Holmes vs Cooney: The Colour Of Money
A chance meeting at a restaurant, an exchange of insults, the two fighters moved forward for something more. They pushed and shoved a little, it was broken up before it developed into anything more serious.
Larry Holmes had just stopped Leon Spinks to defend his WBC world heavyweight title, but a new heavyweight hope was pushed in front of the camera. The champion was denied his moment, another little fracas took place. What started in that restaurant, escalated a little further.
Gerry Cooney the unbeaten big puncher was everywhere, Holmes deeply resented it. Ever since he became the world heavyweight champion in 1978 he had fought for acceptance and respect. Holmes followed Muhammad Ali as the heavyweight champion of the world, he beat Ali, he wasn’t Ali, he lacked the charisma Ali had. Being Larry Holmes just wasn’t enough. Holmes was underappreciated and undervalued for much of his career, seeing Cooney trying to steal his limelight was too much for him. Cooney would soon get the opportunity to face Holmes for his title, the champion once again had to prove himself.
Cooney (25-0) had elevated himself to the number one contender status courtesy of emphatic wins over faded contenders. The likes of Ron Lyle, Jimmy Young and Ken Norton were all dispatched with conviction and menace. But there were serious doubts that Cooney could look the same fighter against a fighter in his prime. Holmes wasn’t on the slide despite many thinking or hoping that he was.
It wasn’t just any fight, it was a fight about colour, as one lawyer famously said: ‘The race card was dealt from the bottom of the deck.’
Cooney was portrayed as ‘The Great White Hope.’ It wasn’t subtle, it wasn’t hidden, for some, the prejudice of the paying public was used to make money and plenty of it. No attempt was made to put the fire out on an ugly toxic racial build-up.
For the fight in 1982, Holmes prepared with racism all around him. There were threatening phone calls and vandalism with racial intent, the letters KKK painted visibly so Holmes could see. The champion was harassed throughout, paranoia added to his problems. When food at his normal Vegas hotel tasted ‘funny’ Holmes moved hotels. Cooney wasn’t exempt from the hate, both fighters received death threats prior to the fight.
Holmes the long-reigning champion had to settle for purse parity, even though he would eventually end up taking home less than his challenger. The challenger got the majority of the media coverage, the TV commercials, the celebrity endorsements, the long-reigning champion played a supporting role. At the time of the third Rocky film being released in cinemas, Cooney took on the role of a real life Rocky, Holmes was the underserving villain in the production with bigotry very much in the storyline. Sylvester Stallone joined the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ryan O’Neil and others in their expensive ringside seats on a sweltering hot Las Vegas evening.
Many didn’t hide their favouritism, Ronald Reagan the then President of the United States had a direct phone line installed in Cooney’s dressing room ready to congratulate him. Holmes was afforded no such luxury. Even in the pre-fight introductions, Holmes was introduced first, the time-honoured tradition ignored.
All the hate and resentment he had suffered had built up inside of Holmes. But it was a controlled anger, the champion called it a ‘smouldering anger.’ Holmes had a job to do, fighting with reckless abandon against a big puncher would increase the chances of his downfall, maybe even guarantee it. But Holmes would not make such a basic fundamental mistake. Cooney was raw technically, the left was the danger punch, Holmes for much of the contest circled away and avoided it.
The old-fashioned one-two had Cooney stumbling over in the 2nd round, but he survived and had his moments. A left to the body had Holmes walking gingerly back to his corner visibly hurt at the end of the 4th round, using the ropes for comfort and support as he sought recovery in the one-minute break. The big moment came too late in the round for Cooney, the excitement grew, some of the celebrities at ringside saw hope, it quickly passed.
Holmes was just too good for a brave Cooney, the rawness and inexperience was no match for Holmes. The challenger was game, had fleeting success of his own, a few low blows caused some semblance of controversy, but it always looked a matter of when not if, Còoney would fall. The end would come in the 13th, to his credit Cooney showed plenty of heart but ultimately was outgunned by a technically superior fighter.
Cooney lost three points for the low blows, without those deductions, Cooney would have been ahead on the cards. Even with those points lost it was uncomfortably close on the cards.
Once the dust had settled, Holmes and Cooney would eventually become friends. But the fight gave people with prejudice hope, a throwback to when James J Jeffries was brought out of retirement to try and dethrone Jack Johnson in 1910 after 6 years away from the sport. Not much had changed in 70 years, a country still divided by race.
There was much to hate about the build-up and using race to make money doesn’t get any less disgusting over the passing of time. The fighters were largely innocent of any such shame, like two pawns being manoeuvred in a game that was a sign of the times. But they gave us a fight to remember at a time when the heavyweight division had lost plenty that a previous era gave us. It was probably Holmes at his absolute peak, maybe his greatest ever performance against the only rival that really threatened his dominance in the ring. Not for the first time, Holmes won a fight the masses wanted him to lose.
Cooney was effectively finished as a fighter, he felt he had let everyone down and never seemed to stop saying sorry for his defeat. In many ways, the weight of expectation was too much for him. The Irish-American was pushed too soon, and his fighting career never recovered.
Cooney carried on but he was fighting his own personal demons. Stoppage defeats to Michael Spinks and to George Foreman in his last fight in 1990 prompted Cooney to call it a day. He was only 33 when Foreman blasted him out in two rounds, Foreman was 41. It was a sad spectacle and a long way from that infamous night in Las Vegas. If Cooney had been allowed to develop as a fighter, the story might have been different, the fight with Holmes could have been different. Wrong place, wrong time in so many ways.