Morning came early and then passed slowly for Gerry Cooney on Saturday in San Francisco. The night before, he had tried to stay awake to watch a favorite TV program, a rerun of Taxi, but he had drifted off during the 11 o'clock news and slept well. When he awoke at 6:15, the dark Irish melancholy that had embraced him for so long was gone. He was going to fight in the Cow Palace later in the day, and he liked that.
All week he had been telling anyone who would listen, "I feel terrific. I'm in great shape. I'm 29 years old and I've got plenty of time left."
But the big question remained: Time left to do what? Was Gerry Cooney really serious about boxing now? Had he rid himself of the injuries—or the possible alibis—that had so frequently put his career on hold? Did he really believe that he rated a shot at the heavyweight title in spite of his seeming reluctance in recent years to enter the ring?
The fight Cooney had coming up that afternoon was against Eddie Gregg, 32, the No. 3-ranked heavyweight according to the WBA, No. 9 according to the WBC. A seemingly worthy opponent, yes, but this was only Cooney's fourth fight in almost four years. Indeed, since Larry Holmes knocked him out in a title fight on June 11, 1982, Cooney had not racked up seven full rounds in the ring. Worse, his most recent bout, a two-round KO of George Chaplin, had taken place almost 18 months earlier. Worse yet, on July 30, 1985 he had tearfully announced to the world that he was retiring.
June 8, 1986
No wonder that a newspaperman had nicknamed him the Reluctant Warrior and that Herb Goldman, managing editor of The Ring magazine, recently told USA Today, "There's a good chance that the next time Cooney steps into a ring will be the same day the vestal virgins dance at Satan's wedding."
Well, there were no known invitations to nuptials in Hades on Saturday, but Cooney did in fact step into a ring, and he was well prepared. In the morning he attended eight o'clock mass with his mother and three brothers, gulped down two waffles and some orange juice and then rested. Shortly before noon he dressed for the fight, leaving his hotel wearing his trademark gray tweed cap and a large anticipatory grin. During the drive to the Cow Palace he and his trainer, Victor Valle, went over their strategy. The discussion didn't take long, because the strategy was as blunt as it was simple: Gregg would rise from his stool, Cooney would punch him soon afterward, and everyone would go home.
Which was about the way it went. Just 18 seconds into the first round, Cooney hit Gregg with a hook to the head that dazed him. Gregg still pressed forward, courageously but foolishly. Cooney was devastating. Every punch was a bludgeon that thudded into its target. The finishing blow was a wicked left uppercut, which was followed by an unnecessary left hook as Gregg was falling.
After the count of six, reflexes brought Gregg to his feet, swaying and confused. The referee, Rudy Ortega, counted to eight, took one look at Gregg's glazed eyes and sent him to his corner. Later Ortega said succinctly, "The man was out on his feet." The time was 1:26 of the first round. Gregg had been KO'd only once before in 26 fights. This was Cooney's 24th knockout in 29 fights.
Later in his hotel room, Cooney sipped champagne. He was a happy man, eager to talk about his impressive victory. "I'm glad Ortega stopped the fight," he said. "I could tell Eddie was hurt. I saw him a couple of times this week, and I could see confidence in his eyes. I like people who come in with confidence against me, because then I know they came to fight. I don't like chasing people. Oh, Lord, I felt so strong today. My mind was right. Now I can relax. What was that song Diana Ross sang? It's My Turn? Well, that's me. Now it is my turn."
Could it be Gerry Cooney's turn at last? After his clubbing of Gregg, the WBA and WBC will almost certainly give him a ranking, and that could lead to a championship bout, perhaps within a year. Nevertheless, he is an enigma, one of the most powerful punchers ever, yet a man about whom there are constant questions concerning his competitive desire. He is a 6'6", 232-pound cannon who has already grossed $13 million in his on-again off-again career. His record is a sterling 28-1. Yet until recently, anyway, that single defeat had continued to haunt him.
Three years ago, on Dec. 11, 1983, when Holmes resigned his WBC title and announced his retirement, Cooney was enraged. "He can retire, but he's still going to have to fight me," he cried. That same night, Dennis Rappaport, Cooney's manager, got a frightened phone call from a close friend of Cooney's. "The man told me that Gerry was going to drive to Easton, Pa. [Holmes's hometown] the next day and challenge Larry to a fight in the street," recalls Rappaport. "He was that obsessed with fighting Holmes. I almost went crazy. I called Gerry, and he told me, I don't care about the money! I'm going to fight him in the street!' I screamed at him, 'What the hell is wrong with you, you're a professional fighter. You get paid for fighting in the ring. You'll get arrested! You can't do it! Besides, he won't fight you in the street.' " Rappaport talked Cooney out of challenging Holmes on his own curbside.
Cooney, however, stayed in a deep depression and in self-imposed exile from boxing for 27 months after his loss to Holmes. Now, four years later, Cooney believes that at last he has adjusted to the trauma of that loss. "It took me a long time, but I finally put the Holmes fight where it belongs—in the past," he said in San Francisco last week. "It's over and I lost it. I fought a stupid fight, but there is nothing I can do about it now. I had him hurt and I didn't follow up. I was making sure I went 15 rounds. I didn't fight him; I sparred him. I should have tried to knock his head off. But I didn't, and afterward I felt I had let a lot of people down."
The press generally considered the loss to Holmes a noble effort on Cooney's part. But sportswriters—and some people in boxing—found much else to criticize about him. "Some of the things written about me hurt, but there is nothing I can do about it," Cooney says. "You can get yourself crazy if you let it. What bothers me is that they didn't understand the things going on. I've just had some bad luck. I've had every injury known to man. I understand how people think, 'How can this be happening all the time to Gerry Cooney?' But it did."
Cooney has been taken to task for the string of fights postponed because of his injuries—13 at last count. The worst two involved his left shoulder—a torn muscle next to the rotator cuff—and a badly smashed knuckle on his left hand. The cause, according to the Cooney camp, was his overwhelming natural power.
"His punches weren't just too powerful for other people, they were too powerful for his own body," says Rappaport. "Nine days before he fought Holmes he hit a sparring partner on the head and he mangled the left knuckle. It wasn't just a fighter's knuckle; it was mangled. Later, he threw a left hook, and a sparring partner partially caught it. Gerry's shoulder was stopped abruptly and something in it ripped. At first they thought it was the rotator cuff, but it was in the muscle right next to it. He could hook up with the left hand but he couldn't hook over, and that is Gerry's best punch."
That injury led to a postponement. An operation repaired the knuckle last year. The shoulder healed naturally, although with Cooney's power there's always the dread that the muscle will tear again.
Cooney is not the only one who suffers from his powerful punches. He has always been known as a brutal (some say bullying) destroyer of sparring partners. Says Phil Brown, a journeyman heavyweight who sparred with Cooney in 1979, "It was suicide. He'd deliberately hurt you to boost his ego."
Holmes's trainer, Richie Giachetti, says, "All Cooney's sparring partners are powder puffs. Anybody who hits back gets fired."
Rappaport is well aware of Cooney's rough treatment of sparring mates. "It all goes back to the day he turned pro and Victor Valle wouldn't let him spar with anybody for the first six months," says Rappaport. Gerry took a lot of heat in the gym. Every day he heard, 'Hey, Sweetie, when are you going to get into the ring so we can find out if you're a man? I want a piece of you.' When Victor finally turned him loose, he beat them to death. We beg him to go easy because we are running out of people, but he gets hit and he goes Irish crazy. He wants to hurt somebody."
Finding sparring partners willing to suffer hasn't been Cooney's only problem lately. Cooney says that for a time his older brother, Tommy, had a drug problem, and this took its toll on Cooney. "It was tearing my mother apart, and it was destroying our family," says Cooney. "I finally had to make a decision. I either had to concentrate on fighting or I had to help my family. I chose my family. I love my mom, I love my family. I couldn't stand what was happening." So Cooney declared his retirement from boxing last July.
Then, one cold night in December, Cooney and four pals were arrested in a bar at a Holiday Inn in Harrisburg, Pa. They were taken away in handcuffs and charged with disorderly conduct. When asked about this episode last week, Cooney replied with a grin, "They arrested me, all right. Now let me tell you what happened. Some friends of mine and me had watched a football game on TV and then gone to dinner. Later we went to the Holiday Inn, and I was in the bar signing autographs. One of my friends didn't feel well, and the bar manager said he could go sit in a small room at the back. Another friend, George Kaplan, who is 61 and a diabetic, went with him. This cop comes in and starts yelling and arguing with George and then arrests them both for no reason.
"I'm still in the bar signing autographs. Another friend, Robert Wesnofske, who is an ex-cop himself, goes out to see what they have been arrested for. He gets hit over the face with a blackjack or something and he is arrested. Then somebody comes in and tells me there's a phone call for me in the lobby. I say, 'Nobody knows I'm here.' I go out and I see one guy all bloody, and they handcuff me. They said it was for my own protection."
However innocent Cooney & Co. may have been, the outcome of the case was this: In January, Cooney agreed to fight a charity exhibition in Harrisburg, in return for which the charges against him and three of his four pals were dropped. The fourth, Wesnofske, pleaded guilty to two charges of disorderly conduct and was fined $600.
In the midst of Cooney's bouts with trouble and doubt, a turning point in his boxing career occurred, as he tells it, when Michael Spinks upset Holmes for the IBF championship last September. Cooney watched the first two rounds on television, and then he switched off the set. He felt sick. "They were doing what I should have been doing. Fighting," he says. "I've always wanted to fight. I love to fight. It's just all this other bull——the politics that I hate. It's all crazy. The actual fighting, I love that."
Cooney started training again last November in the erroneous belief that he could reenter boxing with a title fight against Spinks. Not surprisingly, that didn't come to pass, so Cooney took on Gregg. And now, if he's to' be believed, he's ready to take on the world.