Inducted on November 13, 1997
Gerry Cooney (born August 4, 1956) is a retired Irish-American professional heavyweight boxer from Huntington, New York. Despite relative inexperience, his exciting wins and size, aided by expert promotion, propelled Cooney into a lucrative bout with world heavyweight champion Larry Holmes in 1982. Cooney performed creditably before his corner retired him in round 13, and was regarded as having made a brave and determined effort. He was also sportsmanlike, stepping back after inflicting a low blow that might have been followed up with a contest-ending left to Holmes’s jaw by a less scrupulous fighter, though such gentlemanly conduct was seen as typical of his general lack of professional instincts. A view of him as tactically naive in defence was reinforced when former light-heavyweight Michael Spinks defeated Cooney in five rounds. In his final bout, he demonstrated his exceptionally hard punch by staggering powerful George Foreman, but was unable to capitalize on it; again showing himself deficient at basic self-protection, Cooney suffered a devastating second round knockout that ended his career.
Life before boxing
Born into a blue collar Irish-Catholic family on Long Island, Cooney was encouraged to become a professional fighter by his father. His brother Tommy Cooney was also a boxer, and reached the finals of the New York Golden Gloves Sub-Novice Heavyweight division.
Fighting as an amateur, Gerry Cooney won international tournaments in England, Wales, and Scotland, as well as the New York Golden Gloves titles. He won two New York Golden Gloves Championships, the 1973 160-lb Sub-Novice Championship and the 1976 Heavyweight Open Championship. Cooney defeated Larry Derrick to win the 1973 160-lb Sub-Novice title, and Earlous Tripp to win the 1976 Heavyweight Open title. In 1975 he reached the finals of the 175-lb Open division, but was defeated by Johnny Davis.
Cooney trained at the Huntington Athletic Club in Long Island, New York, where his trainer was John Capobianco. His amateur record consisted of 55 wins and 3 losses.
When he turned professional, Cooney signed with co-managers Mike Jones and Dennis Rappaport. He was then trained by Victor Valle.
Known for his big left-hook and his imposing size, the tall, lean Cooney had his first paid fight on February 15, 1977, beating Billy Jackson by a knockout in one round. Nine wins followed and Cooney gained attention as a future contender. Although his opponents were carefully chosen. He moved up a weight class and fought future world cruiserweight champion S.T. Gordon in Las Vegas, winning by a fourth round disqualification. Cooney had 11 more wins, spanning 1978 and 1979. Among those he defeated were Charlie Polite, former US heavyweight champion Eddie Lopez, and Tom Prater. These were not rated contenders however.
By 1980, Cooney was being featured on national television. Stepping up, he beat one time title challengers Jimmy Young and Ron Lyle, both by ‘knockouts,’ although the Young fight was stopped because of cuts sustained by Young. By now he was ranked number 1 by the WBC and eager for a match with champion Larry Holmes.
In 1981, he defeated former world heavyweight champion Ken Norton by a knockout just 54 seconds into the first round with a blisteringly powerful attack. This broke the record set in 1948 by Lee Savold for the quickest knockout in a main event in Madison Square Garden. Since his management team was unwilling to risk losing a big future pay day with Holmes by having him face another viable fighter, Cooney did not fight for 13 months after defeating Norton.
The following year, Holmes agreed to fight him. With a purse of ten million dollars for the challenger, it was the richest fight in boxing history to that time. The promotion of the fight took on racial overtones that were exaggerated by the promoters, something Cooney did not agree with. He believed that skill, not race, should determine if a boxer was good. However, if Cooney won, he would have become the first Caucasian world heavyweight champion since Swede Ingemar Johansson defeated Floyd Patterson 23 years earlier. This caused Don King to label Cooney “The Great White Hope.” The bout drew attention worldwide, and Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney was one of the biggest closed-circuit/pay-per-view productions in history, broadcast to over 150 countries.
Cooney fought bravely after he was knocked down briefly in the second round. Some believe he was winning until he was fined three points for repeated low blows in round 10. But, after 12 rounds, the more skillful and experienced Holmes finally wore him down. In round 13, Cooney’s trainer stepped into the ring to save his fighter from further punishment.
After a long layoff, Cooney fought in September, 1984, beating Phillip Brown by a 4th-round knockout in Anchorage, Alaska. He fought once more that year and won, but personal problems kept him out of the ring.
Cooney was far past his prime when he made an ill-advised comeback against former world heavyweight and world light heavyweight champion Michael Spinks. Boxing carefully, with constant sharp counters, Spinks knocked him out in round 5. Cooney’s last fight was in 1990. He was knocked out in a match of the veterans in two slugging rounds by former world champion George Foreman. Cooney did stagger Foreman in the first round, but he was simply over-matched, and Foreman knocked him out two minutes into the second round.
The losses to Holmes, Spinks, and Foreman exposed Cooney’s Achilles’ heel: his inability to clinch and tie up his opponent when hurt. In the Foreman fight, he rose from a second-round knockdown and simply stood in the center of the ring as Foreman delivered the coup de grâce.
Cooney compiled a professional record of 28 wins and 3 losses, with 24 knockouts. He is ranked number 53 on Ring Magazine‘s list of “100 Greatest Punchers of All Time”.
Cooney, who is naturally left-handed, used an orthodox stance. This provided him with a powerful jab and a lethal left hook, but a comparatively weak right which he seldom used. Most of his fights ended in quick knockouts; while this benefited him in the beginning of his career, it left him unprepared for his fight with Larry Holmes. Despite his devastating punching power, Cooney’s moderate stamina and lack of experience proved to be his downfall. Many feel he had real potential, but was limited by his lack of experience.
Cooney’s left-hook is described as one of the most powerful punches in boxing history. Foreman, Holmes, and Lyle all stated that Cooney’s left was the hardest they had ever taken. It is also notable that Holmes had also previously fought Earnie Shavers, and at the time stated Shavers had the most powerful blow he had ever received.
Cooney was known for not throwing punches at the head, aiming instead for his opponent’s chest, ribs, or stomach. But this made him at times vulnerable against Holmes for example.
Cooney founded the Fighters’ Initiative for Support and Training, an organization which helps retired boxers find jobs. He has always tried to distance himself from the racism of the Holmes vs. Cooney match promotion. He and Holmes have become very good friends over the years. Cooney is also heavily involved with J.A.B., the first union for boxers. He became a boxing promoter for title bouts featuring Roberto Durán, Héctor Camacho, and George Foreman. Cooney is a supporter with of the “Hands are not for hitting” program, which tries to prevent domestic violence. He also does his part to instill and build interest in the sport by guiding aspiring young fighters in the gym.
Gerry Cooney now resides in Fanwood, New Jersey, with his wife Jennifer and two of their three children, Jackson and Sarah. His other son Chris resides in New York. He has been inducted into the Hall of Fame at Walt Whitman High School, where he graduated.
Cooney remains close friends with Holmes several years following their classic fight.
Cooney in popular culture
- In an episode of The Simpsons, “$pringfield (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling)“, Cooney is the official greeter of Mr. Burns‘ Casino who gets dropped by a single punch by Otto Mann.
- Cooney performed in the 1998 film Mob Queen as Mickey the Baker.
- He is mentioned in the film The Great White Hype.
- He’s also mentioned in underground rap duo Zion I’s song “Inner Light.”
- He is featured in the song “Cooney Vs. Munly” on Jay Munly‘s 2002 alt-country album Jimmy Carter Syndrome.
- Jim Carrey, playing fictional character “Gerry Cooney Jr.”, appears on a sketch in season 2, episode 11 of In Living Color.
- In the Season 5, 100th episode of 30 Rock, Dennis Duffy says he went to Gerry Cooney Elementary School.
- In the episode “Reverend Al” from season 10 of the FOX TV Show Married with Children, the character Al Bundy proclaimed that women could “no longer whip us (men) like a nation of Gerry Cooneys!”
- Guest starred as Angel in episode 17 of season 1 of ABC’s Spenser: For Hire, “In a Safe Place” (Original airdate: February 14, 1986). Angel is an enforcer who outboxes Spenser but quits rather than hurt him.
- SIVAULT 6/2/80, New York Daily News Archives, SIVAULT 4/19/82, New York Daily News Archives
- Boxing 101, “Gerry Cooney vs. Jimmy Young: VHS Classic Rewind”, May 25, 2012
- Boxing 101,“Gerry Cooney vs. Ken Norton: VHS Classic Rewind”, May 31, 2012
- Boxing 101, “Gerry Cooney, Still A Gentleman 30 Years Later: Part One – The Championship Fight”, April 30, 2012
- Boxing 101 http://www.worldboxing101.com/2012/06/11/larry-holmes-vs-gerry-cooney-vhs-classic-rewind/
- Boxing 101, “Gerry Cooney, Still A Gentleman 30 Years Later: Part Two – Life After Boxing”, May 1, 2012,
- Boxing 101, “Gerry Cooney, Still A Gentleman 30 Years Later: Part One – The Championship Fight”, April 30, 2012
- Boxing 101, “Gerry Cooney, Still A Gentleman 30 Years Later: Part Four – The Future of Boxing”, May 3, 2012
- Boxing 101, “Gerry Cooney, Still A Gentleman 30 Years Later: Part Two – Life After Boxing”, May 1, 2012
- Boxing 101, “Gerry Cooney, Still A Gentleman 30 Years Later: Part Three – Boxing Today”, May 2, 2012
- Boxing 101 http://www.worldboxing101.com/2012/06/11/larry-holmes-and-gerry-cooney-foes-for-a-night-friends-for-a-lifetime/
- Interview with Gerry Cooney
- BrawlHouse’s Gerry Cooney Featured on My9 NY and FOX29 Philly
- Brawlhouse Trainer, Gerry Cooney
Gerry Cooney is best remembered for his classic 1982 fight with Larry Holmes for the World Heavyweight Championship. Cooney was considered to be a White Hope by many critics during his career, but he also acquired a reputation as a knockout artist.
Cooney grew up on Long Island. His father, an abusive alcoholic, pushed him into boxing in his teens. “I had to be in bed early, up early, and run, run, run,” Cooney said. Though Cooney bridled at the discipline, he went along. “I lived in fear,” Cooney said. His father died of cancer in 1976.
Cooney trained at the Huntington Athletic Club in Huntington, Long Island. His trainer was John Capobianco, Sr.
In 1973, Cooney stopped Larry Derrick in three rounds to win the New York Golden Gloves Sub-Novice Middleweight Championship. That same year, Cooney’s brother, Tom Cooney, reached the finals in the Sub-Novice Heavyweight Division, where he was defeated by Eric George.
Cooney reached the finals of the Light Heavyweight Open Division in 1975, but he was defeated by Johnny Davis. The following year, he outpointed Earlous Tripp to win the Heavyweight Open Championship. Cooney turned professional in 1977 after compiling an amateur record of 55-3.
In May 1980, Cooney stopped Jimmy Young after four rounds. He battered Young to the body and opened a bad cut over his right eye, which led to the stoppage. Five months later, Cooney knocked out Ron Lyle in the first round. After the fight, while he was in his dressing room getting his damaged ribs taped, Lyle said that Cooney was the hardest hitter he had ever faced. In 1981, Cooney brutally stopped Ken Norton in fifty-four seconds.
Cooney had a tentative agreement to meet World Boxing Association Heavyweight Champion Mike Weaver on October 22, 1981, but the WBA said Weaver had to fight James “Quick” Tillis next or be stripped of the title. Cooney was ranked #1 by the WBA and Tillis was ranked #3, but the organization said that Tillis was the highest ranked available contender when Weaver was due for a mandatory defense in March 1981. At that time, Cooney and #2 ranked Leon Spinks had other fights scheduled.
After the Weaver fight fell through, Cooney signed to fight World Boxing Council Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes. Each fighter was guaranteed $10 million dollars. The fight would take place at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, and be televised live on closed-circuit and pay-per-view television all over the world. A week after the bout, it would be re-broadcast on HBO, and later still, on ABC-TV. The fight was originally scheduled for March 15, 1982, but the bout was postponed after Cooney tore muscle fibers in his left shoulder. It was rescheduled for June 11.
Since there had not been a white heavyweight champion in twenty-two years, the Holmes-Cooney fight had very important racial implications and was promoted to that effect by promoter Don King. The bout was one of the most racially toned events in boxing since Jack Johnson fought James J. Jeffries in 1910. “This is a white and black fight,” King said. “Anyway you look at it, you cannot change that. Gerry Cooney: Irish, white, Catholic.” Cooney’s managers, Mike Jones and Dennis Rappaport (known in the media as the Whacko Twins) fanned the flames, too. “I do not respect Larry Holmes as a human being,” Rappaport said. “I don’t think he’s carried the championship with dignity.” They pushed Cooney, with little subtlety, as white America’s champion. “He’s not the white man, he’s the right man,” Rappaport liked to say.
A record Las Vegas crowd of 29,284 created a record live gate of $7,293,600. There were many celebrities in attendance, including Joe DiMaggio, Farrah Fawcett, Ryan O’Neal, Wayne Gretzky, and Jack Nicholson. Also, in anticipation of victory, a special hot-line was installed in Cooney’s dressing room so he could receive a congratulatory phone call from President Ronald Reagan. No such hot-line was installed in Holmes’ dressing room.
The bout turned out to be a classic war, and Cooney showed his bravery and toughness. He was knocked down in the second round but came back strong, hurting Holmes with a left to the body at the end of the fourth round. The fight was stopped in the thirteenth round when Cooney’s trainer, Victor Valle, entered the ring to prevent Cooney from taking any further punishment. Holmes always maintained that this was one of the toughest bouts of his career.
After the fight, Cooney repeatedly apologized to his supporters. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said. “I tried with all my heart.” He felt that he let down a lot of people.
Hindered with injuries and substance abuse problems, Cooney didn’t fight again for two years. After two knockout wins in 1984, he retired. Cooney returned to the ring in 1986 and knocked out WBA #3 ranked contender Eddie Gregg in one round.
Cooney fought Michael Spinks in 1987. Prior to the fight, Spinks was stripped of the IBF title because he chose to fight Cooney instead of Tony Tucker, the #1 IBF contender. However, the fight was recognized as being for the World Heavyweight Championship by 18 states and The Ring Magazine. Spinks, an 8 to 5 underdog, dropped Cooney twice and won by a fifth-round TKO.
In 1990, Cooney returned to the ring one more time and fought George Foreman. Cooney had a good first round, rocking Foreman with a left hook. After the fight, Foreman said Cooney “hit me harder than anyone I’ve ever been in the ring with.” However, in the second round, Foreman floored Cooney twice and won by a knockout.
In retirement, Cooney has worked with at-risk youth and founded F.I.S.T. (Fighters’ Initiative for Support and Training), an organization to help retired boxers.
- Inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame on November 13, 1997.
- Inducted into the New York State Boxing Hall of Fame on March 30, 2014.
- 1973 New York Golden Gloves
- 1976 New York Golden Gloves
- Legendary Nights: The Tale of Holmes vs. Cooney
Boxing Record: click