The longest wait in Gerry Cooney's life was nearly over, and he sensed it in the air last Friday night as he stepped from the lobby of the Sheffield House hotel into the cold, bracing wind that blew off Anchorage's Cook Inlet. "Can you believe this?" he asked. "Pretty soon Christmas bells are going to be ringing again. Time goes so fast! Where did it go?"
In fact, two Christmases and almost 28 months had passed since Cooney last fought, on the night of June 11, 1982, when Larry Holmes beat him on a TKO in the 13th round of their WBC heavyweight championship fight. Beset by depression, which drove him into hiding, and then by injuries, Cooney was un-ranked and largely unseen. So it seemed fitting that he should reenter the spotlight 2,400 miles from the bright lights of Las Vegas, where he had lost to Holmes, and 3,500 miles from Madison Square Garden, where he had knocked out Ken Norton in 54 seconds in May 1981 and, a bit dubiously, made his name.
Now, as he stood in front of his hotel, the 6'6", 230-pound Cooney was but 15 hours away from his comeback fight against a 6'3�", 217-pound rack of lamb from New Orleans named Phillip Brown, who was undefeated (22-0-2) but had fought only once since Nov. 19, 1982 and thus had been almost as inactive as Cooney (25-1).
Anchorage embraced Cooney, who arrived six days before the fight. Policemen pulled their patrol cars over to say hello. In J.C. Penney's, Cooney stopped traffic when he faced a glass case containing a 1,400-pound, stuffed Alaskan brown bear—standing on its hind legs, teeth and claws bared—and raised his fists and tried to imagine what it would be like to try to get inside its jab.
"Look at that thing!" he said. "Where could you go? What could you do with that? Swisshhh! One swing and you're armless!"
Brown, it turned out, might as well have been disarmed. For one reason or another, he was wholly disinclined to fight. Instead, he awkwardly retreated with his arms raised while Cooney alternately jabbed him and pounded his body. "That's the only way I could get his hands to come down," said Cooney. Brown's hands finally did come down, to his regret. Cooney floored him three times in the fourth round, twice with thunderous right hands, after slashing him with left hooks to the head that sent Brown reeling around the 18-foot ring. Referee Bill McConkey stopped it after Brown crumbled the third time—the three-knockdown rule was in effect—with 0:23 left in the round.
"I was so nervous," Cooney said. "It was like when I first fought in the amateurs. I couldn't relax. He was moving so much, I was reaching. I couldn't find the range. I don't know if it was ring rust or pressure, but my timing wasn't right. I'm glad it's over. I believe in myself. I want to be a fighter. I want to be heavyweight champion of the world. I've got a lot of work to do. I'm just real happy to break the ice."
Remarkably, even though he'd been idle for 28 months, Cooney's victory again made him a very bright light in the dimness of the heavyweight division and a possible future opponent for the 34-year-old Holmes, now the champion of the International Boxing Federation. Pinklon Thomas is the WBC champion, Gerrie Coetzee the WBA's. "The division is a wreck," Cooney says. "My timing is good for coming back."
Cooney had talked about returning—to fight Brown—for a long time. In May 1983, while training in Palm Springs for a June 18 fight against Brown, Cooney landed a left hook on the elbow of a sparring partner and injured the knuckle on his middle finger. Drs. Charles Melone and Joel Grad of NYU Medical Center performed surgery to repair tendon and ligament damage and, most painful of all, a fracture of the metacarpal phalangeal joint. They also removed bone and cartilage chips from the knuckle, which had swollen to three times its normal size.
"We instructed Gerry not to do anything with it," Melone says. "Especially not box."