Morning came early and then passed slowly for Gerry Cooney on Saturday in San Francisco. The night before, he had tried to stay awake to watch a favorite TV program, a rerun of Taxi, but he had drifted off during the 11 o'clock news and slept well. When he awoke at 6:15, the dark Irish melancholy that had embraced him for so long was gone. He was going to fight in the Cow Palace later in the day, and he liked that.
All week he had been telling anyone who would listen, "I feel terrific. I'm in great shape. I'm 29 years old and I've got plenty of time left."
But the big question remained: Time left to do what? Was Gerry Cooney really serious about boxing now? Had he rid himself of the injuries—or the possible alibis—that had so frequently put his career on hold? Did he really believe that he rated a shot at the heavyweight title in spite of his seeming reluctance in recent years to enter the ring?
The fight Cooney had coming up that afternoon was against Eddie Gregg, 32, the No. 3-ranked heavyweight according to the WBA, No. 9 according to the WBC. A seemingly worthy opponent, yes, but this was only Cooney's fourth fight in almost four years. Indeed, since Larry Holmes knocked him out in a title fight on June 11, 1982, Cooney had not racked up seven full rounds in the ring. Worse, his most recent bout, a two-round KO of George Chaplin, had taken place almost 18 months earlier. Worse yet, on July 30, 1985 he had tearfully announced to the world that he was retiring.
No wonder that a newspaperman had nicknamed him the Reluctant Warrior and that Herb Goldman, managing editor of The Ring magazine, recently told
, "There's a good chance that the next time Cooney steps into a ring will be the same day the vestal virgins dance at Satan's wedding."
Well, there were no known invitations to nuptials in Hades on Saturday, but Cooney did in fact step into a ring, and he was well prepared. In the morning he attended eight o'clock mass with his mother and three brothers, gulped down two waffles and some orange juice and then rested. Shortly before noon he dressed for the fight, leaving his hotel wearing his trademark gray tweed cap and a large anticipatory grin. During the drive to the Cow Palace he and his trainer, Victor Valle, went over their strategy. The discussion didn't take long, because the strategy was as blunt as it was simple: Gregg would rise from his stool, Cooney would punch him soon afterward, and everyone would go home.
Which was about the way it went. Just 18 seconds into the first round, Cooney hit Gregg with a hook to the head that dazed him. Gregg still pressed forward, courageously but foolishly. Cooney was devastating. Every punch was a bludgeon that thudded into its target. The finishing blow was a wicked left uppercut, which was followed by an unnecessary left hook as Gregg was falling.
After the count of six, reflexes brought Gregg to his feet, swaying and confused. The referee, Rudy Ortega, counted to eight, took one look at Gregg's glazed eyes and sent him to his corner. Later Ortega said succinctly, "The man was out on his feet." The time was 1:26 of the first round. Gregg had been KO'd only once before in 26 fights. This was Cooney's 24th knockout in 29 fights.
Later in his hotel room, Cooney sipped champagne. He was a happy man, eager to talk about his impressive victory. "I'm glad Ortega stopped the fight," he said. "I could tell Eddie was hurt. I saw him a couple of times this week, and I could see confidence in his eyes. I like people who come in with confidence against me, because then I know they came to fight. I don't like chasing people. Oh, Lord, I felt so strong today. My mind was right. Now I can relax. What was that song Diana Ross sang? It's My Turn? Well, that's me. Now it is my turn."
Could it be Gerry Cooney's turn at last? After his clubbing of Gregg, the WBA and WBC will almost certainly give him a ranking, and that could lead to a championship bout, perhaps within a year. Nevertheless, he is an enigma, one of the most powerful punchers ever, yet a man about whom there are constant questions concerning his competitive desire. He is a 6'6", 232-pound cannon who has already grossed $13 million in his on-again off-again career. His record is a sterling 28-1. Yet until recently, anyway, that single defeat had continued to haunt him.