NEW YORK -- He has been called by some, 'The Great White Hope', a title he abhors. To others, he is, 'The Great White Hype' or 'The Great White Dope', titles which infuriate him.
The only title which truly interests Gerry Cooney is the world heavyweight title, and he'll attempt to earn it when he faces World Boxing Council champion Larry Holmes at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nev., on June 11.
Both fighters are unbeaten and each will earn a reported $10 million for stepping into the ring on June 11. Holmes is 39-0 with 29 knockouts. Cooney is 25-0 with 22 knockouts. The similarities end there.
Holmes, who is black, worked his way up from a truck driver and a car wash attendant, served as a sparring partner for former champions Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and had to scratch and claw his way into big-time, big-money competition.
Cooney, who grew up in suburban Huntington, N.Y., some 35 miles from Manhattan, is white. Many in boxing circles feel that his color rather than his ability is the reason for his meteroic rise to the No. 1 contender status of both the WBC and the rival World Boxing Association without any major victories over top-quality competition.
There is a true feeling of dislike, bordering on hatred, between Holmes and Cooney. Holmes feel Cooney is a contender only because of his color and never misses the opportunity to mention it. Cooney bristles as Holmes' racial diatribes and openly calls his, 'a jerk'.
The ill will between the two worsened when a shoulder injury to Cooney forced the fight to be postponed from its original March 15 date to June 11.
Cooney doesn't like to talk about the obvious racial aspects of the fight -- he considers them insignificant -- but he doesn't hesitate to cut loose on Holmes.
'Larry Holmes is the heavyweight champion of the world and he acts like a 5-year-old kid,' Cooney said. 'He's just a low-class kind of guy as far as I'm concerned. He goes into his black and white speech, calling me a 'Great White Hype' and 'Great White Dope' and all that garbage. I feel there are enough problems between the races, so why should people inflame them more? Why should he agitiate things? He doesn't seem to understand that.
'The way I feel about it is that this is 1982. Who needs that kind of stuff? That belongs in the past. This shouldn't be a race thing, a black man against a white man. It's just two guys fighting for the heavyweight title, not the black man's fighter against the white man's fighter.
'Holmes goes around telling everybody the only reason I'm getting the title shot and getting so much money is because I'm white, that I haven't earned the shot. All I know is that Sugar Ray Leonard made more than $10 million (actually $13 million) for fighting Thomas Hearns and neither one of those guys is white. Sugar Ray Leonard gets the money because he has personality. People want to see him. When he talks, people listen. When Larry Holmes opens his mouth, nobody listens 'cause he's got nothing to say.
'He's just a jerk. Don King controls his head and he controls his mouth. One statement that he made sticks out. He said, 'I used to work with retarded children and I think Gerry Cooney was one of my students'. What kind of crap is that? He's making fun of poor unfortunate kids. That's just nonsense.
'I think his real problem is that when Ali retired, he thought everyone would treat him the same way they treated Ali. But it didn't happen. Then I came along and got a lot of publicity and it drove him nuts. I think he resents the fact that people don't treat him better. People don't treat him like Muhammad Ali and it gets to him.'
Cooney feel that Holmes 'freaked out' when the challenger injured his shoulder. Cooney, who is a natural left-hander with a savage left hook, suffered a muscle tear in his left shoulder during a sparring session. He took nearly six weeks off before resuming training at the Concord in Kiamesha Lake, N.Y. In early May, Cooney switched his training headquarters to the plush surroundings of Palm Springs, Calif., in order to get used to the blistering heat that will greet him when he moves into Las Vegas in early June.
'I'm feeling really good,' Cooney said. 'I was down for a while when I hurt my shoulder but I've gotten over all that. When I first hurt it while sparring, I tried to keep going but I couldn't. The pain was really terrible and then it seemed to let up. I tried to throw another left hook and the pain was just excruciating. I knew then that there was a big problem.
'People talk about blowing $10 million but all the money in the world doesn't mean anything if you don't feel right. My shoulder was hurting so bad that it made it impossible for me to try and train. I'm back to normal now. It's a matter of getting my boxing in and getting ready for the fight. I think it's getting better all the time.'
Cooney has been getting edgy in recent weeks asthe fight gets closer. He is growing tired of publicity demands for what could be the overall biggest payday in boxing history and his interviews lately have gotten shorter and less informative.
'I just want to fight, that's all,' he said. 'I'm not afraid to fight Larry Holmes. If I was afraid to fight him, I wouldn't have signed to fight him. There's been a lot of talk and all the things that have been said have been said. It doesn't matter any more what he says about me or my family. I just want to fight.
'I'm not afraid of the man. I've gotten a rap for supposedly being afraid of certain guys because I've had to pull out of some fights. But those were things that happened, injuries. It wasn't something I made up.
'It was amazing the way people reacted when the fight had to be postponed. People saying that I was scared, that I was in this just for the money. Hell, if that was the case, all I'd have to do is keep my mouth shut about the injury, show up in Vegas, get in the ring and collect my money. But that's not me. A lot of people have invested a lot of time and energy into helping me and I didn't want to disappoint them.
'I want to be 100 per cent for this fight, so I took the long road. I had the fight postponed until I could get ready properly. Larry Holmes goes around saying that I'm scared of him. The only thing I was scared of was that the fight wasn't going to take place.'
The major criticism of Cooney has been his inactivity. He fought only once in 1981, a 54-second demolition of former champion Ken Norton last May. Prior to that, he knocked out Ron Lyle in one round in October, 1980, and stopped Jimmy Young in four rounds in May, 1980. Cooney will enter the ring against Holmes with a less than six rounds actual boxing in slightly over two years.
Cooney pays little attention to critics of his ring activity.
'I think it's just something people like to talk about for lack of anything else,' Cooney said. 'We'll see how my inactivity affects me when I get into the ring. I want to prove the critics wrong. It's the same thing with the knocks I get for the people I fought. I don't want to try and defend my record. It's been the same through history.
'Good fighters have fought guys who didn't give them a lot of competition. Joe Louis had his 'Bum of the Month' club. Rocky Marciano beat a lot of guys who weren't really top caliber. All Muhammad Ali's opponents weren't the best in the world. It's part of the business.
'Look at Jimmy Young. When I was about to fight Jimmy Young, people talked about how good a fighter he was. I stopped him in four rounds and all of a sudden he was washed up. He was a bum. Then I look up and he's ranked No. 5 in the world or something like that and they're talking about Holmes fighting him for the title after I got hurt. Then Jimmy Young goes 12 tough rounds with Greg Page, who I'm supposed to be holding back because I have the No. 1 ranking. I guess that when I fight them, they're bums. When somebody else fights them, they're quality opponents.
'It's like when they call me a one-handed fighter, like the only hand I have is my left hand. I feel I'm getting stronger and stronger. I get a lot of criticism about my right hand but I think it's getting better all the time. I've been working and working. I keep using it and the more you use it, the more confidence you get in it.'
Confidence is something that was instilled in Cooney as a youngster by a martinet Irish father and nurtured through his career by the odd union of two Jewish managers known in boxing circles as 'the Wackos' and a Puerto Rican trainer who has become a second father to the fighter.
Tony Cooney was an ironworker who lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., and worked long hours on the skyscrapers of Manhattan. He was also a disciplinarian and an avid boxing fan and when his wife, Eileen, asked to raise her children in a more country-like atmosphere, Tony Cooney took his clan to Huntington. It was there that young Gerry Cooney was introduced to boxing.
'My father was very strict and he pushed me and my brothers to become boxers,' Cooney recalled. 'He would get us out at five every morning to do roadwork and he built a ring for us to spar in and he had a sort of gym in the garage. He'd make us climb ropes and work out. We used to spar a lot, me and my brothers, even in the winter. I remember how I used to freeze my tail off. It didn't make any difference to my father.
'When he saw that I had some potential, he sent me to a boxing gym on weekends. There were times when I really didn't want to go and one day I blew up and told him 'who am I fighting for, me or you?' He didn't say a word to me. But now I know that he did it for my own good. He taught me that if you really want something, you have to work at it and work at it.'
Cooney's first experience with boxing was hardly inspiring.
'I remember the first time I really got involved in boxing,' he said laughing. 'We used to have a heavy bag around the house and I used to really cut loose on it. I could really pound the hell out of the thing. Then one day I was in the gym and some kids were boxing. I decided to try this Italian kid named Eddie. He was a lot smaller than me but he really did a number of me. Beat the hell out of me. I'll never forget it. I went back home and decided that if I was going to box, I'd better learn to do it the right way and not against a bag that doesn't punch back. I knew right then that I had an awful lot to learn.'
Tony Cooney did not live to see his dream come true. He died of lung cancer at the age of 55 shortly before Gerry became the New York Golden Gloves heavyweight champion.
But the lessons remained with Gerry, along with a twinge of sadness.
'My father was a tough man. He was strict, very strict, and me and my brothers and my sisters stayed clean,' Cooney said. 'We were afraid to ever mess up.
'I think one of the saddest things in my life is that I only told my father that I loved him once, and that was two days before he died. He never told me he loved me and I wish he had. But I know he really did, because he acted like he cared for me. He did the things he did to make a better life for us. When he was hard on us, it was because he wanted to make us tougher to be able to handle the world. He wanted us to be ready for anything and to be able to handle things ourselves.'
Cooney, who is devoted to his mother, still fights with the inscription 'Mom and Dad' sewn into the side of his kelly green trunks.
Rappaport, Jones and Valle have become surrogate fathers for Cooney and despite his managers' reputations as loonies for their dealings in the boxing business, Cooney puts complete faith in them.
'Mike and Dennis look out for me. They care for me and I care for them,' Cooney said. 'As far as I'm concerned, boxing is a great sport but it's the most terrible business I know of. There are a lot of managers and trainers who don't care one bit about an individual. Mike and Dennis care. They think about the fighters when they're fighting and they're concerned about their futures. They've gotten good people to invest my money and make sure it's there when I'm through boxing. There should be more like them.
'Victor is like a second father to me -- that's the way I feel about the man. I honestly believe he's the greatest man in the world. He's gotten me where I am today. He's a great teacher and a great human being. Every fighter should be so lucky as to have a guy like Victor training him.'
Jones, who is 46, is the less vocal of the 'Wackos'. Jones grew up in Brooklyn and settled in Teaneck, N.J. He learned to box as a youngster in summer camp and became an avid fight fan. He went into real estate in 1963 and made a fortune in refurbishing and reselling one and two family homes.
Rappaport, who is 36, also grew up in Brooklyn and was considered somewhat of a child prodigy. He ran a cookie business at the age of 13, supervising a staff of 28 youngsters and pulling in $150 to $200 a week. He went through several successful small businesses, raised enough money to go into real estate and then struck it rich buying homes and then renting them. Jones and Rappaport met while selling real estate in 1976 and went into partnership as fight managers.
Their first big strike came that year. They got Howard Davis, a Long Island fighter who won an Olympic gold medal and was named the outstanding boxer on a team that included Sugar Ray Leonard and the Spinks Brothers, signed to a $2 million contract with CBS. Davis, unfortunately, was the only one of the five U.S. gold medalists that year who did not go on to win a world title.
The search for a trainer for Cooney then began. Cooney first wanted Cus D'Amato, who demanded to be both manager and trainer. D'Amato then recommended Valle.
The 65-year-old Valle, a former leading featherweight, retired in 1938 with a 46-1 record after having problems with his hands. He had worked with Alfredo Escalera, the former World Boxing Council junior lightweight champion, but was going into retirement when Rappaport and Jones talked him into taking Cooney.
He fell in love with the young fighter.
'Gerry is a fast learner. He picks things up quickly,' Valle said. 'You show him something once or twice and he gets the knack of it right away. I told him when I first met him that I wasn't going to put up with no nonsense and that I would work him hard but that I would treat him like a son. We've never had any problems. He is one great young fighter. I have never seen a left hook as devastating as his.
'His one biggest problem was that he felt too much for his opponent. He didn't want to hurt anyone. One time he really nailed this guy just before the bell and blood was pouring from his nose. He came back to the corner and was almost apologizing, saying, 'Gee, Victor, the guy's nose is bleeding.' I told him to forget about the damned nose and just put the guy away. And he did it.
'Another time I was showing him something and I forgot to duck and he really nailed me -- sent me halfway across the ring. My mouth was bleeding like crazy and Gerry was trying to help me. He kept saying 'but Victor, you're bleeding'. I just yelled at him to forget the stinking blood and get back to work. I didn't want to create sympathy and soften him.
'His problem was that he felt pity in the ring and in the ring, you cannot feel pity for the other man. That lesson cost me $6,000 in dental work but he learned it. You don't see him showing no man any pity in the ring. Look at what he did to Young and to Lyle and to Norton.'
Valle took over a very raw product. Cooney began his pro career with a first-round knockout of Billy Jackson in New York on Feb. 15, 1977 and twoweeks later, he stooped Jimmy Roberson in two rounds, also in New York.
Cooney was a natural to become a fan favorite in New York -- a tall, white Irishman with tremendous punching power -- but it did not happen quickly. Cooney had not yet filled out and he was gangly. As a converted left-hander, he was very awkward and his footwork left much to be desired. Cooney got more laughs and catcalls than cheers from New York fans in his early bouts.
He stopped Jose Rosario in two rounds in Louisville, Ky., in March, 1977, and then took a four-round decision in New York over Matt Robinson, one of only three fighters ever to go the distance with him. Cooney then registered six straight knockouts before winning on a disqualiification against S.T. Gordon.
Cooney had two more knockouts, won an eight-round decision over Sam McGill, knocked out Grady Daniels and then took a 10-round decision over Eddie 'the Animal' Lopez in what was the toughest fight of his career. It has been all knockouts since then, with Cooney dispatching nine consecutive opponents.
Cooney loves the 'Gentleman Gerry' tag, which he picked up from one of his favorite movies, 'Gentleman Jim', with Errol Flynn portraying old-time champion James J. Corbett. But Valle feels he has taken the gentleness out of his fighter in the ring and has developed Cooney into a awesome punching machine, capable of destroying Larry Holmes on June 11.
'We're training Gerry to be ready for anything,' Valle said. 'We'll see in the first round or two what the other guy wants to do and then we'll adapt. If he changes, we'll change. If he does what we expect, we'll go ahead with our fight plan. But we'll train for everything -- rough stuff, boxing, weaving. Whatever it takes to win, we'll be ready.
'As for Gerry fighting so few fights, I think it's a misconception. A young fighter doesn't need as many rounds as an older fellow. Gerry's a young kid and he gets in top shape real fast. Larry Holmes talks about how quick he is and what a great jab he has. Well, we've been doing an awful lot of work on sharpening our hand-eye coordination. People will be shocked at the speed of Gerry's punches.
'He's spent a lot of time on the 'Valle Bag', a special training device I invented. It has a lot of 45 degree angles on it and that means the punches have to be perfect. A fighter has to shift his weight properly in order to hit the bag right.
'I don't worry about the fight. It wouldn't be a good example. I treat it just like any other fight. I know Holmes' style. He's a good fighter and we have to be prepared. I know we can win but I'm not predicting victory -- I never predict a fight -- but I don't think this will go the distance.'
Valle expresses some reservations but Rappaport, a non-stop talker who is Cooney's biggest booster, has none. Ask Rappaport a question and he adjusts the tiny, solid gold boxing gloves around his neck and breaks into his spiel.
'As far as we're concerned, this is going to be Christmas and St. Paddy's Day all in one for Gerry,' Rappaport said. 'It's the bigest thing on his mind. It's his dream and he wants his dream to come true.
'I cannot fathom the thought of a 33-year-old fighter who is nearing 34 years of age with excellent boxing talent beating a bigger, stronger 25-year-old puncher who can also take a great punch. You cannot reverse the aging process. Those are nearly 34-year-old legs Larry Holmes will be trying to stay on for 15 rounds. Larry Holmes is a better fighter than anyone gives him credit for but I wish he would show those same qualities outside the ring.'
Rappaport and Jones have taken heavy criticism for locking up Cooney and not taking on any type of contenders who might prove to be a challenge. They signed to fight veteran Joe Bugner last December but when word came from Bugner's camp that he looked sharp, Rappaport and Jones suddenly announced that Cooney had a back injury.
Bugner then was knocked out in two rounds by veteran Earnie Shavers in early May.
Rappaport claims it is only by chance that Cooney has fought so few times.
'If we had our choice between activity and inactivity, we would chose activity,' Rappaport explained. 'However, it has not always been our choice. We were signed to fight Mike Weaver for the WBA title but the WBA ruled that Weaver had to fight James Tillis instead. That wasn't our fault.'
Rappaport even feels Cooney's injury and the delay of three months could be beneficial for his fighter.
'Actually, I think the delay will hurt Larry Holmes more than it hurts Gerry. He depends on timing and moving and needs the fights. He needs more time to get in shape. He's 33 and some people say he's 34 or older. We're staying sharp. Maybe he's having the problems.
'We would like greater activity but I think it will be more of a liability for Holmes. I think it bothers him more to have to spar so much to get ready.
'Actually, Gerry's injury could be a blessing in disguise. Because he was unable to use the left hand, he had to work more with his right hand and now it's stronger than it ever has been. I wouldn't be surprised if he knocked Holmes out with his right hand.'
'Let's face it -- Gerry is the hardest hitter in the business right now, maybe in history. I remember one time he hit Larry Alexander so hard in sparring that we had to rush him to the hospital. Gerry broke the orbit bone over Larry's eye. When we got there, the doctor asked what kind of instrument did the damage.
Rappaport is a shrewd businessman and he feels Cooney could become the most famous athlete in the world if he can defeat Holmes. A victory could push Cooney into the billion dollar bracket. He already has had one television commercial released and there could be a stampede for his services -- if he beats Holmes.
'This fight could put Gerry Cooney in the stratosphere of the athletic world,' Rappaport says in his typically overstated fashion. 'He could become the first billion dollar athlete. His marketability could be limitless. The man has everything except the heavyweight title and he's going to have that on the night of June 11.
'He has good looks of an Irish baritone (Cooney actually is only half-Irish. His mother is of Spanish-Scottish ancestry) and is as understated in his humility as a Victorian maiden. He could become the living true-to-life version of 'The Greatest American Hero'. His value could be like a telephone number, including the direct dialing prefix. By winning the heavyweight title, Gerry Cooney could and probably will become the first $1 billion athlete.'
Cooney realizes the monetary gains that can be made but he says he's putting that out of his mind.
'Money is not the main concern in this fight,' he said. 'I want the heavyweight title. It's as simple as that. Everyone wants to be the best at what he does and the heavyweight championship is the top of my profeession. It signifies that best and that's all I want to be -- the best.'
Millions of dollars will be wagered and millions of words will be written before Cooney steps into the ring. The talk will end, racial overtones and all, and it will come down to two undefeated fighters battling for a place in history. Only one will emerge as champion. And even Valle, almost a second father to Cooney, thinks there is no way of knowing which fighter that will be.
'Anyone who makes a prediction about how a fight will go is crazy,' Valle said. 'Nobody knows for sure. I don't even know exactly what Gerry will do once he gets into the ring and I'm his trainer. Larry Holmes will have a lot to say about what Gerry will do. It takes two guys to make a fight.
'Gerry will be ready but who knows how hot the fire will be. It could start getting really tough and Gerry could start saying to himself, 'hell, I'm a millionaire now and maybe I'll just take a nap.' Or he could suck up his guts and get to fighting.
'The whole thing is locked up somewhere in Gerry's heart.'