They met thirty-five years ago under the stars in that neon desert of illusion, Las Vegas, drawn together by hate, cynicism, greed. Mere sports seemed like an afterthought that night. On June 11, 1982, hardscrabble Larry Holmes, whose magnificent bitterness had fueled his rise to the heavyweight championship, met affable Gerry Cooney, young, powerful, Irish, unproven, and feverishly revered. With racism looming over the promotion from the day it first kicked off, Holmes-Cooney became a national Rorschach test with ugly interpretations. More than 30,000 spectators gathered to see Holmes and Cooney wage war, with millions more tuning in on closed-circuit, radio, and pay-per-view. It was the biggest fight of its time and, perhaps, a brief glimpse into the dark heart of America. For Cooney, who suggested something out of Clifford Odets—“Like a bullet! All future and no past”— during the Studio 54 heyday, there would be precious few tomorrows in boxing after what happened at Caesars Palace. For Holmes, whose nasty edge never dulled as the years went gray, there were more riches and glories to come…along with enough bleak memories to last a wakeful life. The following is a media collage of the events surrounding one of the most cheerless fights in history.
If I were to fight Larry Holmes, it would be 75-25 for me. I think he’s low-rent.
Gerry Cooney, Ring Magazine January 1981
There are white fans who are praying for a white champion. Those fans believe Cooney is the man that can beat me. If they believe that, then they’re dopes, and Cooney is their hoax.
Larry Holmes, Ring Magazine January 1981
I want to beat up Gerry Cooney too bad to let anything get in my way. I want to beat him up for seven rounds. I predict I’ll stop him inside seven rounds – if he ever fights me. Cooney’s got a fair left hook but that’s the only thing you got to be careful of. And he’s scared. Out in Vegas a few months back, he started to butt in on me at a press conference and I told him, ‘Shut up, Cooney, don’t interrupt me.’ He dropped his head and never said another word.
Larry Holmes to Dave Anderson, New York Times, February 21, 1982
“He’s a jerk, I don’t even like talking about him or thinking about him,” said Cooney. ”I didn’t like the things he said about me. Like when I had to postpone the fight. He said I was hiding behind my mother’s dress. That got me mad. I sent a message to him to leave my mother out of this. And he apologized to me for it on the Howard Cosell show. There are other things, unnecessary things. He likes to fan the racial thing. He said I was stupid for a white boy. You know, there’s enough racial prejudice without him starting more of it. Now, Ali would do that to help build the gate. And Ali’s a regular guy. Holmes tries to imitate Ali, and he can’t. Ali made you laugh, this guy makes you ill.”
The New York Times, March 15, 1982
Take it from me, Gerry Cooney has a left hook second to none. I always thought Joe Frazier had the best left hook I’d ever seen, but not anymore. I was in with Cooney with heavy training gloves, and he hurt me.
Joe Bugner to the Associated Press June 10, 1982
Holmes was angered when Ali visited the Cooney camp and said, “Cooney is not only the white man, he is the right man.” Holmes told reporters that if he had the Ali fight to do again, he would make Ali pay.
Steve Marantz, Boston Globe, May 30, 1982
After a workout, he invited a group of reporters to his suite at Caesars, where a copy of the current issue of Sports Illustrated, with Cooney on the cover, lay on a table. Holmes has been heavyweight champion of the world for four years, but has never appeared as the cover boy for the magazine. To a man who hungers for the recognition he thinks a 39-0 record, including 10 knockouts in 11 successful title defenses, deserves, this is one of the greatest slights. But when he entered the suite, he picked up the magazine and asked lightly, ”Anybody want a Sports Illustrated?”
Michael Katz, The New York Times, June 7, 1982
“That sucker ain’t even paid his dues,” snapped Holmes before putting on exhibitions against three sparring partners last week in Cleveland, the first stop on a cross-country promotional tour designed to rekindle interest in Holmes vs. Cooney. “And he has the nerve to fight me. During a press conference in New York a couple of weeks ago I was going to slap him alongside the head, but I was afraid he’d wake up and run away.” Holmes, who won’t begin training seriously until early May, laughed. “Actually, I wasn’t really going to slap him,” he said. “I was just trying to hype the damn fight. Don King said it was dying and that I’d better get somethin’ going—to put on a show like Ali used to do. Hell, the fight was dying. Pay-per-view TV was pulling out, taking back its letters of credit. So I acted up. I started yelling at Cooney, trying to raise a little hell, and he just sat there and glared at me. Later he was telling somebody he felt like punching me in the mouth. I told him, ‘Hey, sucker, why are you saying that stuff now? Why didn’t you say it when they was snappin’ the pictures?’ Now I got to work my poor butt off and run all over the world promoting this thing because he’s too dumb. Hell, I’m tired already.”
Pat Putnam, Sports Illustrated, April 19, 1982
Let me tell you about Larry Holmes. A reporter was in the Felt Forum when I was training for the Norton fight. He told me that he had talked to Larry Holmes and Holmes was angry because he had never been on the cover of Sports Illustrated and I had. And I said, “He probably never will be.” Just because he’s not very intelligent, no schooling or anything. Whatever Don King says, goes. It’s like he’s Don King’s puppet. Ali called Holmes a peanut head. He’s a peanut brain. I have no respect for him. He’s a tasteless, classless human being. It’s a shame he’s the heavyweight champion.
Gerry Cooney to KO Magazine, October 1981
First Rappaport fielded questions from the public, like Carol Burnett or Phil Donahue. Then Cooney entered to the kind of applause that greets Mick Jagger when he steps onto a stage—the clapping of hands, punctuated by feminine squeals of delight and the pop of countless flashbulbs. Victor Valle smoothed Vaseline over the fighter’s torso and arms with the tenderness of a husband putting suntan lotion on his gorgeous wife’s silken skin. The rock music of Christopher Cross blared from hidden speakers as Valle led Cooney through a series of calisthenics. The huge Irishman looked more like Richard Simmons than a fighter. It was a circus atmosphere, exactly like the scene from Rocky III in which Sylvester Stallone trains indifferently for his fight with Clubber Lang. Steven Losch, Boxing Today, January 1983
I really don’t have anything to prove, not to Gerry Cooney and not to anyone in the world. You know, after I knock out Gerry Cooney, they’re gonna come up with somebody else. So I gave Gerry Cooney a chance, I gave him half the money. Don King split this promotion. He’s white, he can help bring in a big gate. This is why Don agreed to go down the middle with Gerry Cooney.
Larry Holmes to KO Magazine, December 1981
Have we mentioned that these two seem delighted to be fighting each other? “It’s a personality thing,” Holmes says. He told me, ‘You need me, boy. I’m the only one you can make this money with.’ That bothered me. He was talking about his color, and I didn’t like that. I resent the fact that he’s making the same as me, but I accept the fact that I can’t make it without him. A lot of people take that out of context, and say I’m bitter, I’m jealous and I envy him.” It probably isn’t more than two out of three.
Vic Ziegel, New York Magazine, June 14, 1982
I don’t think that by being white I have to make up for other guys. I’m just a fighter, and I’m trying to make good for me, my family, my friends, the people that love me.
Gerry Cooney to International Boxing, June 1980
I remember walking out of the dressing room and looking up and seeing snipers on every roof.
Retreating to his corner to await the arrival of the champion, Cooney stood strangely silent, his knees locked, and stared straight ahead, sparing himself of the spectacle of his co-manager Dennis Rappaport, who had taken it upon himself to haul an oversized belt into the ring with the face of a clock on it bearing the legend “Tick, Tick.” Rappaport, who on other occasions had imported leprechauns and gorillas into the ring to act as spear carriers, obviously felt the need to play the part of the buffoon himself on this night.
Bert Sugar, The Ring August, 1982
“This guy is shit….This is shit!”
Victor Valle, after Round 1
The first round ended with neither man landing a damaging blow. It was a close round, unlike the second, which was almost the last. Holmes landed four snapping jabs in the first 30 seconds, while Cooney missed with two rights. Suddenly, after firing a jab, Holmes came over with a right that landed flush on Cooney’s jaw. Cooney reeled, skittering and lurching half around the ring before falling to his knees in Holmes’s corner. “I thought, ‘What the heck’s going on here?’ ” Cooney said later. ” ‘Get up off the floor!’” Staggering to his feet, he grinned loonily, as if slightly stewed.
William Nack, Sports Illustrated
Cooney with another good left to the ribs of Larry Holmes as the bell sounds ending the fourth round. And Holmes is a little bit slow going back to the corner.
Barry Tompkins, HBO
In the corner, I told Larry, “Box, box, box. I don’t want you to go out there and get in a fight with this big, strong kid in all this heat. I just want you to pull his teeth,” meaning make him harmless. Jab and move and box.
Eddie Futch to Dave Anderson, In the Corner
Through those middle rounds, I was working Cooney over, hitting him and hurting him. In the sixth round, I staggered him with a right hand to the head and this time went after him. At one point the ropes prevented Cooney from spinning out of the ring. By the seventh round, blood was trickling from Cooney’s left eyelid and from the bridge of the nose. I was up on my toes, punching and dancing away like I did with Ali in the old sparring days. It made me feel young and gave me pleasure to show I was still a very good athlete.
Larry Holmes, Against the Odds
The 10th round was the best and the fiercest, with Holmes landing jabs and overhand rights, with Cooney pitching hard lefts to the body, rights to the head, throwing his punches up and down. Holmes took them, slamming home rights and lefts in return. The crowd was roaring as the two fighters, head to head, winged punches at each other. At the bell they nodded and tapped each other.
William Nack, Sports Illustrated
Now get rough, goddammit, get rough!
Victor Valle, between rounds 10 and 11
This one is all but over…Cooney against ropes…Mills Lane steps in and Victor Valle is in the ring saying, “No more,” I believe. Victor Valle is in the ring saying, “No more, that’s it.” It is over! And Mills Lane raises Larry Holmes’ hand in victory.
Barry Tompkins, HBO
At the end, it was an exhausted Gerry Cooney who hung limply on the top rope as Lane began his eight-count and Valle made his intrepid charge. Cooney had been pounded from the 11th round on, a defenseless fighter whose left was too slow and telegraphed from the hip and whose right was rarely uncorked. Holmes saw that it was over and retreated into the waiting arms of trainers Eddie Futch and Ray Arcel, relieved more than anything else. It had been a long wait, and suddenly there were no more bells to answer, no more right hands to throw, no more questions to silence.
Steve Farhood, KO Magazine, October 1982
I’m completely mystified by the scoring. And if Larry Holmes had hit Gerry Cooney in the testicles as many times as Cooney hit him in the testicles, Gerry Cooney would today be heavyweight champion of the world and I might say justifiably so.
Two hundred prisoners fought at Pleasanton prison in northern California in a dispute over the world heavyweight championship fight between Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney, prison officials said today. The prisoners were watching a television rerun of the fight, won by Mr. Holmes, the World Boxing Council champion, when the fighting broke out Friday night.
Reuters, June 27, 1982
I might sound angry or I may have an attitude, but who cares. So, shut up and listen. Every time I go to the stage, it seems like I have something to prove to myself. I don’t have to prove it to you or the world, but to myself and my family.
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.”
Gary Smith, Sports Illustrated
There was pressure from natural sources, pressure built up by the media. Constant interviews by the biggest names in the media, Sports Illustrated, the networks. I would say almost every day one of the major sports reporters or one of the major networks were seeking to interview Gerry. And of course this causes a lot of pressure. There was so much expected of him, not only from the media, but by the fans. He had captured the imagination of fans throughout not only the country, but perhaps the whole world. This was the first time Gerry experienced that kind of pressure.
Mike Jones to KO Magazine, August 1983
There was talk that Gerry wasn’t speaking to me after the fight, and I’m sure it was started by people who wanted to break us up, people who wanted to put another trainer in with Gerry. But it’s not true. He came to my room after the fight and we cried together over the loss and he asked my forgiveness.
Victor Valle to Katherine Dunne
In the years that followed, I’d get into arguments with people who would try to tell me Gerry Cooney was a bum. I really felt otherwise. That he never did get to be champion puzzled me. I believed in him. I even bet and lost five grand on him when he fought and lost to Michael Spinks. And I lost another five grand when George Foreman knocked him out. Ask me what happened to Cooney, and I’m still at a loss. Something on the mental side, I suspect. Maybe, as some experts said, Cooney never really wanted to be a boxer. In the beginning, he was pushed into it by his disciplinarian father. Against me, he was doing it for white America. Maybe the reasons Cooney walked into that ring were never compelling to him. I don’t know.
Larry Holmes, Against the Odds
He is funny and generous and a marvelous boxer, but his venom hides it all. Because the anger that serves him so well in the ring cannot be controlled outside it, he seems doomed to be ignored as long as he is punching away at his demons. He won’t be appreciated until he has no soapbox to stand on, until there is nothing for the public to consider except the silent lines of glory he will leave in the record book.
“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!”
Gerry Cooney to Sports Illustrated, 1983
I had no doubt that I would beat Gerry Cooney. There was just no way he was going to outtough me. He grew up in the suburbs. He graduated from high school. His father, a construction worker, made good steady money. And because he was white and big and could fight a little, he didn’t have to box in Scranton for sixty-three dollars. He didn’t have to fight thousands of rounds as someone else’s sparring partner. He didn’t have to face the moment of truth and take on a fighter as tough as Roy Williams until he was already a top contender. Gerry Cooney didn’t have to pay his dues they I did, they way most black fighters do. He didn’t have the hunger in his belly that I did.
Larry Holmes, Against All Odds
I never became champion, so, it wasn’t meant for me to be champion. “If, if, if.” I beat the shit out of myself many times over that. But there comes a time when you just gotta say, “Okay. I’m ‘if’ed’ out.” I don’t know how many years I got left on this planet, so I gotta come to some peace with myself. I’m getting old, I’m gettin’ gray.”
Gerry Cooney to KO Magazine, May 1989
The fight is remembered sort of like a passing tornado. Something bad happened; something dangerous happened…and it’s gone. And maybe we’re still trying to figure out what it was.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
A Depression-era featherweight, Valle was a New York City institution for decades. Although primarily remembered for working with Cooney, he also trained Glenwood Brown, Billy Costello, Eddie Davis, Wilford Scypion, and Jose Stable. Valle died in 1999.
Former numbers runner, ex-con, and murderer, Don King became the promotional face—and hair—of boxing in the late 1970s and was one of the most powerful figures in the fight racket for over 30 years. Lawsuits, criminal trials, chaos, guns, and crooked shadows followed him wherever he went.
The Hall of Fame trainer, who used to spar with Joe Louis, replaced Richie Giachetti, fired by Larry Holmes for an assortment of labyrinthine reasons. Futch worked the corner for the Cooney fight alongside another veteran mastermind, Ray Arcel.
One half of “The Whacko Twins,” along with Dennis Rappaport, Jones co-managed Gerry Cooney to a then unheard-of $10 million-dollar purse and equal billing with Holmes. Among his other clients were Billy Costello, Alex Stewart, Glenwood Brown, and, in tandem with Rappaport, Howard Davis, Jr., and Ronnie Harris. Jones died of cancer in 1990.
Co-manager of Cooney and partner of Mike Jones. A real estate mogul with a flair for the surreal, Rappaport met Jones at a poker game in the mid-1970s and together they guided Cooney, Howard Davis, Jr., and middleweight spoiler Ronnie Harris. Rappaport also managed Oleg Maskaev and perennial light heavyweight contender Eddie Davis.
Former sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News and columnist for the New York Post and the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Merchant was an analyst for HBO from 1978-2012. He has covered boxing since the 1950s.
Tompkins was the blow-by-blow announcer for HBO from 1980 to 1987, when he left to pursue broadcasting opportunities outside of boxing. He is best known for his role in Rocky IV and for his famous call at the final bell of Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Hagler: “How do you like it? How DO YOU like it!!!”
Most famous for dropping two decisions to Muhammad Ali in the 1970s, Bugner was a successful heavyweight on the European scene for many years. He made two strange comebacks—one in the 1980s—adopting the nickname “Aussie Joe”— and one in the 1990s.