A country divided by race can manifest itself in many ways — a presidential election, a football player refusing to stand for the national anthem, and, 35 years ago Sunday, in a boxing ring outside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
Gerry Cooney, a kid from Huntington, Long Island, entered the ring with the title of the Great White Hope against heavyweight champion Larry Holmes.
It was a title that Cooney never asked for. But it was that title that the country embraced — from Time magazine to the white supremacists who cheered for the 6-foot-6 hard puncher.
“It was a dumb thing to do,” Cooney said of the promotion, led by Don King, that used his skin color to sell tickets. “We never paid attention to any of that. We had a chance to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world.
“I made a lot of money that night but the rest was all distasteful,” Cooney said. “They had me out there as the Great White Hope.”
But Cooney and Holmes both got caught up in the hatred being sold in a war of words, and Cooney worked up a sense of rage by the time he met Holmes in the ring.
AUDIO: Heavyweight boxer Gerry Cooney with Thom Loverro
“It was the first time I went into the ring where I didn’t have any fear,” Cooney said. “I just wanted to hit him.”
Cooney revealed in a conversation with me on my Cigars & Curveballs podcast that years later, he discovered through DNA testing that he had African-American blood in his ancestry. “My grandmother’s mother was African-American, so I have African-American blood in me,” he said.
That night in Las Vegas, people were looking for blood.
One of the stories from the fight, whether true or not, is that police had put sharpshooters on the roofs of the hotels surrounding the outdoor arena at Caesars for fear of violence. Both white supremacists groups and African-Americans had declared they would have armed supporters at the fight.
Then, as the two fighters met in the center of the ring for final instructions from Mills Lane, Holmes said, “Let’s have a good fight.” And then that’s all it became — a fight, a fight that Holmes would win by stopping Cooney in the 13th round.
“I was in with a great guy that night,” Cooney said. “We fought our hearts out. He had a little more experience than me and was a very talented guy. I made some mistakes and I paid for them.”
This fight may have been the last time the heavyweight belt carried the social implications that often were ascribed to the championship — from the days of Jack Johnson to the reign of Muhammad Ali.
Cooney, a former Gold Glove amateur champion, rose to the title of Great White Hope thanks to the management of two partners, Mike Jones and Dennis Rappaport — nicknamed the “Gold Dust Twins” by the media — who engineered his career carefully with hand-picked opponents ripe for defeat.
“I couldn’t stand my managers because they hated each other, and I was always in the middle trying to separate them and make peace,” he said. “My management tried to manage me to get the big payday. They weren’t developing me as a talent. I was a big puncher, which was great, and I didn’t take a lot of wear and tear. But I did not really get the experience that I really needed so I could have a real shot at beating Holmes.”
The late, great trainer Eddie Futch once told me that if Cooney had been mentored, he had the talent to be a great heavyweight.
Cooney stopped Jimmy Young in four rounds in 1980, four years after Young fought Muhammad Ali (at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md.) in a bout that many believe Young should have won and three years after Young upset George Foreman.
“Nobody looks good against Jimmy Young,” Cooney said. “To have my first televised fight against Jimmy Young was a big deal. He had nine wins coming into that fight with me but he was so anticipating my left hook that I turned the hook into an uppercut and he didn’t know how to handle that.”
Next Cooney knocked out 39-year-old Ron Lyle, who had fought Ali five years earlier and had a legendary brawl with George Foreman in 1976, in one round. Then, in Madison Square Garden on national TV, Cooney destroyed Ken Norton, two years after Norton went 15 rounds with Holmes, in just 54 seconds of the first round.
“I think I could have beaten anybody that night,” Cooney said.
That set up the bout against Holmes, who, unlike Young, Lyle and Norton, was in his prime. Holmes used his great jab and boxing knowledge to wear down Cooney, though Cooney did land some blows that clearly hurt Holmes, until the Great White Hope was ready to go in the 13th.
Remarkably, two judges had Holmes only ahead by two points when the fight was stopped. If Cooney did not have three points taken away from him during the fight for low blows, Cooney would have been ahead on the judges’ scorecards.
Holmes, who won the heavyweight championship in a 15-round decision over Norton in 1978, would successfully defend his title 20 times before losing a close decision to Michael Spinks in 1985. He would continue fighting until 2002.
Cooney’s career went downhill after that. He fought sporadically — five times until his final fight, stopped by Foreman in two rounds in 1990. Three years earlier, Cooney was stopped by Michael Spinks in five rounds. He finished his career with a 28-3 record, and 24 knockouts.
“I was drinking heavily at that time,” Cooney said. “It was the worst time of my career. I would have eaten him alive any other time. In fact today I would eat him alive, but at the time the business had wrung me out.”
Cooney’s post-boxing career has been a strong one. He has been involved in groups that have tried to held retired fighters with health problems, and he is the co-host of the SiriusXm “At The Fights” Monday and Friday nights. And he has developed a good friendship with his former opponent.
“Larry and I are great friends,” Cooney said. “We get together a lot at charities and appearances. He’s a good man.”
But to this day, 35 years later, Gerry Cooney, at the age of 60, still has one question — a legitimate question.
“Why no rematch?” Cooney wondered. “That was a good enough fight for a rematch. I still don’t know why there wasn’t a rematch. It would have been great.”
Maybe there wasn’t enough hate to milk for a rematch.
• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.