The last thing to go was his will to continue, and surely there was poetic justice in that. Of the crucial resources in which he had been thought deficient—stamina, seasoning, boxing skills, a resilient chin—his heart was most suspect. Now, in the final 30 seconds of the 13th round, his punch and legs gone, his hands mere decorative ornaments as WBC Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes battered him, Gerry Cooney says he saw himself briefly as Jake La Motta fighting Sugar Ray Robinson.
"I was saying to myself, 'Go on, hit me! You can't hurt me!' I felt like Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. 'Put me down! You couldn't put me down, Ray!' It was very foolish, a stupid thing to do, but I wanted to show him. Show him I had guts, I guess."
The artful Holmes had fought cleverly and with his accustomed caution for the first 12 of the scheduled 15 rounds, and now he had Cooney precisely where he wanted him. The challenger's celebrated—if on this night ineffectual—left hook had lost its oomph in the middle rounds, his rather ponderous jab had become more a stay-away punch than an offensive weapon.
Holmes began the 13th with a snapping jab of his own. Cooney moved in slow motion, his jabs and hooks drifting and weak. Holmes hit him with a right lead, then a hook, then another jab, sending Cooney sagging to the ropes. Cooney unsettled Holmes with a hook, but he regained his balance. Holmes threw a grazing right. Cooney's left eyelid had been cut in the sixth round, and he blinked at the champion, looking dazed, lost.
Cooney was ready to go, and Holmes knew it. He studiously measured the challenger for the decisive right, reaching out his left and touching Cooney's head, pawing at the challenger. Holmes drove a powerful overhand right to Cooney's head. The challenger staggered but didn't go down. Holmes then stunned Cooney with two more jabs. Another right caught him in the head. And then another. Next, Holmes drilled home a left.
Holmes was hitting him at will and Cooney no longer had an offense; as the round wound down and he grew wearier, he couldn't effectively defend himself either. He was slogging about the ring. Suddenly Holmes rocked Cooney with a left and then a hard right. Cooney tottered, his back toward the ropes.
"Go on, hit me!"
Holmes crashed a follow-up right to Cooney's head.
Holmes hit him with a third. Then a fourth. Then a fifth. Cooney stood facing Holmes, as if transfixed. The challenger took another right, and a left uppercut, and, finally, a slashing right that propelled him into the ropes. As he fell, he draped his right arm over the top strand of the ropes and touched the canvas with his left glove, which constituted a knockdown. Cooney's trainer, Victor Valle, came up the steps to the apron of the ring. Cooney pulled himself squarely back onto his feet, Holmes backed off, and Referee Mills Lane looked into Cooney's eyes. "I thought his eyes were still good," Lane said later. "I was going to give him another chance."