As we entered the 1980s, no one realised just how special the decade would become for boxing. In 1980 Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran would meet twice in two of the most eagerly anticipated and controversial (2nd fight) welterweight contests.
Leonard then fought 3 times in 1981, the third time against Thomas “Hitman” Hearns. It was seen as a truly 50/50 fight. No-one could predict the outcome with any certainty. The fight still is regarded as one of the best ever bouts in the history of boxing.
Marvin Hagler became undisputed middleweight champion in 1980 in a fight against Britain’s Alan Minter that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. He went on to defend the title 11 times until he lost it to Leonard in 1987.
The heavyweight landscape had altered in 1978 when Larry Holmes won a split 15 round decision over tried and tested warhorse Ken Norton in a classic duel. He would go on to make 20 defences of the title and yet struggle to be acclaimed as one of the best ever heavyweight champions.
What I believe made Holmes a great fighter was the chip on his shoulder that came from following in the footsteps of Muhammad Ali. Holmes had served as “The Greatest’s” sparring partner for years, so when he beat a shot Ali into submission in a 1980 title defence, he dropped even further in the affections of the American fans.
One thing that helped Holmes become a popular TV fighter was the fact that he could be hurt when facing punchers, that made some of his title defences very good viewing, few of us old enough to remember it, can forget the 7th round knockdown he suffered from the fearsome punching Earnie Shavers, somehow Holmes found his way to the end of the round and stopped Shavers, known as “The Acorn”, due to his bald head, in the 11th round.
In Gerry Cooney’s first 15 bouts as a professional, he beat up on a selection of poor heavyweights and a few good cruiserweights. He was 6’ 6” and could punch, especially with the left hook. In his 16th fight he stepped up the opposition and beat Eddie Lopez whose only loss had been to future champion “Big” John Tate. Another 6 learning fights followed and Cooney attracted the attention of the TV companies by knocking out all 6. He then beat 3 highly respected guys, Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle and Ken Norton.
Norton was coming off a split decision win over unbeaten Randell “Tex” Cobb, so this was a test for the big Irish New Yorker. He passed with flying colours, knocking Norton out while seated on the bottom rope, it was a brutal finish, and in the 1st round.
Cooney was now WBC No 1 contender so the Holmes fight had to happen.
If Cooney could topple Holmes, he would become the first white heavyweight champion in 22 years. The press were quick to acknowledge the fact well before the Holmes fight and as Holmes was promoted by Don King, who was happy to use any tactic to promote a fight, it soon became the focus of all involved other than Cooney himself.
Cooney was managed by Mike Jones and Dennis Rappaport who were new to the business, however, they too were quick to exploit the whole “Great white hope” thing to attract as much attention for their fighter. They were soon tagged “The Wacko Twins” by the press due to their bizarre antics.
As soon as the build-up started, the race card was used at every turn. King was attributed with the “The only colour I’m interested in is green” statement but in fact he used every trick in the book to build the tension between the two sides purely by exploiting Cooney and Holmes differences in skin pigmentation.
Larry Holmes was a proud champion, he had come up the ranks in the toughest way possible. He received no favours, no easy route to the top. So when Cooney’s management, demanded an equal split of the purse it was the final straw.
It was true that it was Cooney that brought the big viewing audience, but Cooney never had to get off the floor against Shavers and Renaldo Snipes. Holmes had made 11 defences of the title by this stage, he was proven in the heat of battle, Cooney had never had to show that in his 25 wins.
Holmes acknowledged that he was making 3 times more money facing Cooney than he would any black challenger, but he was also admitting that, so was the Irishman, and all due to the colour of his skin.
The whole promotion became so racially motivated that on the night of the fight, police snipers adorned every rooftop surrounding the Casers Palace car park where the arena was erected. There had been death threats against both boxers. Fight announcer Larry King admitted on air that he felt afraid being at the event.
The fight was one sided. Holmes knew too much for Cooney. He avoided any of Cooney’s big bombs and chipped away at the big Irishman. Cooney was knocked down in the 2nd round but valiantly battled through till the 13th round before Holmes finally finished the fight. Cooney tried to carry on but it was Cooney’s trainer Victor Valle who threw in the towel, which referee Mills Lane had to accept as retirement.
Thankfully, that was the last time boxing had a Black vs White theme to a bout. It shouldn’t have happened back then and people like Don King and “The Wacko Twins” Mike Jones and Dennis Rappaport should be ashamed of themselves for fuelling the racist flames of this particular fire.
On a good note, Holmes and Cooney became friends after the fight. Holmes regularly helped Cooney promote his “Fighters’ Initiative for Support and Training” organisation.
Larry Holmes was one of the great heavyweight champions and he wasn’t treated with the respect he deserved during much of his career.
He is now and I hope he knows it.