Holmes vs. Cooney – One Nation Divided

Holmes vs. Cooney

Matt Hamilton

Matt Hamilton: The Media Shakedown Coming Straight Outta Cape Town.

Matt Hamilton, for ESNewsReporting!

Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney took place on June 11, 1982. This heavyweight promotion was perhaps among the most highly anticipated & racially tinged heavyweight bouts of all-time. The fight & its preamble managed to strike a nerve simmering prominently & menacingly in the psyche of post-segregationist American society.

The Great White Hope

Great White Hope

James Earl Jones in the stage adaptation of "The Great White Hope". Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

Cooney joined a roster of so-called Great White Hopes. The phrase reflects the racism so prevalent in the era in which Jack Johnson competed. Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion, was the best heavyweight of his generation & among the best in history. White reaction to his success & public relationships with white women was so extreme that the United States Congress, concerned that footage of Johnson beating up white boxers would trigger race riots, made it illegal to transport prizefight films across state lines.”The great white hope” is a reference to the boxer whom whites hoped would finally defeat Johnson.

In 1968, Muhammad Ali attended the Broadway play “The Great White Hope” about Jack Johnson. After just a few minutes watching James Earl Jones onstage, Ali said “Hey, this play is about me. Take out the interracial love stuff, and Jack Johnson is the original me!”

In Gerry Cooney‘s dressing room, a phone had been installed for a very special purpose. The President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, would be calling to congratulate him if he won. There was no such arrangement with the American world heavyweight champion Larry Holmes.

I was that close to getting that phone call, I might have become the vice president, who knows” Cooney would later say.

Tale of the Tape

Gerry Cooney 25-0 (20 KOs)

height 6′ 6″ / 198cm
reach 81″ / 206cm

Held notable wins overJimmy Young (TKO 4) ; Ron Lyle (KO 1) & Ken Norton (TKO 1).

Larry Holmes 39-0 (29 KOs)

height 6′ 3″ / 190cm
reach 81″ / 206cm

Held notable wins overEarnie Shavers (twice) [UD & TKO 11]; Ken Norton (SD 15); Muhammad Ali (RTD 10); Trevor Berbick (UD 15); Leon Spinks (TKO 3).

  • Both fighters earned $10 million. Adjusted for inflation that is approximately $23,750,000.00 in 2012, each.
  • Cooney was featured on TIME magazine’s cover.
  • Had Irish-American Cooney won, he’d have become the first Caucasian heavyweight champion since Ingemar Johansson beat Floyd Patterson. This bout, though, was between two Americans at a juncture in history of heightened racial tensions within American society.
  • White supremacist groups threatened placing operatives in position to shoot at Holmes as he entered the ring outside Caesar’s Palace.
  • Black groups claimed they would place armed ringside in the event the champion came under attack.
  • The promotion garnered worldwide attention. Holmes vs. Cooney was one of the biggest closed-circuit productions of all-time & was beamed out to 150 nations around the world.
  • Gerry Cooney had won two New York Golden Gloves Championships as an amateur.
  • Comparisons to the historic & racially tinged fight between Jack Johnson and Jim Jeffries way back in 1907 were often made in the media in the buildup to Holmes-Cooney, a fight that took place fully 75 years later.
  • Larry Holmes had a somewhat modest amateur record of 19-3 and fought at the 1972 Olympic Trials, where he lost to a white fighter – Duane Bobick. The loss to Bobick was hardly a disgrace though – the man who accumulated an amateur record of 93-13 (61 KOs) had beaten no less a luminary of amateur boxing than Teofilio Stevenson of Cuba (5-0!) at the Pan-American Games in 1971.

“It wasn’t about Larry Holmes. If I would have fought a brother I wouldn’t have gotten the money I got. Give me 10 black guys and I make eight dollars. Give me Gerry Cooney and I make $10 million.”

Aftermath & Legacy

  • Larry Holmes was named The Ring Fighter of the Year for 1982, the year this bout took place.
  • Larry Holmes went on to win his first forty-eight bouts & coming within one win of Rocky Marciano‘s mythical record of 49-0 before losing a very close decision to Michael Spinks in 1985.
  • Only Joe Louis had a longer title reign (1937-1949) than Holmes enjoyed (1978-1985). His 20 titles defenses were also second only to Louis’ 25.
  • Holmes would go on to attempt to regain the heavyweight championship four more times, losing to Michael Spinks (for a second time) in 1986, Mike Tyson (1988), Evander Holyfield (1992), and Oliver McCall (1995).
  • Holmes was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2008.
  • In June 2010, Cooney was appointed co-host of “Friday Night at the Fights” on SIRIUS XM Radio.
  • 25 years later Holmes recalled, “We were actually friends that day. When the bell rang, I told Gerry, ‘Let’s have a good fight.‘” Cooney noted “That’s sportsmanship right there.