. 14, 1979. Still, Cooney came into the match at least outwardly confident. "I know I'm going to beat this guy," he said.

In a fit of bravado three weeks before the fight, Holmes had claimed that he was planning to jump all over Cooney from the outset, saying he had no fear of the challenger's vaunted hook and that he would give Cooney every chance to hit him with it early. By the week of the bout, however, Holmes was warning, "I ain't going to fight Gerry Cooney. I'm going to box him. You have to make a guy drunk before you mug him."

Which was as prescient as anything that Holmes—or anyone else—would say before the bout. The champion indeed came into the fight with just such a plan, and he followed it. Holmes's trainer, Eddie Futch, said, "Cooney'll throw a quick right hand to the body to set up the hook to the body. We'll be watching for that. He tries to put his man in position to use the left hook. He uses it in twos and threes. We know when the hook's coming because he moves a certain way. And we know he's not that effective in the center of the ring. We can't let him get lucky. We're doing everything we can to prevent him from getting lucky."

If Holmes's gifts and resources were well known—since winning the title from Ken Norton on June 9, 1978, he had defended it 11 times, gone 15 rounds only once and twice come off the deck to win—plainly little was known of Cooney's. He had never gone more than eight rounds, had never been tested under pressure and not once had he been knocked off his feet. It was this uncertainty about Cooney that generated much of the electricity that this fight had.

The juice was turned on full power by 7:55 last Friday night in Vegas when—with the temperature hovering at 90°, not counting the heat from the television lights—the challenger made his way up the aisle to chants of "Cooney! Cooney!" Dressed in a green robe, with the hood pulled over his head, he seemed to be a giant Irish monk on his way to chapel, especially when he knelt in his corner, praying. Removing the hood, he appeared withdrawn, preoccupied. Suddenly Holmes entered the stadium to sweeping applause. His face was intense as he climbed into the ring. Spotting Cooney, he glared and stared.

Holmes had been through all this before, working for years at the highest levels of his game. Behind a withering jab, a punishing right and fighting instincts and intelligence sharpened by nearly a decade of pro fights, he had dominated the division since becoming champion. In the process, Holmes slowly established himself as one of the gamest and best heavyweights in history.

And from the opening bell, Holmes knew what he was about and what he had to do. Cooney stalked him, looking for an opening to throw the hook, while Holmes circled to his left, away from Cooney's power, thus setting a pattern that would be repeated throughout the bout.

The first round ended with neither man landing a damaging blow. It was a close round, unlike the second, which was almost the last. Holmes landed four snapping jabs in the first 30 seconds, while Cooney missed with two rights. Suddenly, after firing a jab, Holmes came over with a right that landed flush on Cooney's jaw.

Cooney reeled, skittering and lurching half around the ring before falling to his knees in Holmes's corner. "I thought, 'What the heck's going on here?' " Cooney said later. " 'Get up off the floor!' " Staggering to his feet, he grinned loonily, as if slightly stewed. Wary of an injured Cooney, Holmes didn't attack, and Cooney survived the round. He was in a daze as he sat in his corner, but he had taken the shot and come back.

In the third he continued stalking Holmes. He took a sharp jab, but then started landing the hook, which he conspicuously telegraphed, and each time the champion escaped without suffering any real damage. Concerned that he might have to go 15 rounds, Cooney didn't press the issue. His game is throwing punches, attacking in multiples, but he thought he should save himself. He explained, "I was listening to all those people who said, 'Can he go the distance?' I should have pressured him more. I just didn't get off enough."

Cooney won the third and the fourth rounds, but Holmes was moving the fight to the center of the ring, staying off the ropes, and beginning to find a pace. "I set myself to let him take shots," Holmes said afterward, "so I could do what I wanted to do. He didn't fight the fight that he wanted, or the fight Valle wanted him to. He fought the fight I wanted. It was a question of experience. He was stronger than I anticipated, but he didn't take a good shot to the chin. The trouble was, I couldn't get to the chin."

Holmes settled into his rhythm in the fifth. He finally had found the range for his jab; he was landing one after another, and he used them to open doors for his right hand. Now he shook Cooney with a hard right, and another. Then Holmes came to his toes, dancing and moving, controlling the tempo of the fight. Cooney couldn't get inside and stay there, though Valle urged him repeatedly to do so.

"Get down!" he told his fighter between rounds. "You're standing too straight. Get under." Cooney kept telegraphing his hook, and Holmes was blocking it up and down, tying Cooney up, circling away. In the sixth Holmes had the challenger in trouble again, banging on him with a left and right. Cooney struggled to stay on his feet, clutching and grabbing as Holmes attacked. Only the bell saved him.

By the seventh the patterns of the fight were firmly in place, and Holmes took Cooney to boxing school: jab, move to the center of the ring, set and parry, block the hook, tie him up, dance away, circle left. Now blood began trickling from Cooney's left eyelid and from the bridge of his nose. "It was freaky," he said. "I couldn't see a little bit."

But Cooney never came unglued. He came back and won the eighth on two cards, landing rights to the head and hooks to the body. He took and he gave in the ninth, landing two hard shots to the body before being blasted by a fierce right behind two jabs.

Cooney was hurt again, and his eyelid was bleeding. He was beginning to tire. He threw a hook low, and Referee Lane warned him, "Don't do it again or it's going to cost you." Moments later he drove another hook into Holmes's groin. Holmes grimaced, held his crotch, and spit out his mouthpiece. Lane took two points away from Cooney. "I didn't do it intentionally," Cooney said.

The 10th round was the best and the fiercest, with Holmes landing jabs and overhand rights, with Cooney pitching hard lefts to the body, rights to the head, throwing his punches up and down. Holmes took them, slamming home rights and lefts in return. The crowd was roaring as the two fighters, head to head, winged punches at each other. At the bell they nodded and tapped each other.

That was it for Cooney. The furious pace of the 10th had sapped him, and Holmes was methodically getting him drunk. In the 11th Lane took another point from Cooney for another low blow. The 12th set up the 13th. As he perceptibly slowed—and he's not notably quick when fresh—Cooney became an easy target for Holmes's jab and overhand right. He tried to tee off with the hook, now that his jab had lost its snap and his right hand was a mere push. Holmes repeatedly landed his punishing right, because Cooney couldn't avoid it. In the 13th, of course, came the mugging, with Valle rushing to rescue Cooney.

By the end of the fight the only real shocker was the announcement of the scoring. At the close of 12 rounds, two of the three judges—Duane Ford, who participated in the controversial scoring of the Ray Leonard-Thomas Hearns fight last September, and Dave Moretti—had Holmes ahead by only two points, 113-111, on the 10-point must system. Had the referee not deducted three points from the challenger, Ford and Moretti would have had Cooney ahead on points going into the 13th. The third judge, Jerry Roth, had Holmes ahead 115-109, a far more reasonable reflection of the events in the ring. "We were in for a sleigh ride," said Promoter Don King, who, in effect, is Holmes's manager, after the fight. "The deck was stacked."

"I've seen so much bad scoring out here I knew what I had to do," said Holmes. "I was prepared for anything."

Except for applying the grace and style he shows in the ring to the world outside it. Holmes feels he has never gotten his "just due as champion." And he never has, of course, but Holmes rolls with punches far better in the ring than out. The rancor runs deep, surfacing to sour what should be the sweetest moments of his career.

After beating Cooney, he opened his press conference by saying, "I might sound angry...."

A voice from the back said, "Louder...."

Holmes snapped, "If you shut up and listen you can hear me." From there he swung into a familiar litany: "I'm sorry I'm not what all you guys want me to be. I'm not Muhammad Ali, I'm not Joe Louis, I'm not Leon Spinks. I can't continue to prove myself again and again. I wasn't born to be those people. I was born to be myself, Larry Holmes."

And Gerry Cooney was born to be Gerry Cooney. An hour after the fight he strode into the emergency room of Valley Hospital in Vegas, wearing a pair of sunglasses. "Well," he announced, "I got myself in some kind of mess tonight." Cleaning it up required 14 stitches on his left eyelid. What he had shown was that he could acquit himself with the best heavyweight in the world and that he could come off the deck and fight back. And he had done it after having fought fewer rounds in 30 months than most fighters have in six weeks.

"I learned a lot last night," he said on Saturday. "I learned not to worry about going the distance. I learned that I must get the jump. I know I can fight at a faster pace. I wasn't flexible enough."

That he could not get up for the fight, that he felt dull and spiritless in the gym, was the most troubling part of the experience. "I don't want anybody to say I had any excuse," he said. "I lost that fight. It was my fault. But I don't know who that was out there; I know it wasn't me. I'd have one good day in training and then five bad days. I used to sit in my room and think to myself: 'What could it be? What's the matter with me?'

"I wish I'd had a few more fights. My muscles were weak. I didn't feel sharp. I had lost the desire to fight. I'd set up and run and go through the motions. I couldn't get sparring partners who would fight—they'd run, run, run, run. I've got to get myself some sparring partners."

And, he says, he has to get more fights. One of the reasons Cooney's title shot stirred so much controversy among the press and boxing people and irked Holmes is that they felt he hadn't beaten worthy opponents, and here he was making up to $10 million fighting a champion who had earned all he had.

Cooney could aim for Mike Weaver's WBA title, working his way back through the ranks to get there. For him, the important thing is to fight contenders worthy of the name, and not one a year. "I was thinking about retiring after this fight, but not now I'm not," Cooney said. "I want to get back to the gym again. I want to start on the right road. I have a new reason. This is one here." Cooney dipped his glasses, revealing the stitches.

"Hey, thank heavens I'm only 25."

PHOTOThe champion put Cooney on the ropes and brought Valle through them with a decisive barrage in the 13th round. PHOTOIn the very first round, Holmes gave Cooney a foretaste of many snapping jabs to come. PHOTOAn overhand right in the second round stopped Cooney in his tracks, but not for long... PHOTO...As the champion admired his handiwork, Cooney involuntarily hopped in an effort to regain his balance (1) and then, with Holmes in pursuit (2), he lurched crazily around the ring en route to hitting the canvas for the first time in his 26-bout professional career (3).

1PHOTO[See caption above.]
2PHOTO[See caption above.]
3PHOTOThe fallen challenger kneeled in Holmes's corner as the ref pushed the champ away and Cooney thought to himself, "What the heck is going on here? Get up off the floor!" (4 and 5). At the count of four, Cooney got up (6) as Holmes stepped in to resume the battle.
PHOTO[See caption above.]
5PHOTO[See caption above.]
6PHOTOCooney relied largely on his left hand, but when there was an opening he let it be known that all was not wrong with his right.PHOTOCooney's vaunted hook was ineffectual: he telegraphed it, allowing Holmes to dodge it.TWO PHOTOSHolmes kept Cooney off by means of such dubious tactics as thrusting a glove in his face (left) or clutching him around the neck.TWO PHOTOSIn the ninth, Cooney, who repeatedly hit Holmes below the belt, doubled the champ up with a low blow that cost Cooney two points.TWO PHOTOSIn the 13th round, a weary, defenseless Cooney, bleeding from his nose and left eyelid, was decked for the second time.PHOTOLane said later, "His eyes were still good. I was going to give him another chance."PHOTO"I'm O.K.," Cooney protested. "That's enough, son," Valle replied. "That's enough."PHOTOAll that was left for the challenger was a tearful apology to his faithful followers.