Can Gerry Cooney Take a Punch? 'tis Better, He Feels, to Give Than Receive

updated 06/14/1982 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/14/1982 01:00AM

He is Gerry Cooney, possibly the most devastating puncher in boxing's heavyweight division since Rocky—Marciano, that is, not Balboa. His record is unsullied, 25-0 with 22 knockouts. And on June 11 he has an appointment with destiny in the person of Larry Holmes, 32, in the eyes of the World Boxing Council the champion of the entire human race. Promoters will be paying Cooney and Holmes upwards of $10 million apiece for maybe half an hour's intimacy under the stars in the parking lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Not bad for a once gawky kid from Huntington, Long Island.

And it's only the beginning. If Dennis Rappaport, one of Cooney's two managers, is to be believed, "Gerry may be the first billion-dollar athlete." Rappaport also says things like, "America's love affair with Cooney will make people forget An Affair to Remember." Gerry winces at that one. He knows the country abounds with people who are less than infatuated with him and his chances. Take the odds men in Vegas, who have made Holmes an 8-to-5 favorite. Or take the experts who ask whom Cooney, 25, has fought. Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle, Ken Norton? They consider them ancient gladiators turned by age into buttercups. Can Cooney take a punch? Can he go the distance? They wonder. They say he has never been tested, and about this they are probably right.

Naturally, Gerry has snappy counters to their jabs. Adversity makes aphorists of us all. But mostly he is weary of the whole prefight ballyhoo. "I've got a feeling everything's going to be all right," he says, and he would like to leave it at that.

But Larry Holmes wishes to spar both in and out of the ring. He noisily questions Cooney's manhood. He calls him "the Great White Dope," thereby stirring the corrosive broth novelist Jack London served on the first black champion, Jack Johnson, 73 years ago. Cooney is reminded, as if reminding were necessary, that the title hasn't been in Caucasian hands for 22 years. Holmes, whose wit is hardly of championship quality, says he used to work with retarded children and that Cooney might well be one of them. It is a graceless slight that arouses Gerry's usually subdued Irish temper.

According to his trainer, Victor Valle, the soft-spoken Cooney is a pugilistic Jekyll and Hyde. "Make no mistake," says Valle. "His eyes are like a panther's in the ring, he hits like a machine gun." Indeed, according to the redoubtable Muhammad Ali, Gerry is liable to pound Holmes with such conviction that "he'll jolt Larry's kinfolk back in Africa." Still, Cooney is a man-child, as much Heckle and Jeckle as Jekyll and Hyde, but probably more childlike than childish. "Success may have spoiled Rock Hunter," says the indefatigable Rappaport, "but it won't spoil Gerry Cooney." Sure, Gerry owns expensive things: a 1947 Triumph with rumble seat, a 16-foot Nordica sailboat, a hometown saloon bearing his name. Yet such possessions, in Cooney's hands, are not benchmarks of status but toys. He still lives in the same $327-a-month Long Island flat he moved into six years ago when his managers, Rappaport and Mike Jones, had him turn pro. And still hovering at his side are cronies Hilton Cohen and George Munch, whose feisty allegiance dates back to grammar school.

He is Gerry Cooney, the latest in a long line of Irish heavyweights. He has the punch of John L. Sullivan and the legendary prankishness of James J. Corbett. His soft brown eyes glow with mischief at the thought of the time he backed crouching toward his car parked at curbside, his freshly purchased pink water pistol blazing, pretending to have held up a drugstore in Huntington. Then there was the time he donned a male nurse's outfit and a Sony Walkman and, eyeballs rolling, staggered loonily down the street like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. "The fun," Gerry explains, "is seeing people's reactions." Yet he admits that the gags often have a way of backfiring. There was, for example, the sportswriter who didn't realize he was being put on during an interview. Now, alas, a portion of the reading public thinks Cooney likes to tie up girls and suspend them from a stake in an all-black bedroom.

Gerry's beginnings were modest but, unlike most pugs, he was not born in poverty. Rather, he was raised in a working-class neighborhood 37 miles east of New York City, the third of Eileen and Tony Cooney's six children. Above all, he was Tony Cooney's kid. Tony was an ironworker, one of those outsize men who helped put Manhattan together like a Tinkertoy. Like many men of his time, Tony was close with his emotions and a fanatic about self-sufficiency. While Gerry's friends were hanging out at a nearby mall, Tony's boy was home digging in the family garden. He was apprenticing to Tony in plumbing, roofing, car repair. Or he was out in the backyard with his brothers, Tom, Mike and Steve, learning the manly art of self-defense.

When Gerry was 10 years old, Tony took four poles, stuck them in the dirt and draped a rope around them. It was a ring—jerry-built, it turned out, in more ways than one. Every weekend the boys and the old man went at it. He would egg Gerry on, and the boy would finally hit him hard and feel guilty. But Tony never encouraged sympathy. "My father was one tough man," says Gerry. Adds Tom, "We didn't realize he was trying to set goals for us the only way he knew how."

Eventually Gerry and Mike moved out and took an apartment together. Still Gerry kept fighting. It made him feel special. In 1976 he won the New York City Golden Gloves heavyweight championship in Madison Square Garden. Two months later Tony Cooney died of lung cancer at 55. Gerry still can't believe it. "He was never sick a day in his life," he says wonderingly. "He used to go out in freezing weather with just a T-shirt." Now, belatedly, he believes he knows why his father was so unforgiving of failure. "We were men together," says Cooney, "and he wanted me to be better than he was."

Remarkably, his upbringing didn't harden Cooney. He still makes an occasional detour on the way to the gym to see his old high school English teacher. He keeps an arcade-size Pac-Man in his room, and the cassettes on his table are not of past fights, but of the Little Rascals' greatest moments on film. There is something disarmingly antic about the man. Yet, as the old pugs say, he has resin in his veins. This week, 13 months after knocking out Ken Norton only 54 seconds into the first round, he will fight Larry Holmes for the title. It will be his proudest moment since the day just before Tony Cooney's death, when for the first time he told his father he loved him.

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