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Melvina Lathan, Chairperson
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Boxing aficionados old enough to remember will certainly never forget the evening of November 6, 1982. That night, New York’s own Gerry Cooney, the top-ranked contender for the world heavyweight title, fought champion Larry Holmes in Las Vegas in one of the most hyped heavyweight title matches in history.
Cooney, a native of Huntington, NY, where he still resides with his wife and three children, fought gamely throughout the scheduled 15-round bout against Holmes in a contest that exceeded expectations. After being knocked down briefly in the second round, Cooney went blow for blow against the “Easton Assassin,” providing him with the hardest test of his career up until that point, and was even ahead on all three judges’ scorecards before points were deducted for low blows in round 10. The more experienced Holmes wore down Cooney and in round 13, Cooney’s trainer stepped into the ring and the fight was stopped on a technical knockout. No matter what the outcome was, no one could beat this contender’s heart.
After retiring from professional boxing in 1990 with a career record of 28 wins (24 by KO) and three losses, Cooney has stayed close to the sport and become a beacon of hope for up-and-coming fighters and youth throughout New York and beyond. But one doesn’t need to be an up-and-coming pugilist to be inspired by Cooney’s life story. In speaking of his post-fight career, one must understand his life before he became a heavyweight contender to truly understand what he has accomplished and shared with others.
He grew up in Long Island with his parents and two brothers and two sisters. His father was a big drinker and as Cooney readily admits, a very tough man who heaped physical and verbal abuse on him. He was told he was a no-good failure and would never succeed in anything in life. Understanding the conditions in which he was brought up, Cooney sometimes wonders how he ended up where he is now. But the story is in the telling.
An angry child, Cooney used to get into fights all the time at school. He followed his older brother, who left home at the age of 15 to escape the abuse and his father’s anger, to the gym. One day, he put the gloves on himself and sparred with an Italian kid half Cooney’s size who pushed him around the ring. Out of frustration, he threw his gloves off and went back home to hit the heavy bag and envisioned someone coming at him while doing so. He returned to the gym to face off against the same kid, but this time, the young Italian could not hit the elusive Cooney. Boxing had now become a way for him to express his anger in a positive way.
His brother, whom he loved dearly, and his father (but for very different reasons) were the catalysts that brought him into boxing. He trained in a junior high school gym which didn’t contain a ring, but he made the most of it. His first professional gym was at a local YMCA in Huntington before going to a Queens’ gym where he trained alongside former middleweight champion Vito Antuofermo. Under the tutelage of John Capobianco and Otto Juvenille, Cooney went on to win the Golden Gloves twice, the first time at age 16 in front of 21,000 people at Madison Square Garden in what he calls the biggest moment of his career.
As a matter of fact, he called Madison Square Garden home due to the frequency of his bouts there. He fought a total of 19 times in the Empire State, including in Uniondale, Commack, White Plains, Hempstead, Hauppauge, Brooklyn, and Queens, on top of all his Garden appearances.Looking back at his earlier years at that point in his life, he wondered how he ended up where he was…in a great place. Cooney finished his amateur career at 55-3 and was well on the way to even more success as a professional. He counts Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, as well as fellow New Yorkers Emile Griffith and Carmen Basilio, as inspirations in the fight game as a youngster.
Before the Homes fight, Cooney scored big wins over the likes of Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle and Ken Norton before retiring after being knocked out by George Foreman in 1990 in what he describes as the hardest punch he ever took in his career. He described Holmes as the smartest and greatest opponent he ever stepped in the ring with. The two have found a rapport and mutual respect since that evening in 1982, doing events together and talking to each other on the phone a few times a year. Cooney finished with a professional career record of 29-3 with 24 KO’s.
Cooney is as accomplished outside the ring as he was in. He is grateful for his post-boxing life with a loving family and continues to give back to the sport he loves, as well as his community. Immediately after retirement in 1990, he founded “Fighters Initiative for Support and Training (FIST),” an organization that helped retired boxers find jobs and ease their transition into the next chapter of their lives. The organization also provided alcohol and drug counseling to former fighters, who were often broke after leaving the fight game and provided job training, as well as educational and financial programs.
He is appreciative of his “spectacular life” and feels blessed to have an opportunity to give back so that others don’t have to go through what he went through as a youngster. He also was involved in the “Hands Are Not for Hitting” program, which focused on combating physical abuse by teaching conflict mediation and illustrating the importance of respect and how being abusive to others never allows people to find their high-note and purpose in life. As he often states, “physical and mental abuse is wrong and stunt one’s growth. I bring my voice to those people who have not yet found theirs.”
Although these organizations are no longer operating, Cooney continues to be an intrinsic part of the fabric of his community. He goes to an orphanage twice a week to work with kids, attends over 40 charity events every year and still laces up the gloves here and there to benefit charity exhibitions. He also trains young up-and-coming fighters in the area.
Additionally, Cooney co-hosts the weekly “Friday Night at the Fights” show on Sirius-XM Radio alongside Randy Gordon. Cooney is very opinionated about boxing today. He follows the careers of fighters such as Andre Ward, Adrain Broner, and Nonito Donaire and is thrilled about the fact that the heavyweight division is reforming itself with the likes of Tyson Fury and Brandon Rios, both who he absolutely loves to watch fight. “During the Klitschko years (referring to the two brothers, Vitali and Wladimir) nobody cared about the division due to the dominance of the brothers and when the heavyweight division lacks, all of boxing lacks,” stated Cooney. “Guys who would’ve gone into boxing went into other sports like football, basketball and baseball. But now that is changing and it is a very exciting time in boxing, especially in the heavyweight division,” Cooney proclaims.
Asked about the differences in boxing now and when he used to fight, he points out the fact that during his prime, there weren’t as many promoters and one promoter owned all the fighter contracts. Instead of fighting the next best fighter, boxers usually had to wait to fight other top opponents. Or sometimes the fight wouldn’t come about at all. Now with the likes of promoters like Oscar De La Hoya, Bob Arum, Joe DeGuardia and Lou Dibella in the fight game, boxers have more choices and the sport is in better hands with fighters getting a more honest and fair shake. But the fight is not over and Cooney feels the sport needs to keep developing safety for its participants and, in a nod to his earlier post-boxing work, wants to make sure that boxers hold on to their money and find a productive life after they have retired.
From a physical standpoint, he recommends to young fighters that they find an instructor who will teach them defense in order to protect themselves. Asked what he would have done differently in his career if he could do it all over again, he states he would’ve taken better care of himself. After long lay-offs in-between fights (his promoters wanted to protect the big “payday,” a detriment to his career), he would drink and smoke, harming his overwhelming physical skills. “Had I someone to look out for me and guide me, I could have been better,” he went on to say.
But perhaps those lessons that went unlearned back then have made him the man he is today. Cooney states that boxing gave him a voice, it gave him courage, taught him about life and it allowed him to grow and help other people. Now he is paying it forward…in spades.
Although the world heavyweight title remained elusive for Cooney in his ring career, since that night in 1982 he has won more than any title is worth: the overwhelming respect of his peers, fans and all the kids and individuals he has touched and helped every step of the way. In that respect, he is a champion for life to all he inspired, both inside and outside the ring.