On 16 January, Barclays Center in Brooklyn hosted Deontay Wilder vs. Artur Spilka and Vyacheslav Glazkov vs. Charles Martin: two bouts that were advertised as “world heavyweight championship” fights. I was sitting in the press section next to a man who knows what it’s like to fight for the real heavyweight championship of the world.

Gerry Cooney turned pro in 1977 and, after Muhammad Ali’s retirement, became the hottest commodity in boxing. He was big, WHITE, good-looking, and he could PUNCH.

By 1982, Cooney had a 25-and-0 record highlighted by crushing knockout victories over Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle, and Ken Norton. Cooney-Norton was a scary 54-second blowout that left Norton unconscious with his eyes open, staring unseeing into space.

Thirteen months later, on 11 June 1982, Cooney challenged Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world. It was a massive event, one of the most heavily-promoted, intensely-watched fights in the history of boxing.

Promoter Don King packaged the confrontation as black versus white. Cooney was “the great white hope.”

“I didn’t like it,” Gerry told me as we talked at Barclays Center. “But there was nothing I could do except keep my mouth shut and not make it worse. Then, when [referee] Mills Lane called us to the center of the ring right before the fight, Holmes looked at me and said, ‘Let’s have a good fight.’ Right then, all the racism went out the window.”

[Photo credit: The Fight City]

Holmes-Cooney was up for grabs on the judges’ scorecards when Larry knocked Gerry out in the thirteenth round. Cooney had five fights in the eight years that followed, winning three and coming up short against Michael Spinks and George Foreman. He retired in 1990 at age 33. But his career really ended after Holmes-Cooney. And arguably, before that: after Cooney-Norton.

“The truth is,” Gerry told me at Barclay’s Center, “the good part of my career ended the night I knocked out Norton. I’d already started hurting myself with drinking. And that night, after the fight, I tried cocaine for the first time. That’s when I needed someone to take me aside and say. ‘Let’s get focused; not just with boxing but with life.’ But I had too many enablers around me, and they weren’t going to challenge what was working for them.”

Years of substance abuse followed.

“I got sober on April 21, 1988,” Gerry said, recounting a crucial turning point in his life. “For a long time after that, it embarrassed me that I never reached my full potential as a boxer. It still bothers me a little. I could have done so much more . . . If I’d taken better care of myself . . . If I’d had a little more experience before I fought Holmes . . . ”

“The way it is for an athlete,” Cooney continued, “when things are right, you’re in a zone. For a batter in baseball, the ball comes in like it’s in slow motion. For me in boxing when things were right, it was like I had tunnel vision and could slow time down. There’s nothing like being in that zone. It’s the greatest feeling in the world. I could create an opening in the moment I needed it and land that big shot.”

The undercard at Barclays Center was mediocre. Cooney’s thoughts turned to the great heavyweights of his lifetime.

“Ali was the best. I would have loved the challenge of fighting him when he was young. George Foreman was a devastating puncher. Lennox Lewis was a talented guy. He fought a little scared, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Riddick Bowe had good all-around skills. The young Mike Tyson – the good Mike Tyson – is on my short list. Joe Frazier and Evander Holyfield had all the heart in the world. Holmes was good enough to beat me and a lot of other guys. All those guys had their gifts.”

As for the heavyweights of the new millennium, Cooney opined, “The Klitschkos had good size and they could fight. Vitali had more guts and was the tougher of the two. He was a better fighter than Wladimir. Tyson Fury is soft, and he’s not a big puncher. I’m a fan of Deontay Wilder, but he still hasn’t learned how to fight. And his chin might not be good, which is why they’re keeping him away from punchers. Anthony Joshua is green. He needs more rounds against better opponents, but he has potential.”

Vyacheslav Glazkov vs. Charles Martin was a dreary affair, cut short when Glazkov tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the third round and was unable to continue, making Martin the new IBF “world heavyweight champion.”

Wally Matthews, who covered boxing for Newsday and the New York Post decades ago, came over to say hello. Cooney greeted him warmly.

“I’ve got a question for you,” Matthews asked rhetorically “Do you ever get the feeling that you were born thirty years too late?”

Cooney laughed.

After Matthews had gone, Gerry reflected further on his years in the sweet science.

“Boxing was good to me,” he said. “It helped me deal with a lot of anger that I had inside from when I was growing up. And I made good money. Not as much as I should have, because there were people I trusted who stole from me. But I came out of boxing okay.”

“I’ve got a great life now,” Cooney continued. “I’m the happiest guy in the world. I’ve got a great wife. I’ve got great kids. I love the way things turned out for me. If I’d beaten Holmes, the way my head was back then, who knows what would have happened. I wish I’d won. But life was so fast for me back then. if I’d won, I might not be alive today.”

(L-R: Ken Norton, Jake Lamotta, Larry Holmes, Joe Frazier, Gerry Cooney, Micky Ward)

Jerry Izenberg, the dean of American sportswriters, has followed Cooney from the fighter’s early ring career to the present day.

“One of the things I’ve learned over time,” Izenberg says, “is that very few people really change. They might do a few things differently as they get older. Maybe they get a bit more polished. But they’re still the same person inside. Gerry Cooney has changed. He put his demons behind him and went from being a jerk to being a really great guy. And he’s been a great guy for a long time now.”

Gerry Cooney is not just a boxing success story. He’s a success story.

***

At one point on 16 January, Gerry Cooney left his seat in the press section and walked over to Carl Froch to say hello.

Froch’s last fight was a 31 May 2014 demolition of George Groves. He hasn’t fought since and, formally or not, seems to have retired from boxing. He was at ringside in Brooklyn in his role as a commentator for UK television.

Most elite fighters fight too long. Froch shares a distinction with two other Brits: Lennox Lewis and Joe Calzaghe. All three retired as champions at the peak of their marketability.

Lewis walked away from the ring in 2003 after back-to-back victories over Mike Tyson and Vitali Klitschko. There were eight-figure offers on the table for him to defend his title one more time, but Lennox said no.

Calzaghe ended his remarkable career with triumphs over Mikkel Kessler, Bernard Hopkins, and Roy Jones and retired as an undefeated champion in 2008.

Lewis, Calzaghe, and Froch are healthy today. Contrast that with the plight of some other boxing greats who fought long past their prime. There’s a clear message in that for anyone who’s listening.