The longest wait in Gerry Cooney's life was nearly over, and he sensed it in the air last Friday night as he stepped from the lobby of the Sheffield House hotel into the cold, bracing wind that blew off Anchorage's Cook Inlet. "Can you believe this?" he asked. "Pretty soon Christmas bells are going to be ringing again. Time goes so fast! Where did it go?"
In fact, two Christmases and almost 28 months had passed since Cooney last fought, on the night of June 11, 1982, when Larry Holmes beat him on a TKO in the 13th round of their WBC heavyweight championship fight. Beset by depression, which drove him into hiding, and then by injuries, Cooney was un-ranked and largely unseen. So it seemed fitting that he should reenter the spotlight 2,400 miles from the bright lights of Las Vegas, where he had lost to Holmes, and 3,500 miles from Madison Square Garden, where he had knocked out Ken Norton in 54 seconds in May 1981 and, a bit dubiously, made his name.
Now, as he stood in front of his hotel, the 6'6", 230-pound Cooney was but 15 hours away from his comeback fight against a 6'3½", 217-pound rack of lamb from New Orleans named Phillip Brown, who was undefeated (22-0-2) but had fought only once since Nov. 19, 1982 and thus had been almost as inactive as Cooney (25-1).
Anchorage embraced Cooney, who arrived six days before the fight. Policemen pulled their patrol cars over to say hello. In J.C. Penney's, Cooney stopped traffic when he faced a glass case containing a 1,400-pound, stuffed Alaskan brown bear—standing on its hind legs, teeth and claws bared—and raised his fists and tried to imagine what it would be like to try to get inside its jab.
"Look at that thing!" he said. "Where could you go? What could you do with that? Swisshhh! One swing and you're armless!"
Brown, it turned out, might as well have been disarmed. For one reason or another, he was wholly disinclined to fight. Instead, he awkwardly retreated with his arms raised while Cooney alternately jabbed him and pounded his body. "That's the only way I could get his hands to come down," said Cooney. Brown's hands finally did come down, to his regret. Cooney floored him three times in the fourth round, twice with thunderous right hands, after slashing him with left hooks to the head that sent Brown reeling around the 18-foot ring. Referee Bill McConkey stopped it after Brown crumbled the third time—the three-knockdown rule was in effect—with 0:23 left in the round.
"I was so nervous," Cooney said. "It was like when I first fought in the amateurs. I couldn't relax. He was moving so much, I was reaching. I couldn't find the range. I don't know if it was ring rust or pressure, but my timing wasn't right. I'm glad it's over. I believe in myself. I want to be a fighter. I want to be heavyweight champion of the world. I've got a lot of work to do. I'm just real happy to break the ice."
Remarkably, even though he'd been idle for 28 months, Cooney's victory again made him a very bright light in the dimness of the heavyweight division and a possible future opponent for the 34-year-old Holmes, now the champion of the International Boxing Federation. Pinklon Thomas is the WBC champion, Gerrie Coetzee the WBA's. "The division is a wreck," Cooney says. "My timing is good for coming back."
Cooney had talked about returning—to fight Brown—for a long time. In May 1983, while training in Palm Springs for a June 18 fight against Brown, Cooney landed a left hook on the elbow of a sparring partner and injured the knuckle on his middle finger. Drs. Charles Melone and Joel Grad of NYU Medical Center performed surgery to repair tendon and ligament damage and, most painful of all, a fracture of the metacarpal phalangeal joint. They also removed bone and cartilage chips from the knuckle, which had swollen to three times its normal size.
"We instructed Gerry not to do anything with it," Melone says. "Especially not box."
Last January, Cooney went back to Palm Springs, this time with Victor Valle, his trainer, and Richie Barathy, a black belt in seven styles of martial arts, who became Cooney's weight trainer and physical therapist.
"He couldn't box [with the hand]," says Barathy. "So we did hand exercises to bring it back. It would swell up every day after we worked out." Valle worked with Cooney on defense and tactics, and Barathy had him on a weight program designed to augment his power and enhance his flexibility. Since he couldn't use the left hand, Valle also had him working the speed and heavy bags with his right hand.
By April, Cooney was sparring and wielding the left hand as well as the right, and his knuckle was no longer troubling him. Just when he seemed ready to fight Brown in July, Cooney pulled a muscle near his left shoulder and couldn't train. The fight with Brown was postponed again, making Cooney the object of derision in the press.
"If I were sitting on the outside looking in, I could understand them saying, 'Hey, what the hell is going on with all those injuries?' " he says. "But I can't see them questioning my desire to fight. I hurt my knuckle and people think it's a joke. I like fighting. What do you think I've been doing for two years? I've been training. I've been operated on. If I didn't like it, why would I take all this crap? Why would I stick with it? I don't need this. You've seen all the abuse I've taken. I could have said 'The hell with it' and packed it in. I didn't need the money. But I stuck it out. I want to win the title."
Still, most boxing observers viewed Cooney's comeback with a great deal of skepticism. And if his performance didn't impress all of his critics—Brown was little more than an ambulatory heavy bag—Cooney showed a good jab, the old slashing hook, a heftier right and, above all, a reclaimed passion and intensity for getting the job done.
"After more than two years, that's damn good what he did today," Valle said. "He's more settled than he ever was, more mature. I'm satisfied."
"If I managed Gerry, I'd look for one more fight with anybody in the Top 10," said veteran manager/trainer and CBS commentator Gil Clancy.
Fight anybody, Gerry, but please, next time make it a bear, not a lamb.