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At the Convention Hall in Atlantic City last Sunday, 23-year-old Gerry Cooney sat in his emerald-green dressing gown and laughed and laughed from pure euphoria. What had just opened in front of him was the high road to the heavyweight championship of the world.
And to think that only a few days earlier his name had failed to ring a bell of recognition in the hotel where he was staying, a stone's throw down the boardwalk from the ring in which he had just fought. At that earlier time, wearing a tired, unbelieving expression and looking all the more gloomy because of his thick black mustache, he had been explaining on the phone that all he wanted was some pineapple juice. There was 6'5" of him draped over the bed in the Boardwalk Regency Hotel. He was thirsty and hot after three rounds of sparring, and room service seemed bent on reading him the whole cocktail list.
"No," he said patiently, breaking into the recital, "nothing alcoholic, just pineapple. Listen, could I have it fast? This is, uh, Gerry Cooney, the boxer. Fighting here this weekend." At the other end, a gabble. "No, C-o-o-n-e-y," he said. Score Round 1 to room service.
But very soon Gerry Cooney could be on his way to heights where such ignominious treatment would be unthinkable, where calling room service would be someone else's chore. He was undefeated in his 22 fights as a pro, had scored 18 knockouts. Some people had reservations about the quality of the opposition he'd faced, but he was the No. 1 heavyweight contender in the eyes of the WBA and No. 3 according to the WBC. And now, against 31-year-old Jimmy Young, Cooney was facing his biggest test to date. With a good win against Young he could take off.
But Jimmy Young a test? The Incredible Bulk, the flaccid, overweight travesty of the Young who had beaten George Foreman in 1977, who had come so close to taking Muhammad Ali's title in '76? The Young who seemed finished after his two successive losses to Osvaldo Ocasio? Who in June '79 waddled into the ring in Madison Square Garden to fight Wendell Bailey weighing 235 pounds? Whose last fight, against Don Halpen in McAfee, N.J. in March, was just part of the undercard?
No, not that Jimmy Young at all, insisted George Benton, the ex- Philadelphia middleweight who trained Leon Spinks for his winning fight against Ali and who has handled Young's last three fights, including a win in London over John L. Gardner, the British Commonwealth heavyweight champion. Benton displayed his fighter in the gym last week at Pleasantville, a short ride from Atlantic City. "Looks like Hercules, don't he?" Benton proclaimed. "From what he used to look, I mean. Weight's right down. He was 220 yesterday. And at that weight he is formidable!"
Cooney knew he would not be meeting old fatty Young, but the new, trimmer model. "He's getting back into it, so I think it's time for him to go," Cooney said. "He can make it difficult for anyone he fights—make it, kind of, not a very powerful fight. He knows how to get away from punches."
"I just hope to win," was as far as Cooney himself would go, although he conceded that he had been a little irritated by Young's reported remark that all Cooney had was one big punch and that "I've been in with punchers all my life."
"So what does he want to worry about me for?" Cooney demanded. "But I sure think he's going to have to worry. I'm getting up for this fight." To prove it, he had gone through 150 rounds of sparring in training. It was the hardest he had ever worked, he said.