Up Close and Personal with “Gentleman” Gerry Cooney
Exclusive Interview by “Bad” Brad Berkwitt (Copyrighted Boxing Interviews Of A Lifetime, 2002)
I don’t think there was a more suited nickname in the history of boxing than Gerry Cooney’s. He was nicknamed the “Gentleman” and he is, truly that. Gerry is a man of such admirable qualities, and you will see just what I mean in the following interview.
Cooney’s rise to the top of the heavyweight ranks in the late 1970’s came fast and secured him a shot at then Heavyweight Champion, Larry Holmes, on June 11, 1982. In a fight that was action packed throughout, Cooney would come out the loser for the first time in his career by TKO in the 13th round. Cooney would only fight sporadically for the next five years.
On June 15, 1987, he would again challenge for the Heavyweight Title against then Heavyweight Champion Michael Spinks. This fight would be less competitive than the Holmes fight and Cooney would be stopped in the fifth round.
Since Cooney’s retirement from boxing after being stopped by George Foreman in 1990, he has worked very hard on the behalf of ex-fighters. I hope that when you come away from reading our interview, that you are as moved by Cooney’s dedication to his organization and what it’s doing to help ex-fighters, as I was. People like Cooney, can be called the true heroes of boxing for making the difference in an ex-fighters life’s, who badly needs it.
BB: I can’t tell you how many countless readers of my column and boxing fans I know, are always bringing up your name when we talk about boxing. They all are wondering what you’re up to today?
“Well Brad, they got some nerve,” Gerry said with a chuckle. You know I have a very busy, hectic life. I am married and have two beautiful children. I still am in the fight game and spar about 30 – 40 rounds a week in New Jersey at a gym called Rocky Marciano’s.
I am involved in minor league baseball. I go around the country speaking to troubled youths, trying to help them understand that whatever path they choose, they’ll need to really pay attention to it – telling them, that by the time you’re 30 years old, you can be on a nowhere street, if you’re not careful. I just try to get kids to look at themselves in a good light.
I also have my F.I.S.T. Foundation which stands for, Fighters Institution for Support & Training. What we do is help bring in retired prize fighters who are unemployed. They are usually in dire need of assistance. You see Brad, all of the sports have a safety net, but boxing is the only sport that has none. So when the fighter is through, he is through. While he was fighting his management was very excited for him, but now that he is done, that management team is moving on.
We help them with things like aptitude testing to find out where their strengths lie. From there we direct them to job training and put them into jobs. This is a tough goal, due to the fact that these guys are not used to working a 9-5 job, because all they did was train and fight.
BB: Where is your organization out of?
We are basically out of the tri-state area of NY, NJ and CT. In the next 18–24 months, we are taking it nationwide. We are in the learning stages of my organization, so we are taking it slow, to be able to help the fighters with the best options we have out there.
BB: What can we the fans of boxing and boxers do to help your foundation?
Well, pretty soon we are going to be up on the web page. We are a non-profit organization with a Federal Tax ID number. Donations are always welcome. Once we get our web page up, everybody will be able to hook up to the F.I.S.T. Foundation online and they’ll be able to communicate with each other. We are currently in the process of putting together a big charity function at Bob Guicione’s mansion in Manhattan. He has donated his place for a charity event to support the foundation.
We will be doing this in October of this year. HBO, Showtime, and ESPN to name a few, are all involved. It’s very exciting because we started from the ground up.
BB: How does an ex-fighter get in touch with your foundation?
Well Brad, you know boxers are a tight-knit group of people. They have been beat up so bad that they are very leery of others. But through word of mouth, you hear someone’s story about coming into F.I.S.T. and filling out an application for help. We send the application up to Albany and process it.
Then what happens is they say to other ex-fighters that Cooney is doing a good job and this is how word spreads. You know that life is a series of going from one room to the next. For that period of time though, when you have to stand in the hallway, it’s a scary place. Bottom line is, I want them to know that, “you are not alone and we are going to continue to fight for you guys.”
BB: Who or what inspired you to get into boxing?
Well, I grew up in a big Irish, Catholic family. My dad was a pretty rough guy. So one of my brothers left home when he was 15 and found his way to the gym. It gave me the opportunity to go and spend some time with him and workout in the gym. But actually, prior to that, my father had always had a heavybag in the basement. I used to work out on it regularly and thought I was pretty good at it. So, when I use to go and see my brother at the gym, I finally told him that I wanted to box with someone there.
They put me in with this little Italian guy who was half my size and he punched me around that gym. I said to myself, that this is not for me. So, I went home and had a different perspective on boxing, realizing that with hitting the heavybag, it was not going to hit me back like that kid did. About three months down the road, I went back to the gym and asked to box that kid again. I knew then that I really wanted to pursue boxing.
BB: Since you fought in the days of 15 rounds, would you like to see them come back or do you favor 12 instead?
Well, in my fight with Larry Holmes it was a 15 round fight. That night in the ring it was 115 degrees under the lights. So, even if it was 12 rounds it was pretty hot out there, no matter what you did. I think the benefit of 12 rounds is they found that most people get hurt from the 13th round to the 15th round. By cutting it down, it made you pick up the pace during the fight and the fans get a better paced, more competitive fight.
BB: What did you consider your best weapon in the ring?
I was a left hooker, and I loved hooking. I also really liked to jab and mix it up right away.
BB: What big fights were you approached for, but never materialized?
John Tate was one, but he was on the decline at that time. Mike Weaver was another instead of Larry Holmes. My management chose to go to Larry instead. In fact, Larry and I are really good friends right now. We are currently working on some projects together.
BB: What are you words of wisdom to the young fighter who is just turning professional?
You know I just left the gym tonight and they had this young amateur kid who is 19-0. He sparred with another guy who is ranked 5th in the world. They boxed four rounds and had a good workout. When they got out of the ring, the kid who was ranked 5th in the world, continued to train. The 19-0 amateur kid picked up the telephone and started talking to this one and that one, taking off his wraps. He stopped training. You have a small period of time when you can perfect your career and become good at it. A lot of guys get distracted, which only hurts them. You must stay focused and work very hard at boxing.
BB: Who are you three favorite fighters of all-time and why?
First, Muhammad Ali. He was the kind of guy you either loved or hated, but you wanted to see him. I happen to really love him. He brought boxing to another level and always made you laugh. Second, Roberto Duran when he was a lightweight. He was the kind of guy who was a true fighter and you hardly see guys like that anymore. Finally, Aaron Pryor. I spend time with him every year and he is just a great man.
BB: What do you consider the greatest fight you have ever seen and why?
Well, Brad, there have been so many great fight’s that I have seen over the years. I really loved all the Ali Vs Frazier fights because, here were two guys who just gave you their all in there. Evander Holyfield has given us some great fights and you can’t go without mentioning Hearns Vs Leonard and Duran Vs Leonard.
BB: What was it like being up there fighting for the heavyweight Championship of the World?
It was great and scary at the same time. I was a small kid from Huntington, Long Island. I never imagined that anything like that would happen to me. It’s one of the most impressive things when they come to your dressing room and say “hey Cooney you’re up.” You take that walk from the dressing room to the ring and that’s when the real man comes out. Then you climb up those four stairs and into the ring. Then finally, you can’t wait for the bell to ring.
BB: In my opinion, you gave a good account of yourself when you challenged Larry Holmes for the title. In hindsight, would you have fought him differently?
Yes! I would have fought my fight instead of being concerned with going the distance. I would have come out to swarm him instead.
BB: The one thing that I remember after that fight was when you addressed the fans. It moved me how sincere you were and felt that you had let them down. I don’t think you did, but explain what you were trying to get across to them when you spoke to them.
I have always been a people person. I was also disappointed for not succeeding in my attempt to win the title against Holmes. I had never lost a fight before that. But back to the people side of it. Growing up training, I use to get up so early I would wave to the garbage men going by. So, I had this relationship with Blue Collar America and I really liked it. I felt that lots of those people looked forward to me winning that night for nothing other than they just liked me.
BB: What do you think of females in boxing?
I have seen some women who can fight, but I don’t think there is a place for me to see women in there getting punched around.
BB: If you could have chosen any other profession besides boxing, what would it have been?
Boxing really was it for me. I started at the young age of 15. I liked it very much and went into the Golden Gloves at 16. There, I won the Middleweight Title. After every fight, I saw my picture on the back of the Daily News, one of the largest papers in New York. I really liked that.
BB: I feel the current Heavyweight division lacks the excitement of when you were in it. What do you think of the Heavyweight division today?
Right now it’s kind of at a mixed up state, but I think it’s getting itself worked out.
BB: With all the hype and big bucks heavyweights are getting today, how do you feel they would have fared against the fighters of your era?
That’s a good question. If you really want to talk to someone about that, you should ask Larry Holmes, who said these guys really couldn’t have shined our shoes. That is the one thing about boxing that people have tried to do – compare fighters throughout history.
It’s like the track stars from years ago couldn’t really compete with the runners of today, because training is so different. Today, they are adding weight training which is making their muscles compete better. It’s just too hard to say who would beat who.
BB: Who nicknamed you the “Gentleman”?
When I got out of High School I worked at a gas station. There was a fellow I worked for named Harry, God rest his soul. I worked for him for awhile and he told me that I reminded him of Gentleman Jim Corbett.
BB: Have you stayed friendly with any of the fighters from your era?
Yes. In fact, I just spoke today with Eddie “The Animal” Lopez. I am seeing all the guys, like Earnie Shavers, Tex Cobb, and Larry Holmes all the time.
BB: Do you have any funny stories about boxing that you were involved in or have been around?
Yes, when I fought Jimmy Young in Atlantic City. If you know anything about Jimmy it was that he always made you look bad in there. He was a true spoiler, who was always in shape and came on strong. This was my first nationally televised bout. I was thinking this guy is going to kill me.
When I trained I used to knock myself down and build myself back up by hard training. So, it was kind of a funny thing. I was on the third floor of the hotel in Atlantic City and thinking to myself, ‘what am I gonna do here tonight? I am fighting on national TV and this guy is going to make me look terrible.’ I was thinking, ‘maybe I should just jump out of this window here’ Gerry said with a chuckle. I finally get in the ring with Young and the fight was easier than I thought it would be. Young was so worried about my left hook, that every time I threw a hook, he bent forward. I caught on to this, stepped to my right and threw a left uppercut. This opened a big gash on his nose and I was able to take him out in four.
When I was fighting Kenny Norton I thought he was unbelievable. I had remembered how big he was in Mandingo. I did a Warner Wolfe show in New York a few days before the bout and he asked me how did I feel? I looked Kenny right in the eyes and told him I wished we were fighting right now. I assure you though that I could wait the time. Finally I get into the ring with him and realize he really is not that big. I had built him up to be this big guy but in reality, he was not bigger than me.
One more story I want to tell you. One time in Detroit I went to see Larry Holmes fight Leon Spinks. We both were sitting with Howard Cosell and Larry knocked off Howard’s wig. I thought to myself ‘this is getting serious now.’
BB: After the Holmes fight you were very inconsistent in your getting into the ring. Why was that?
I was mixed up and not happy with the people I was with at the time. Boxing was not the sport that I thought is was due to all the politics. If you look at my career, towards the end you will see I was fighting like once a year. I was not part of the Don King top heavyweights, so I was kind of kept out. His guys were getting three to four fights a year and I could only get one. It’s hard to build your skills like this and on top of that, I was catching lots of bad press for it.
The bad press came because they thought I should fight more. I couldn’t get the fights because if I would sign to fight one of King’s guys I would be signed to him. I chose not to do that. It’s a free country and I did not want that. In hindsight, that might have been a mistake. I should have found some other way around it.
BB: Going into the Michael Spinks fight, what did you think the outcome would be?
Going into that fight, I was at the worse point in my life. I was drinking heavily and taking some kind of drugs. The fight was on and off several times and I didn’t think it was going to happen. I went into that fight drinking heavily. I am ashamed about that fight to this day. I lost three times in my career. Losing to Holmes I could deal with, because I lost to a true champion.
In the Foreman fight I caught George in the first round and had him hurt. I thought I hurt him and wanted to take him out. Gil Clancy wanted me to move around for six or seven rounds. I hadn’t fought for awhile and got excited with trying to take him out of there and got caught with a shot. I have no shame in that fight with George, because I picked up myself and dusted off my pants. I said to myself ‘it’s time to move on to something else.’
But in the fight with Spinks, he did not belong in the ring with me, in my estimation.
BB: Finally now that you are retired from the ring, what would you like your fans to remember you for?
That I always fought from my heart. When that bell rang, I wanted to go out there and do my thing. I want them to know that I always have time to say hello to that person who is walking down the street, sees me and says “is that Gerry Cooney?” They usually are uncomfortable to approach me, so I approach them and say hello. I am spending lots of time with the youth of America, like I told you earlier, and only wish when I was a kid, that I had someone to talk too.
In closing, Gerry asked me to let all the folks out there know that his foundation is not ever going to give up on these ex-fighters who have fought, sweat and bled their hearts out in the ring, for the boxing fans around the world. He says, “they need help, and I mean great champions, who need to get their dignity back and enjoy what they did in the ring. I am in this fight and any help is greatly appreciated it.”
(Interview conducted in 2000)