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Heavyweight fighters who never fulfilled their potential Part 3 – Gerry Cooney

By John Stevens: Cooney’s story is a strange one. From unstoppable monster to under-achiever within the space of a few years. I think Gerry’s case is a perfect example of how boxing is just as much a case of mental/emotional conditioning as it is physical.

A big man at 6’6 and hovering around 225/230lb Gerry was a 2 time New York golden gloves champion who turned pro in 1977. After 10 fights against journeyman opposition he was pitted against S.T Gordon. A very decent fighter who went on to capture the world cruiserweight title by beating Carlos DeLeon. The tricky Gordon negated Cooney’s attack but was eventually disqualified in the 4th. Another 10 fights followed with Gerry moved up in level slightly but still facing relatively moderate opponents. He was then put in with the very durable and skilful Jimmy Young who would push the likes of Shavers, Norton, Lyle, Ali and Foreman to the limit. For only the second time in his career Young was stopped in this fight by Cooney who looked as if he was really finding his feet. Although hard as he tried, he still couldn’t knock Young out; the fight being decided by a cut.

The next 2 fights were the pivotal ones in Gerry’s career and the fights which gave him the ‘monster’ tag. Ron Lyle and Ken Norton were both exceptionally powerful and skilful fighters but both were demolished in the 1st round by Cooney in frightening displays of power. There is an argument that both men were past their best in these contests but there’s no getting away from the fact that these two, normally very durable men, were totally destroyed. Both Norton and Lyle said that it was the hardest they’d ever been hit in the ring which is quite a statement considering some of the opponents each of them had faced previously.

Next fight up in 1982 was for the undisputed world title against the formidable Larry Holmes who was then at the peak of his power. Many in the boxing world thought that it was a bridge too far for Cooney. Others were so seduced by his performances against Lyle and Norton that they presumed he would just walk out and do the same to Holmes too. Holmes obviously had other ideas and was not in the least bit concerned about the ‘monster’ tag, saying he would expose Gerry in the contest.

What followed was a dramatic encounter. Holmes was ‘in the zone’ and turned in one of his best ever performances. Cooney looked menacing in the first round and it seemed like he would explode on Holmes any second. However it was Holmes that did the exploding, hitting Cooney with a hard combination that had him reeling around the ring and flooring him for the first time in his career. Cooney’s shock was palpable and thereafter his body language altered somewhat. However he showed a big heart and fought on bravely, landing some big shots himself. Holmes showed though that he was made of sterner stuff and was not fazed at all by Gerry’s power (although he did admit after that Cooney had the hardest left hook he’d ever felt) – it was an exciting contest. Larry remained in control but Gerry battled on, fighting gamely throughout. However it also showed clearly that he was not ready to fight for the title against such a great champion and out of his depth somewhat.

The fight seemed to have a dramatic effect on Gerry’s mind. Maybe he too had bought into the ‘monster’ tag and simply believed that he would demolish everyone put in front of him. When this didn’t happen and he was the one getting stopped it seemed to alter his mind-set somehow. He had a 2 year lay off after this fight, with various reports in the press stating ‘personal’ problems. He fought 3 times between 84-86 knocking out low ranked opposition; but even in those encounters, and even though he scored stoppages in them – there looked like something had changed with Gerry. This all became very evident when in 1987 he came up against the very slick Michael Spinks. Spinks had totally dominated the cruiserweights and taken the title from Larry Holmes by basically frustrating and outworking the champion. At barely 200lb he was a very small heavyweight, but he made up for that with quite incredible reflexes, supreme boxing skill, and the greatest body movement ever seen in the division – making him an incredibly awkward man to fight. He also threw punches with deadly accuracy and was adept at putting every ounce of that 200lb frame into each punch. Spinks legacy has been tarnished somewhat by his surrender to Mike Tyson when he was seemingly paralyzed with fear before the bell struck. But this one fight does not sum the man up – at his peak he was a very, very good fighter indeed.

Perhaps Gerry’s team thought that a man of his size and power would easily overcome the relatively tiny Spinks. But instead it was Spinks who dictated the action, fighting out his skin in perhaps his best ever performance, elusive, slippery and throwing deadly combinations, he ran rings around Cooney and stopped him in the 5th.

Gerry though did not look right in this fight at all. His whole body language gave the impression of someone who had lost confidence in himself – much like George foreman looked when he faced Ron Lyle. Something for sure was not right. A 3 year layoff followed this fight which obviously did him no favours at all when he chose to come back against the aforementioned George Foreman, a man then in his second coming as a fighter. Cooney looked nothing like the same fighter who destroyed Lyle and Norton and fought Holmes so hard, and was obliterated by Foreman in quite terrifying style. He did however; catch George with a left hook in the 1st round that George said was the hardest punch he’d ever been hit with!

Cooney retired soon after this fight at the relatively young age of 34. How good was he really? My own feelings are that he was indeed a very good fighter who could have gone a lot further than he did but he was simply put into the world title fight with such a great champion as Larry Holmes just a little bit early – I think that his team, along with Gerry himself, all bought far too deeply into the ‘monster’ tag at the time and pushed him forward too soon. Another half a dozen fights against top opposition and, if he had continued blasting his way through them, then he perhaps would have been ready. As it was, it seems to me that the Holmes loss de-railed his confidence in himself and he never really got it back – and his own inactivity thereafter did nothing at all to help rebuild it.

For sure, this guy was a deadly puncher, with one of the hardest left hooks in heavyweight history. A decent boxer too but nowhere near as good as he could have been. Gerry also showed a great chin during the Holmes fight where he withstood some awesome shots. That too seemed to have diminished against Spinks and Foreman, but then again, we mustn’t take anything away from the deadly power of the shots he took from those two men.

Gerry himself has come out clean from boxing and is very much involved in boxing organizations looking after the welfare of ex pros. A thoroughly nice guy I wish him all the best. I feel though, that when he himself looks back at his career it will be hand in hand with no small amount of regrets and ‘if onlys.’

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