The biggest heavyweight championship fight since 1971 was Larry Holmes against Gerry Cooney.
Much bigger than Tyson/Spinks, Holyfield/Lewis, and Tyson/Holyfield.
Why was this?
Was it because you had two undefeated fighters fighting for the championship of the world? Partially.
But the main reason was that one was black and the other was white.
Why was the fight filled with racial undertones? Boxing has always been tribal. Is that bad? I don’t think so. The issue with this fight was neither boxer was a racist, but the promoters and managers did everything they could to make it about a racial divide in America.
It’s one thing when you cheer for someone because they look like you, it’s another thing when you hate the other fighter because he doesn’t look like you.
The racial tension in this fight was caused by Don King who represented Holmes, and Dennis Rappaport and Mike Jones, managers of Cooney – and known as the wacko twins. The twins did a great job putting Cooney in a position to make a boatload of money. They negotiated a 50/50 split. Cooney made 10 million dollars.
But as far as getting him ready to fight Holmes, they did a terrible job.
Cooney had won his first 25 fights, 22 by knockout. Some were names like Ron Lyle and Ken Norton, but they were both past their primes. Cooney was a great amateur. He won multiple New York Golden Gloves titles. Cooney almost fought WBA champion Mike Weaver in the summer of 1981. Weaver wanted the fight. He’d make three million dollars, instead of the 750,000 offered to throw hands with James Tillis. Then, the WBA intervened. They threatened to strip Weaver of the title if he failed to fight Tillis. Weaver relented to keep from getting stripped of the title.
I think the best road for Cooney would have been a fight with Weaver. While it would have been a risky fight, Cooney would have been better prepared to fight Holmes than he was. Instead, a still green Cooney was sacrificed.
Even with the huge public interest, the fight’s promoters couldn’t resist stoking the racial passions. “This is a white and black fight,” barked Don King, Holmes’s brilliant and amoral promoter. “Any way you look at it, you cannot change that. Gerry Cooney: Irish, white, Catholic.”
Jones and Rappaport fanned the flames, “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—combining racial appeal with racial deniability in one neat phrase.
No matter how you cut it, Rappaport was a scumbag to say things like that about Holmes who had always been a hard-working and intelligent fighter. If there is somebody to not respect as a human being it would be Rappaport, not Holmes.
Holmes began receiving death threats in the run-up to the fight, some of which came over his home phone: “Don’t start your car tomorrow, nigger.”
He was “determined not to be intimidated by the collective desire of white America to see me get beat,” he wrote later in his autobiography. As the fight neared, Holmes decided to double down: he brought Rev. Jesse Jackson into his camp. Jackson, it was said, might help defuse tensions—though the reverend wasn’t exactly renowned for his tension-defusing gifts.
He made his way toward the ring with the Holmes entourage, clad in Holmes red.
“I felt a palpable feeling of danger out there,” HBO’s Larry Merchant said.
Remember this was 1982, not 1962!
Snipers were positioned on the roof. It was a surreal atmosphere as the fighters readied to enter the ring. Cooney entered the ring to the Rocky theme, as before the fight he’d appeared on the cover of Time magazine with Sylvester Stallone. Cooney also appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated before the fight. Holmes grew angrier and angrier with each disrespectful act.
Holmes’s strode to the ring as usual to Mcfadden and Whitehead’s “Ain’t no stopping us now”.
The really sad part of all of this is that Holmes and Cooney were not racists. They were warriors getting ready to fight for the greatest championship in all of sports.
King and the wacko twins were the racists. I’ve heard them say they were just trying to build the fight up, but you don’t have to build up racial tension to sell the fight. The act was cynical and destructive.
The bout would have been huge either way.
The fight itself was a dramatic battle beaten two fighters who laid it all on the line that night. Cooney was no great white hype – he was a young boxer who had not been properly prepared for this moment.
Holmes, on the other hand, was more than ready and it showed early in the fight as he controlled the first couple of rounds with his magnificent jab.
He dropped Cooney in the second round, but the big man got up quickly and fought even harder. Cooney won his fair share of rounds, but he lost points repeatedly for low blows which put him behind on the cards until Holmes finally stopped him late in the fight.
After the fight, the fighters hugged. Respect had been earned.
Holmes and Cooney have been good friends for years now.
King, however, stayed a scumbag. As for the wacko twins, Jones passed away in 1990. Rappaport went on to manage and promote other fighters.
Today TV is full of the lowest common denominators. It’s in all walks of life from the Kardashians to the Pauls to the Trumps, Clintons, and Bidens.
What I will remember from that June night in 1982 is staring at the screen in awe, as these two undefeated gladiators battled in a ring in Las Vegas.
They fought their hearts out for boxing fans.
Boxers don’t do that much anymore.
I wish they did.