Gerry Cooney had finally had it. The months of drift and chaos were nearing an end. Slightly wild-eyed, he turned his back to the fire and hollered across the room, "I don't care what you say about me anymore! I don't care what you write about me anymore. I don't care! This is my life. I can't have anybody messing with my life. I just want to be Gerry Cooney, doing what I want to do. I want to be what I am. A fighter. Do you understand that?"
It was far into a cold February night, and Cooney was in the living room of his new home in Huntington, Long Island. Now the house was almost empty. For three nights, family and strangers had been coming and going, and Cooney had been the obliging host. "Would you like a drink?" the fighter would say. "There's wine in the fridge and vodka or rum on the counter. Help yourself. Where do you want to eat tonight? You like Italian? You like Chinese?"
He had also been the entertainer, reciting dozens of lines from movies he had been showing for weeks, over and over, on his Betamax. He was Rodney Danger-field in Caddyshack, an inebriated Dudley Moore taking a hooker out to dinner in Arthur, Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, holding an armed killer at bay with his .44 magnum. Bill Murray in Stripes and Charles Bronson doing his macho number in Death Wish.
And he was John Lennon singing. Ever since WBC heavyweight champion Larry Holmes stopped Cooney in the 13th round of their title fight in Las Vegas last June 11, Cooney had listened endlessly to Watching the Wheels, Lennon's song about his dropout from the entertainment world. It sustained Cooney through his dropout from boxing. "Listen to this," he said one day, springing to his feet. "This was just like me the last nine months, right down to the end." He sang along:
I'm just sittin' here watch in' the wheels go round and round
I really love to watch them roll
No longer riding on the merry-go-round
I just had to let it go....
But now the wheels had stopped for Cooney. In three days he would be leaving Long Island and its intrusions, and flying to Palm Springs, Calif. to begin training at the posh Sundance Resort at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains. He'd been consumed with guilt for losing the Holmes fight, and his life since then had been an exercise in seclusion and self-abasement. He had ballooned to 246 pounds, 20 more than his fighting weight, but the trip to Sundance would be for more than melting the fat away; it would be a last chance. There was a hint of panic in Cooney's voice that night on Long Island as he said. "I have no time to play no more. I have no more time! No more. I'm not 21 anymore. I'm 26! Get out! Leave me alone! I have no more time. I'm not Ali and I'm not Joe Frazier. Do you understand that?"
He didn't wait for a reply. "I ain't coming back for no glory. This is my last hurrah. This is it! I want to fight Holmes again and win the title and take my family and friends to Europe and have a few fights over there and get out. I don't want [Renaldo] Snipes and [Michael] Dokes to make money off me. This is it for me! Do you understand now? I ain't got no more time...."
Cooney stood up straight. The light from the fire cast his shadow on the far wall. For the first time since he had cried in the Caesars Palace ring after losing to Holmes, he finally seemed at peace with himself.
A few weeks after the Holmes fight, Cooney telephoned from Long Island to one of his co-managers, Mike Jones, in New York City. When Jones answered, Cooney said, "Michael, hold on a second." He stepped to a window and pushed it open, loudly.
"Mike, I'm going to jump!" Cooney cried.
Alarmed, Jones began pleading with his fighter. "Don't do it, Gerry. Please! Don't do it! Where are you?"
"In my kitchen," Cooney said. "On the ground floor...." Cooney chuckles when he tells that story—he remains an incurable tease—but Jones rolls his eyes when he's reminded of it. It may seem absurd now, but there was a time when some people close to Cooney genuinely feared for his well-being, feared even that he might consider self-destruction—a thought, he says, that never occurred to him.
"I went down deep," Cooney says now, holding a palm at eye level and then dropping it sharply. "I mean a deep, deep depression. I went right off the end."
Why he went into such a decline remains puzzling. His record going into the Holmes fight was 25-0, and though he hadn't fought since destroying Ken Norton in 54 seconds 13 months earlier, he was only an 8-5 underdog against the undefeated champion. He feels, in retrospect, that he could have won. "I held back, wondering if I could go the distance," he says, "and I didn't fight my fight; I didn't follow up when I had him hurt and backing up." But he isn't the first man to lose a fight he felt he could have won, and he won't be the last.
For Cooney, going "right off the end" meant not stepping inside a gym again until the last week in October, and then only working out halfheartedly. He didn't return in earnest until January and didn't begin training day in and day out until he arrived in Palm Springs on Feb. 27. But now he's thinking positively about the future. Last week Jones and Cooney's other co-manager, Dennis Rappaport, were working on a deal that would put him back in the ring in May.
But there were times when it seemed that Cooney would never fight again. "I can't say it didn't pass through my mind," he says. "I was very down on myself. It took me a while to understand what happened to me. I wanted to sort things out, to understand why I lost. I could have come back to fight right away, but it would have been for all the wrong reasons, like to make money. I wanted to wait until I knew I wanted to come back. Not just to make money. Not because of pressures. I felt I would fight again, but not until my head was right."
Cooney says he made $9 million fighting Holmes, of which Rappaport and Jones took $3 million—a standard one-third cut—and trainer Victor Valle about $600,000. That left Cooney with about $5.4 million before taxes.
"I could have had five fights since Holmes and made tons of money," he says, "but I didn't. I could have done well, but it wouldn't have been from my heart. It wouldn't have been me, really. So I just had to take time. Before I jumped into anything—before I said I wanted to go back or didn't want to go back—I wanted to sit down and take the puzzle and put it together and say. 'Now I'm positive I want to do this. Now I'm positive I can do this.' "
For months after his fight with Holmes, wherever Cooney went people asked him why he wasn't in training. "I got depressed, and it just got worse and worse," he says. "I'd go out at night, and people would bother me and I'd leave. I felt like bringing a tape recorder to answer for me."
Cooney stopped doing his roadwork in the morning. He received telephone messages but refused to return the calls. Jones remembers a recording Cooney was using on his phone answering machine: "Hi, this is Gerry Cooney. I'm not home at the moment, and Hillie don't pick up the phone no more," referring to Hillie Cohen, who was his roommate before a recent falling-out.
A few weeks after the Holmes fight. Jones started leaving messages of increasing urgency, from "Gerry, this is Mike, call me" to "Gerry, this is Mike, please call me" to "Gerry, please call me, it's important." For weeks there was nothing but silence.
"I'd try to call three or four days in a row," Jones says. "I knew he was depressed, and I wanted to sit down with him, one on one, and talk to him. I'd leave a message with his mother, or with his brothers, Michael and Steve, but he never got back to me."
Cooney felt pressure everywhere, even at his mother's house in Huntington, where he was raised. Eileen Cooney was taking many calls for him and, because of a television commercial that she had done with Gerry, was receiving fan mail herself. He used to go there to get away, but there was no getting away. "My mother used to say, 'You have to do this. You have to do that. This one called. Call here. Call there.' "
Finally, Cooney said, "Mom, I come to your house to see you and relax. I don't want to hear this now. I can't take it no more."
When Cooney visited his mother he sat down and stared at the television set. "He'd be very quiet," Eileen says. "I never saw him like that." At times, to cheer him, she would try to show him encouraging letters. He didn't want to see them.
Jones gave up trying to reach Cooney by telephone and began driving to Huntington, hoping to catch him at his new pub, Cooney's East Side. When he got lucky and found him there, Cooney would talk about anything but boxing. Jones recalls, anything but his past or future as a fighter.
"Mike, I don't want to talk about it," Cooney would say. Then one day in late July, Cooney hinted to Jones that he was ready to come back again. It wasn't long before Jones and Rappaport, with help from Sam Glass, whose Tiffany Productions had co-promoted the Holmes fight with Don King, lined up a bout with former heavyweight champion John Tate. He had been a spent shell since he'd been knocked face-down cold by Mike Weaver two years before. The fight was on if Cooney would agree. According to the contract, Jones had two weeks to sign his fighter—"Just in case I couldn't find him," he says.
It took Jones four days. Unable to reach Cooney by phone, Jones drove out to Cooney's East Side, and there Cooney was. "I got a hell of a deal for you," Jones said, pulling the contract out of his pocket. "John Tate. You make over $1 million." Cooney told Jones he wasn't fighting until he was ready. "And I'm not ready," he said. "Nobody, not you, Dennis, Victor, my mother, my brothers or anyone, can tell me when to fight until I'm ready to fight."
Jones decided to leave Cooney alone. He didn't try to reach him again for months. As summer became fall, no one in Cooney's circle felt more abandoned than Valle. Cooney's father had died in 1976, and Valle had since become a kind of surrogate. Gerry not only didn't visit Valle in Gleason's Gym in Manhattan, where Valle trains his fighters, he didn't call him, either. Valle became impossible to live with. He grew quiet at home, stopped playing with his grandchildren, snapped at his family and forbade Cooney's name to be mentioned in his presence.
"I saw Gerry on TV today," Victor's wife, Lola, said one day.
He exploded, saying, "Goddammit! I don't want to hear that name mentioned around here anymore."
Deeply hurt, Valle slipped into a depression of his own. He stopped talking to Lola and so disrupted the household that his son, Victor Jr., a boxing trainer himself, appealed to him. "Pop," he said, "you've got to snap out of this. You're making the family miserable."
Lola finally fell ill. "Victor would talk to me very rough, or he wouldn't talk to me at all," she says. "I was very depressed. All I did was sleep. It didn't make any difference to me if I lived or died." In September she began a month-long stay at Gracie Square Hospital in Manhattan, suffering from "severe depression."
Cooney didn't want to face the pressure he knew Valle would bring to bear on him. When he finally screwed up the courage to call Valle one day last fall. Valle told him to either get back to the gym or announce his retirement. "You owe that to the people," Valle said. Cooney told him that he wanted to fight again but didn't want to be pushed.
"Nobody's pushing you," Valle said. "Don't be foolish. Get into that gym. The faster you do it, the better it will be. Get into condition."
Cooney said, "Pop, I'll be there. Give me a few more days."
"He didn't show up for weeks and weeks and weeks," says Valle. "That's when I got mad. I was telling newspapers that he was coming in next week. And then next week—no Gerry. No Gerry.
"He was making me look like a fool. I was very, very hurt because he didn't call me. When he didn't come to the gym, I was very annoyed. It bothered me that a smart kid like that would stay away so many months just because he didn't know how to accept defeat. I have never seen a kid act that way. A man of 26 should have a little more common sense.
"He wished that this had never happened. I told him, 'You cannot bring back the past. You have to learn how to erase it and bury it.' He thought he couldn't lose.... He was too sure. The defeat was a terrible thing on his mind. It snapped."
One might have thought, reading the newspaper gossips last summer and fall, that Cooney was doing his training at Studio 54 and Xenon with debutante Cornelia Guest, actress Valerie Perrine and country and western singer Tanya Tucker. In fact, he says, he knew them only in passing and had an affair with none of them.
"Every time I went in to New York, it made the papers," he says. "It was all blown up. I mostly laid low and hung around my own place, because it was the one place I could go where people knew to leave me alone."
He was lost. By October he and Cohen were at each other's throat and Cooney asked him to leave. "We beat up on everybody else until there was nobody left to beat up on," Cohen says, "so we beat upon each other."
In October, CBS boxing commentator Gil Clancy, a former trainer and an old friend of Cooney's, drove out to Huntington to urge him to get back to the gym. Clancy brought his wife, Nancy, to Cooney's East Side for dinner, and he and the fighter rapped for hours. Clancy refused to go until Cooney had promised him he would return. "I'm not leaving here till you tell me when you're going back," Clancy said. Cooney agreed to resume training; he talked with Valle and had a workout at Gleason's Gym, but then he had second thoughts. "I didn't know if I was supposed to go back," he says, "so I took off a week. And came back again. Then I fought an exhibition in Texas. But I didn't know if I was ready for all the questions, every day 15,000 questions. Mike and Dennis were trying to make something, and I'd mess it up."
Cooney couldn't even keep an appointment with a psychiatrist. During the fall, Cooney and Rappaport had begun meeting, and Rappaport sensed Cooney needed professional help. "He was in chaos; he felt his world was crumbling," Rappaport says. "He was extremely tough on himself, putting himself through all sorts of guilt trips. He blamed himself for everything that happened." Rappaport suggested that he see a psychiatrist; Cooney said O.K.
Rappaport consulted the American Psychiatric Association in search of an older man—"I wanted a father-type figure"—for Cooney. He ended up with 10 names, which he gradually reduced to one. On the appointed day, Cooney bailed out. Rappaport fumed. "He got cold feet," he says.
"I said, 'Hey, I don't need this shrink,' " Cooney says. "By then I knew I was going to beat it, but I knew it was going to take some time."
His younger brother, Steve, had begun to see a difference around Christmastime. "He was like a different person," Steve says. "You could see it just in the way he carried himself."
"Maybe things adjusted in my head," Cooney says. "I don't know. I thought about it an awful lot. One day it just hit me and then I started feeling good."
Valle flew with Cooney to Sundance, along with Rappaport and Jones, and Georgie Munch, a friend Cooney has known since grade school. Cooney and Munch share a condo at Sundance with Richie Barathy, an instructor in karate and a black belt in seven styles of martial art. Barathy claims the world record for breaking slabs of granite with a single karate chop—six slabs, each 1¼ inches thick, set 1¼ inches apart. He'd worked for Cooney as a bodyguard in Las Vegas.
In the months when Cooney was avoiding Valle, he began working out—lifting weights but not sparring or even hitting the bag—with Barathy at Rab's, Barathy's gym in Huntington. Barathy is supervising a weight-training program designed in part to increase the strength and speed of Cooney's punches. "I figure that his punches will increase by 20 mph in each hand," Barathy says. "You can't imagine what it will do for him. Whether he's feinting, picking off punches or throwing hand weapons, it will all be done faster and more powerfully."
Where the last nine months have left Cooney, of course, is a question that not even he can answer yet. He had puttered around Gleason's for a few weeks, and had caught a bad cold, which was not helped by heavy rains the first few days in Palm Springs. But he has since been beating up on his sparring partners—he dropped seven out of seven the first three days—like the ferocious gym fighter of old. Valle is withholding judgment: "He was too long away from boxing. What he has done to himself remains to be seen."
But at least Cooney is talking more rationally about the Holmes fight. "I got so much experience out of that," he says. "If you go through the rest of your life chasing the past, you'll never get anywhere. Hey, I took some time off to think. It's one of the things I learned. It was hard."
Most important, he is back because he wants to be, and on his own terms. "I feel I got new blood," Cooney says. "I'm excited about coming back. I feel good about this again. I feel hungry again. I want to win the title. I lost only one fight. I don't want to lose no more."