A Bout Against Doubt

Will Gerry Cooney ever be hungry enough? Not even he seems to know
Will Gerry Cooney ever be hungry enough? Not even he seems to know
June 07, 1987

At dawn the boxer arises and spreads his arms to the hills. "Beautiful, isn't it?" he says. "So peaceful and quiet." Then he wraps earphones around his head, turns up the rock music and begins to run.

After his three-mile roadwork the boxer enters the gleaming resort health spa to do his stomach exercises. "Being out there in a cabin in the middle of the woods, that's no good," he says. "You need something to take your mind off what you're doing. Look." He slides to one side of the workout bench, seeking the best angle in the mirror to view a young woman in leotards pumping a Nautilus machine.

After breakfast the boxer spends 20 minutes in the spa's tanning bed. "Just for a little color," he says. Then a little TV, a little lunch, a little nap, and he enters the spa gym for sparring.

There, on the wall above the richest nontitleholding boxer in history, as he prepares for a June 15 bout in Atlantic City with Michael Spinks that will earn him $5 million more, hangs a large American flag, GERRY COONEY, says the lettering on the flag, AMERICAN TRADITIONS.

Hey, champ, how you doing? How do you feel? You look in shape. Good to see you. Thanks for coming. Have a nice day."

This is not the fan addressing the boxer. This is the boxer addressing the fan. This is the same man who a few hours earlier had slapped his right biceps, balled his fist and thrust it toward the ceiling, saying that the people who criticized him for his long layoff from boxing and his French pastry list of opponents "could stick it."

Now here he is, shaking people's hands and tousling their kids' hair and autographing his photograph as they stand in line after his workout, the champion for the suburban American middle class—from which he came and in which he still lives. "Such a likable guy," the people say as they leave, giving him their highest honor. "Such a likable guy."

"Hi, I'm Gerry Cooney, I'm fighting Michael Spinks for the heavyweight title in June," he says to people in airports who haven't asked. He gives them autographs they haven't asked for, too. The big smile. The big handshake. "I'm a happy guy," he explains. "I just want to see people laugh and smile."

In his house in suburban Huntington, N.Y., is a collection of 18 clown figurines and 3 mime's masks. They are nailed to his kitchen wall, stationed in his dining-room hutch, propped on his living-room shelves. All but one are sad or crying.

He's cheating the public," said former heavyweight Jerry Quarry. "They paid big money to see him apply himself to his trade, then he waits all that time and demands all that money. Where the hell does he get the right? He never was a champion. He tried once and got his ass whipped."

"I had to go to battle and go to war to get my title shot at Mike Tyson," said heavyweight Pinklon Thomas. "Of course it's unfair, but Cooney's got the complexion."

"I can't understand," said Joe Frazier. "The world keeps hoping and praying for a white champion. But the man hasn't paid his dues."

"Isn't it great the way a match like this can capture the public's imagination?" said Angelo Dundee. "Isn't it great to be living in America?"

Eighteen million dollars means you are not middle class anymore. Eighteen million means you can stop listening to what the neighbors say. But Gerry Cooney still listens. Here he is, 30 years old, back in shape and still owner of a murderous left hook, about to raise his ring earnings to $18 million in his 29th bout, the match against Spinks, which many people—but none of boxing's sanctioning organizations—recognize as a title fight. "I honestly feel I'm a better fighter now than I was five years ago," he says, smiling. "Maybe I was meant not to fight much all those years. Maybe I would have lost if I'd fought more."

But not everyone is smiling. The people he shakes hands with at his training-camp workouts in Vernon, N.J., the little kids he tickles, they all seem to like him. And yet he keeps hearing the neighbors, the ones in suburbs like Huntington, the ones in the boxing world he has somehow wandered into. For the last five years he has heard them because he wasn't boxing; now he hears them because he is boxing. Cooney can't understand it.

All he has done in his career is minimize his risks and maximize his profits, taking some time off in between to find himself and to help a brother with a cocaine addiction. All those are normal American middle-class things to do, aren't they?

Whose rules has he violated? Whose code has he failed? Hell, he still lives in a duplex in the same Long Island suburb where he passed his childhood, he still travels the few blocks home to have dinner with his mom every night that he isn't in training camp. He hasn't asked to be weighed by any different set of moral scales, has he?

He would never have gotten into this sport if his father, an ironworker, hadn't misunderstood what it meant to be middle class. Every morning at dawn his old man had wakened him to do roadwork and finger pushups and rope-climbing, then egged him into trading punches in the backyard ring. A Depression dad, he was like so many other men of his generation who had starved their need for love in their hunger for financial stability, for certainty—and for control.

When Tony Cooney broke his leg, he made his four sons crawl into his bed so he could discipline them with his belt. He left his boys two choices: toughen and pretend not to want his love; or stay raw and chase his love forever.

Gerry Cooney stayed raw. When he was 17 while driving on a highway he came upon an auto accident in which a man had lost part of his skull. At a rest stop 15 minutes later, Cooney stood to urinate and passed out, bashing his face when he fell. "What happened to your face?" his father asked later. Gerry hesitated, fearful the truth might be taken as softness. "Scraped it up diving in a swimming pool," he replied.

More contempt Cooney didn't need. He had acne, knock-knees, too much height and, when his father was done with the clippers on Sunday, not enough hair. Emotionally he was too tender to be a fighter. Reluctantly he became one. "It was the only way to please his dad and get rid of all the people who thought he was a clod," says Richie Minervini, a stand-up comedian and old friend. "He went behind the football stands one day, put on some leather hand gloves and beat up the school bully, and by the next morning everyone in school was talking about him."

Now Tony Cooney had what he wanted, a boy who could fistfight. Right answer. Wrong question.

Will I survive? That was the question that people who needed to fistfight faced.

How will I keep what I've got? How do I feel about myself? How do others feel about me? Those were the questions the people who lived in Gerry Cooney's suburb faced.

To be a boxer, Cooney would have to leave his world and enter the fighter's, pose his questions in the ring against theirs. Physically he was bigger and stronger than any of them. Psychologically, he was a man in a jungle with a butter knife.

Marvin Hagler wore DESTRUCTION AND DESTROY on his headgear. On his, Gerry Cooney wore I ♥ U.

He found himself at midnight in a neighborhood he didn't know. Now he was a boxer. Most people in Huntington wouldn't want their sons to go into that neighborhood. But suddenly, suburbanites all across America were thrilled that Cooney was going. What they couldn't do at midnight on a city street or a subway, Gerry could. "Whites wanted him to beat up a black man," says friend Dennis Hewitt, "in order to calm their fears."

Cooney hadn't asked for that burden; he wanted a smile no matter what color it came in. But now he was their tool, their hammer, and every new hand that gripped him made him feel a little warmer, a little safer, a little more in need of a new hand to grasp. In 1976 his dad died of lung cancer and Cooney passed up the Olympic trials and quit boxing to do construction work. A year later he ran into one of his father's old ironworker buddies, who told him how much Tony Cooney had bragged about his son, the Golden Gloves winner. "Really?" said Gerry. "All of a sudden he couldn't wait to get into the gym," says his brother Steve, 29.

On Oct. 25, 1980, at 2:49 of the first round of his 24th fight, there were 10,000 people in Nassau Coliseum on their feet, cheering madly, and one man—Ron Lyle—lying senseless at Cooney's feet. The memory still makes Cooney touch his thighs. "I got chills, I got goose bumps. I felt like I was touching all those people. I was living through their emotions."

But his own emotions were not suited to the poleaxing of another man. He would see a dead woodchuck when he was doing roadwork, wince, bless himself with his index finger and stop to carry it off the road. Just before a fight in 1979, training in Florida, he found a pelican with a fishhook caught in its mouth. As his manager screamed "No," Cooney stuck his hand into the bird's snapping beak and yanked out the hook.

On his daily commute to Gleason's Gym in Manhattan he would save a seat on the train for an old man and ask questions about his life. When an 85-year-old woman told him how lonely she had felt since her husband died, he invited her into the hotel pool every day after sparring and pretended he couldn't swim, just so she could teach him. Relentlessly he gave time to charities and visited hospitals.

"He was one of the sweetest, gentlest people I'd ever met, ever," says free-lance photographer Joe DiMaggio, a friend. "He was not created by some public relations man. It came from his heart and from his soul. It was beautiful."

The same sensitivity that could turn him away from boxing was what made him such a ferocious boxer. "He'd enter a ring with no real anger," says Richie Barathy, a martial-arts expert who worked as Cooney's conditioning coach for several years, "and then get punched and take it as a personal insult. He'd go crazy. His sensitivity exaggerated every emotional reaction, whether it was depression or anger or joy. I had to edit everything I said to him beforehand, because he'd take almost everything as an attack."

The stakes grew higher. He needed the people, the people needed him. Nobody had ever really expected Jerry Quarry or George Chuvalo, white heavyweights of the '60s and '70s, to beat Muhammad Ali or Joe Frazier, but they began expecting this massive kid, Cooney, to do it. For the first time since the '50s, a white man had a real chance to be the heavyweight champion. The perfect middle-class heavyweight champion. Civility and savagery rolled into one. Cooney told friends he planned to quit at 25, after beating Larry Holmes in 1982 for the title. Then he would be done with the sport he didn't really like. Then he would be loved for the rest of his life.

He lost. He lost in the 13th with manager Dennis Rappaport screaming, "Do it for the kids with leukemia! . . . Do it for America! . . . Do it for your father! . . . " Everything but do it for yourself.

"I'm sorry I let you down," Cooney sobbed into the ring microphone. And then his life became one grand mea culpa. To his trainer, to his friends, to strangers he kept apologizing for a fight for which he made $10 million.

Apologize?" said Holmes. "People criticize me, I say, 'Kiss my ass.' Your own brother be cheering for you one minute when you're kicking the other guy's ass, and cheering for the other guy the next when he's kicking yours."

"A fighter should never apologize," said former light heavyweight champion Archie Moore. "I lost to Rocky Marciano in '55, and I didn't apologize to anyone. I'd done the best I could, and if that was insufficient, let them groom another fighter to take my place."

None of them understood. None of them had to care what the neighbors said, none of their motives for boxing were Cooney's. They had become fistfighters to survive—what more solitary or guiltless pursuit was there than survival?

Months passed, mostly spent staring empty-eyed at the TV. Often Cooney went to a comedy club, took the microphone to tell a few jokes, then to apologize and explain.

A few times he even jumped in a car, vowing to drive to Easton, Pa., and pummel Holmes in the street.

Revenge. That at least was a clean motive, a strong one straight from the stomach. The people in the other neighborhood would understand. But a few miles later he'd pull off the expressway and turn back to Huntington; the people there wouldn't understand.

He went to the Alexis Arguello-Aaron Pryor fight in Miami in November 1982. A hailstorm of boos hit him when he was introduced to the crowd. "Let's go," he said right after the fight to his pal Minervini. Straight to a local comedy club they went, where people were laughing. Minervini took the stage and began a friendly comedy routine about Gerry.

"Cooney sucks," someone yelled from the crowd.

"Would you say it to his face if he were here now?"

"Sure."

"So I called Gerry onto the stage," recalls Minervini. "The guy turned white. 'Say it,' I said. He wouldn't. Then Cooney starts wrestling the guy. He's smiling, but behind the guy, where nobody can see, Gerry has his knuckle grinding into the guy's neck. The guy is moaning like he's going to die.

"One jerk in a crowd of 300 could get him depressed. Gerry did comedy for 15 minutes one night in South Orange, New Jersey, then one guy yelled, 'You bum,' and he walked off the stage and went home."

"Do you know how much money I lost on you?" people kept telling him in bars—even five years later they would say it. Money was usually the currency they chose to express their frustration. And then the rub: "So why aren't you fighting?"

If a 26-year-old investor who was asked why he wasn't on Wall Street working, answered, "Because I made 10 million dollars recently and I've decided to get out of the rat race for a while," we would toast his fortune and envy him. A 26-year-old fighter did that and people sneered.

In this new landscape into which he had wandered, the hunters were honored and the Hamlets were hooted away. Fighters fought, even in times of crisis. Especially in times of crisis. When the woman Michael Spinks was living with died on Jan. 7, 1983, he brooded for a month. On Feb. 7, he left for training camp to fight Dwight Braxton, beat him and unified the light heavyweight championship.

"Oh, Lord, I didn't understand what had happened to me," Spinks says. "I'd hear keys and keep thinking it was her at the door. Then I went into the gym and beat the bag until I was too tired to think, until the bag was singing hallelujah. The best remedy for pain is activity. It was always that way for me. I boxed so my environment wouldn't eat me up. I did it so I could sleep. It was never something I wanted to do. It was something I needed to do. I ran to boxing."

During Cooney's crisis, he walked into the woods atop the highest hill on Long Island, just outside of Huntington. He circled the two ponds there and let his mind drift on them. "There was a plank of wood across the stream between the two ponds," he says. "Every time I went I had to pick up the plank to see if there were salamanders, just like I had when I was a kid. I'd think about how much fun I used to have there and how excited I used to be to find trails. They had turtles there too, and there were even wild geese up there with their babies." The sweetness and light flickers across his face—then is gone. " 'Why are you getting so confused?' I'd ask myself. So many things had happened to me at a young age, things nobody ever tells you about. I needed time to understand."

Who was Cooney fighting for—the neighbors or himself? If it was himself, why would he feel the need to apologize? Was it for his father? "I never fought because of my father," he would flare one moment. "I started to box before he pushed me. It had nothing to do with him." And then, in an unguarded moment of anguish with a friend, it tumbled from his tongue. "My father would never have lost to Holmes."

For months Cooney dared not look at a tape of the Holmes fight, and then he couldn't stop himself from watching it—nine, 10 times some nights, snapping off the video each time just before the 13th. "Look, I didn't do so bad," he would say, pointing to the screen. So difficult was it for him to accept unhappiness that he kept trying to crumple up the bad moments and rewrite them, as if life were just a script. After the death of his 13-year-old German shepherd, Scout, the one he always took for a walk and talked with just before he left for training camp, he bought another shepherd and gave it the same name.

Later in his career, when sparring partner Harold Rice showed him up at an exhibition at Gilley's bar in Pasadena, Texas, Cooney offered Rice $1,500 from his pocket to entice him back into his training camp, where he annihilated him, breaking two ribs with one left hook, an eardrum with another and Rice's nose with a right cross, and leaving him paralyzed below the waist for several days.

Back home, Cooney memorized lines from the Rocky movies. "Rocky beat the odds, had a happy marriage and kids, and America loved him," says Minervini. "That's what Gerry wanted too. He kept replaying this scene in Rocky III when Apollo Creed is training him for the big fight. They're running together on the beach, and Creed is running faster than Rocky, so Adrian says, 'What's wrong with you?' and Rocky answers, 'I don't want to lose what I already got.'

" 'Did you hear what he said?' Gerry would say to us. That's how we'd know what he was feeling. When life didn't match up to what it should, he'd always watch movies.

"He had to playact the part of being a great boxer. Gerry really wasn't a guy who beat on someone's head—that's what created his conflict, his question. Who am I? Am I the guy who loves his mother? Am I the guy who has to beat up people? Am I the millionaire? Which who was he?"

Cooney would come down off the hill in the woods and try to listen to the voice inside him, but it was so hard to hear: All of the neighbors were talking.

You don't get paid to be a philosopher," said Holmes. "You get paid to kick their ass."

"Hey, Gerry, you have 10 million dollars," said the people he met in bars. "You have no problems."

"Most men box because they feel cheated by the world," said Archie Moore. "How could Cooney feel that way? He had his milk and diapers and bicycles."

"He just got too complacent," said Quarry. "Making 10 million dollars at that young age."

"If that man doesn't want to fight," growled Cooney's friend Jim Berbick, "it's nobody's business. Nobody else's business at all."

"Gerry Cooney's a crybaby," said former junior welterweight champion and Cooney stablemate Billy Costello. "Gerry Cooney has no heart."

Did Cooney have no heart? Or did he have double the heart of all those other suburbanites his age who had plunged into a job and a life-style that gave them security—and never stopped to reflect even when they began to feel vacant inside?

Did it show strength to lace on his gloves again and shut them all up? Or would it show strength to come down off the hill with the two ponds and say, Goodbye, everyone, I am no more a boxer, I am going somewhere to live by my own definition of happiness.

But what was his definition? He kept picking ideas up and putting them down. He dabbled in real estate, bought a telecommunications company, looked in on his bar-restaurant in Huntington, acted in a few TV shows. One day he walked into a store and bought a saxophone, then never found time for lessons.

"The public wouldn't let him switch fields," says Minervini. "He'd call up The Tonight Show, and they'd say, 'Call back when you've got another fight.' "

Rumors that he was using cocaine spread so widely that a man entered Cooney's bar asking to buy some from him, and a gossip column referred to how much time he had spent in a disco bathroom. "Small people talking," Cooney says, "associating me with something that's usually associated with young people who are rich."

Nothing he tried felt as strong as what rushed through him after he had knocked a man out, the 10 minutes after he had boxed. In September 1984, after a 27-month layoff, he came back and flattened Phil Brown in the fourth round. Nine weeks later he knocked out George Chaplin in the second. "This time around, I'm going to do the right things," he told reporters. Eight months of inactivity later, Cooney's comanagers, Rappaport and Mike Jones, announced the fighter's retirement. "I only did it so people would leave me alone," Cooney says now. "I never really retired."

A 6' 6", 230-pound man had entered a neighborhood of powerful men and bold movements—and he kept vacillating. Few wanted to hear why. For a while he was recovering from a hand operation and rehabilitating a shoulder injury. Then his managers spent months trying to set up a rematch with Holmes, which Holmes didn't seem to want. He was also agonizing over the drug problem of his older brother Tom, writing $5,000 to $25,000 checks for his rehabilitation. "You can have more than one career, but you only have one family," he said. Brothers whose papas were drunken gamblers and whose brothers were mainliners groaned that the suburban boxer would use that excuse.

One night, Cooney leaped on his brother to stop him from committing suicide, then he collapsed on the sofa and broke down. " 'Why me?' I kept asking myself," he says now. "Why did I deserve this?"

Whom could he lean on? Old friendships crumbled, including two with buddies since grade school and another with co-manager Jones (Cooney and Jones have filed multimillion-dollar suits against each other). Cooney's insecurity made it impossible to stay close to him, the former friends said. "He'd smoke cigarettes and drink with us," says one, "and then when we went to training camp with him, if he saw us smoking or drinking, he'd scream, 'How can you do this to me?' "

Another 18 months passed without a fight. Then in May 1986, Cooney dusted Eddie Gregg in the first round. "Now it's my turn," he declared. That made seven rounds of boxing in four years (four of them against one of his former sparring partners, Brown, and two against an orthopedic technician, Chaplin) and a total of 26 rounds of boxing in the 1980s. And yet, Rappaport, the manager of a man who had never held a title, was demanding a championship fight with economic parity. Cooney settled for $5 million to Spinks's $7 million; he didn't have to cup his ear to hear what the neighbors were saying.

Why wasn't he fighting heavyweights like Michael Dokes, Greg Page and Tim Witherspoon when they had the title?" said New York Daily News boxing writer Mike Katz. "Then when a light heavyweight [Spinks] becomes heavyweight champ, he comes out of retirement and says he's ready?"

"Listen, Holmes was the champion," said Rappaport. "Spinks beat him, so he became champion, no matter what the WBA or WBC or IBF say. Gerry isn't in fighting just to fight. He's fighting to win the championship. Besides, Don King owns all those fighters, and he wanted options on Cooney if he beat them. No way we were going to do that. Maximize the profit and minimize the risk—I've always believed in that."

"He minimized the risk so much, Gerry never fought," said Jones. "Dennis was afraid to put him in the ring."

"Cooney went for money instead of development," said trainer Eddie Futch. "A boxer needs to face adversity."

"You lose your heart if you're not put before the public in stressful situations, when it's just you and him and God," said Quarry. "I would've demanded tougher fights if my manager wasn't giving them to me."

"Why risk losing to Page or Dokes or Witherspoon for one million when you can wait and fight someone for 5 or 10 million?" said Barathy, the martial-arts man.

"Shouldn't there be a greater desire than money?" said 87-year-old trainer Ray Arcel. "It's more important for a man to learn his trade, and Gerry Cooney's only had one fight in his life. I think he fought my grandfather."

Cooney shook his head in confusion. Why pick on him? Wasn't this what everyone who grew up in the suburbs did—cut their risks, take the safe road? "What do people want?" he demanded. "Do they want a fighter to get his brains beat out, see him bleed and get cut, and then they say he was a tough kid, and he can't talk, and they look for the next guy to come along? Is that what they want?"

Each day when he drove down his street, he waved hello to people who had surrendered their dreams rather than risk what they had, people who had anointed a chosen few athletes or entertainers to take their risks for them, to chase their stars. Couldn't he see why people felt cheated by his choices? Didn't he know that they had made him one of the chosen—that while he sat on a sofa waiting for Stallone to take the risk for him, they sat waiting for Cooney to take theirs?

Maybe Carl Lewis could explain it to Cooney. He too was a kid from the suburbs who played it safe; he too infuriated his country when he refused to try for the world-record long jump in order to protect his bid for four gold medals. Only one thing embittered America more than heroes who failed to win: heroes who failed to risk.

"No heart, no guts, no killer instinct!" Cooney cries. "I've fought my heart out every time; how can they say that? Then I get a problem that I have to work out, and all of a sudden there are people turning on me. Listen, I did what I had to, and if the fans don't understand . . . tough . . . tough . . . TOUGH!"

He is driving his car through the forested hills near his New Jersey camp, twanging between the two extremes, balling his fist to the world one moment, opening his palm to it the next, the way he has done all his career.

"Larry Holmes spent his life trying to be Muhammad Ali," he says. "I've just been me. Just because I didn't fit the mold of what a boxer is supposed to be, there's nothing wrong with me. It's like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—he was just trying to help those people in the insane asylum have a good time. Then society came in and it got scared because he was an individual, so it had to cut him out. Sure it made me cry at the end—I wish Nicholson could've jumped out the window with the Indian.

"But you know . . . life isn't what you think it's going to be. I just want to find something to love, I want to find a place where I'll fit in. I want something to feel for me the way it feels for a man that I asked about his marriage. He said, 'I can't wait to get home from work each day to see my wife.' That's how I want to feel about something."

Four months ago, haunted by the fear of commitment, he put off the April wedding he'd planned with his fiancée, Donna. "Every time you figure out an answer, the questions are changed," he says. "That's what I've learned. Just have fun. Things happen for some reason, but you never find an answer to them. You have to accept them."

His visitor asks one too many questions about the pain he felt during his layoff from boxing. Cooney's eyes flash; he doesn't want to talk about it anymore. "I don't want people knowing about that part of my life, do you understand? To even bring it up is distasteful. I'm a funny guy, and that wasn't fun. I didn't entertain anyone. Forget about the Holmes fight. It's over. I threw a punch in the first round and I felt that man's backbone. And then I didn't go after him because people kept asking me if I could go the distance, and I wanted to show them I could." The heel of his hand slaps the steering wheel. "That's what hurts about the Holmes fight, that's what hurts! I listened to them . . . I listened . . . I listened. . . ."

He swears he is free now, that he is fighting for himself. But there are still the people who wear his name on their jackets, still his eagerness to be recognized and loved. "Guess what some man just told me," he says. "There's a billboard up in Atlantic City that says COONEY'S COMING. That's exciting, isn't it?" He spread his arms wide. "Cooney's coming."

Never having to listen to what the neighbors are saying, never having to say you're sorry. That's what being heavyweight champion of the world means. Some things a man just can't find in his own cellar tool cabinet, and he needs to go back to the store for them.

"He has to win the title," says Minervini, "and then he has to walk away."