Three years ago, on Dec. 11, 1983, when Holmes resigned his WBC title and announced his retirement, Cooney was enraged. "He can retire, but he's still going to have to fight me," he cried. That same night, Dennis Rappaport, Cooney's manager, got a frightened phone call from a close friend of Cooney's. "The man told me that Gerry was going to drive to Easton, Pa. [ Holmes's hometown] the next day and challenge Larry to a fight in the street," recalls Rappaport. "He was that obsessed with fighting Holmes. I almost went crazy. I called Gerry, and he told me, I don't care about the money! I'm going to fight him in the street!' I screamed at him, 'What the hell is wrong with you, you're a professional fighter. You get paid for fighting in the ring. You'll get arrested! You can't do it! Besides, he won't fight you in the street.' " Rappaport talked Cooney out of challenging Holmes on his own curbside.
Cooney, however, stayed in a deep depression and in self-imposed exile from boxing for 27 months after his loss to Holmes. Now, four years later, Cooney believes that at last he has adjusted to the trauma of that loss. "It took me a long time, but I finally put the Holmes fight where it belongs—in the past," he said in San Francisco last week. "It's over and I lost it. I fought a stupid fight, but there is nothing I can do about it now. I had him hurt and I didn't follow up. I was making sure I went 15 rounds. I didn't fight him; I sparred him. I should have tried to knock his head off. But I didn't, and afterward I felt I had let a lot of people down."
The press generally considered the loss to Holmes a noble effort on Cooney's part. But sportswriters—and some people in boxing—found much else to criticize about him. "Some of the things written about me hurt, but there is nothing I can do about it," Cooney says. "You can get yourself crazy if you let it. What bothers me is that they didn't understand the things going on. I've just had some bad luck. I've had every injury known to man. I understand how people think, 'How can this be happening all the time to Gerry Cooney?' But it did."
Cooney has been taken to task for the string of fights postponed because of his injuries—13 at last count. The worst two involved his left shoulder—a torn muscle next to the rotator cuff—and a badly smashed knuckle on his left hand. The cause, according to the Cooney camp, was his overwhelming natural power.
"His punches weren't just too powerful for other people, they were too powerful for his own body," says Rappaport. "Nine days before he fought Holmes he hit a sparring partner on the head and he mangled the left knuckle. It wasn't just a fighter's knuckle; it was mangled. Later, he threw a left hook, and a sparring partner partially caught it. Gerry's shoulder was stopped abruptly and something in it ripped. At first they thought it was the rotator cuff, but it was in the muscle right next to it. He could hook up with the left hand but he couldn't hook over, and that is Gerry's best punch."
That injury led to a postponement. An operation repaired the knuckle last year. The shoulder healed naturally, although with Cooney's power there's always the dread that the muscle will tear again.
Cooney is not the only one who suffers from his powerful punches. He has always been known as a brutal (some say bullying) destroyer of sparring partners. Says Phil Brown, a journeyman heavyweight who sparred with Cooney in 1979, "It was suicide. He'd deliberately hurt you to boost his ego."
Holmes's trainer, Richie Giachetti, says, "All Cooney's sparring partners are powder puffs. Anybody who hits back gets fired."
Rappaport is well aware of Cooney's rough treatment of sparring mates. "It all goes back to the day he turned pro and Victor Valle wouldn't let him spar with anybody for the first six months," says Rappaport. Gerry took a lot of heat in the gym. Every day he heard, 'Hey, Sweetie, when are you going to get into the ring so we can find out if you're a man? I want a piece of you.' When Victor finally turned him loose, he beat them to death. We beg him to go easy because we are running out of people, but he gets hit and he goes Irish crazy. He wants to hurt somebody."
Finding sparring partners willing to suffer hasn't been Cooney's only problem lately. Cooney says that for a time his older brother, Tommy, had a drug problem, and this took its toll on Cooney. "It was tearing my mother apart, and it was destroying our family," says Cooney. "I finally had to make a decision. I either had to concentrate on fighting or I had to help my family. I chose my family. I love my mom, I love my family. I couldn't stand what was happening." So Cooney declared his retirement from boxing last July.