The year began with the San Francisco 49ers winning Super Bowl XVI 26-21 over the Cincinnati Bengals. Poltergeist and E.T. had moviegoers packing theatres across the country.
In the music world, Michael Jackson released the album “Thriller,” which would go on to sell more than 25 million copies. Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” were, fittingly, number one and number two on the Billboard list of top 100 songs.
The year was 1982.
An eventful year would also include a matchup between the recognized top-two Heavyweights. On a collision course for well over a year, the champion and his No. 1 contender were about to get physical in their own right. Both had that eye of the tiger and were prepared to make history in the desert.
World Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes (39-0, 29 KOs) was set to defend his crown against “Gentleman” Gerry Cooney (25-0, 22 KOs). These were the days, as there was quite simply one universally recognized and legitimate Heavyweight champion of the world.
Every Holmes fight was a fight for respect. Many historians have pointed out that Holmes had the perceived misfortune of following “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali. Many fans were not enamored with Holmes and longed for the excitement and drama that Ali brought to the sport.
From Easton, PA, Holmes had won the WBC Heavyweight title in a thrilling 15-round split decision over Ken Norton. Nicknamed the “Easton Assassin” and a former sparring partner of Ali’s, Holmes had earned victories over Trevor Berbick, Earnie Shavers, Mike Weaver and Ali himself.
While Holmes crusaded to solidify his standing as the main man in the division, Cooney was beginning to make noise of his own. Turning professional shortly before Holmes had won the title, Cooney reeled off 25 straight wins beating Ron Lyle, Jimmy Young and destroying the former champion Norton inside of 60 seconds.
Still, many questioned the quality of opponents Cooney had faced. The three biggest names on his dossier were well past their better years. His critics pointed to his lack of a right hand and questionable stamina.
Cooney had a sledgehammer left but could he go 15 rounds and win the title over a far more experienced fighter with just one hand?
The young Cooney continued to fight and win impressively. He gained momentum as quickly as he did notoriety. That notoriety skyrocketed when he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with Sylvester Stallone who was set to release Rocky III.
As both fighters grew in stature, so did the tension between the two. Some of that tension was a result of their pure competitive spirit.
Unfortunately, some of it was driven from others calls and references to “The Great White Hope.” Those calls cast an unwelcome shadow and desecrated their imminent meeting in the ring.
That tension came to a head on June 12, 1981.
Holmes had successfully defended his title for the 10th time by knocking out former champion, Leon Spinks. Holmes then joined ABC’s Howard Cosell for an interview when he noticed Cooney milling around near ringside.
The champion’s eyes widened. When Cosell referenced Cooney as a possible next opponent, Holmes became incensed and threw off his headset.
“Howard, I’m going to slap his face if you bring him over here.” Seated with Cosell, Holmes then stood up and went after Cooney and a near melee ensued. In his zeal to go after Cooney, Holmes accidentally caught Cosell with an elbow, leaving him with a bloody mouth.
Cosell, being Cosell, laughed off the incident while live on the air, “Well, I remember once at a convention when Dan Rather got pushed around and he said, ‘It’s all in a day’s work’.”
After a final title defense against Renaldo Snipes, Holmes and Cooney were now officially set to meet. HBO’s Barry Tompkin’s would quickly sum up the now impending meeting between the champion and No. 1 contender by calling it, “The most anticipated fight in years.”
The fight was originally scheduled for March 15, 1982. After Cooney suffered an injury in training, tearing muscle fibers in his left shoulder, the bout would be briefly postponed.
Finally, on June 11, billed as “The Pride and The Glory”, Holmes would make his 12th title defense against Cooney in the outdoor arena at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. It was a star-studded scene as a record Las Vegas crowd of 29,284 fans attended the fight. The event created a record live gate that exceeded $7 million dollars.
Scheduled for 15 rounds, the bout would be televised on closed-circuit and pay-per-view television and then later rebroadcast on both HBO and ABC.
The thermometer at ringside read 100 degrees. The sun began to set and dusk was settling in outside Caesars Palace. The backdrop was near perfect on this evening with the mountains visible behind the large sections of seating that surrounded the ring. Behind other sections stood the massive hotel casinos that highlight the Las Vegas strip.
Large lights were installed high above the arena, illuminating an already electric atmosphere.
Cooney, 25, began his walk to the ring first. Standing 6’6” tall, he wore a green robe as he was now visible to those in attendance. Led by trainer Victor Valle, the 225 pound Cooney climbed up the steps and into the ring. The crowd roared as large sections of fans decked in all green were splattered throughout the arena.
The 32-year-old Holmes quickly exited his dressing room. Led by trainer Eddie Futch, the 6’3” champion wore a white robe and was a ready 212 pounds. One man in his entourage held the WBC belt high above his head as he and the entire Holmes group began to jog towards the ring.
With both men now pacing just a few feet from one another, ring announcer Chuck Hull began the festivities. As each fighter took off his robe, they revealed that they were both in sensational shape. Each man owned an 81-inch reach that accompanied their undefeated record.
In an interesting moment, Hull first introduced the champion. Tradition generally dictates the champion is introduced last. Some felt it was a sign of disrespect. Others pointed to the fact that when Holmes won the title from Norton, it was indeed the champion Norton that was introduced first that night as well.
Nevertheless, it added to the tension inside Caesars.
Both men approached the center of the ring for referee Mills Lane’s instructions. In another noteworthy moment, as both fighters touched gloves, Holmes looked directly at Cooney and said, “Let’s have a good fight.”
A wall of sound flowed through the arena as the opening bell sounded. Holmes sprinted from his corner. Wearing white trunks with red trim, the champion looked eager to get the action started. Cooney, wearing white trunks with orange and green trim, had a look of calm determination on his face.
Holmes bounced on his toes and looked content to box while moving backwards. Cooney, hands held high, looked to press forward and force the action. Both men worked beautifully off their jab, Holmes launching his right hand and Cooney countering with his left hook to the body.
The action exploded in the second as the champion landed a hammering right hand on the temple of Cooney, sending him sprawling to the canvas. With the crowd on its feet, Holmes tested Cooney’s legs after the knockdown, but the challenger survived the onslaught.
Cooney responded well after the knockdown as the action continued to go back and forth in the middle rounds. Both men exchanged power punches and challenged each other both mentally and physically. In the seventh, Holmes took control and opened a cut over Cooney’s left eye.
After the round ended, Valle tried to rally his fighter in the corner, screaming, “You gotta move in and rough this guy! You gotta rough him!”
Cooney, with his nose now bleeding in the eighth, refused to give in. He pressed forward and launched left hooks to the head and body of Holmes. The champion fired back with straight right hands that snapped Cooney’s head back.
After Cooney was penalized for a low blow, the fight headed towards the championship rounds. The give and take from the big men continued. The 10th round escalated into a see-saw war as both men took turns rocking one another with right hands, left hooks and blistering uppercuts.
The crowd pleasing action carried into the 11th and 12th rounds. With very few clinches, it was as much a battle of wills as it was strength and skill. Neither man wanted to give an inch.
As Round 13 began, both men began to look fatigued. Holmes continued to land clean power punches as Cooney desperately tried to respond. At the midway point of the round, a tired Cooney followed Holmes around the ring trying to hold. Holmes, sensing that his young challenger was in trouble, began to pick Cooney apart.
With less than a minute remaining in the round, Tompkins called the final exchange, “And another right hand! Cooney very wobbly in the center of the ring. Takes another right hand! Combinations of punches thrown by the champion against Gerry Cooney. This one is all but over! Cooney against the ropes!”
A thunderous roar rolled through the arena as Holmes had retained his title by way of a TKO at 2:52 of Round 13.
Both men were valiant, answering all of the questions posed by their detractors. Each proved that they could punch and take a punch. Cooney showed stamina while Holmes demonstrated that his 32 year old legs were still there. Cooney proved that he did have a right hand as Holmes demonstrated that he could punch as well as he could box.
The tension between the two has long passed. Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney have become friends. Cooney began an organization, F.I.S.T., which helps former fighters secure jobs and obtain medical insurance.
Holmes has helped him in that endeavor.
Header photo by The Ring Magazine/Getty Images