SAN FRANCISCO — Gerry Cooney lends himself to a kind of Believe It or Not format. Imagine the big lug grinning crookedly at you from one of those big cartoon panels: "Gerry Cooney--Man or Myth?"
Believe it or not, for all his press, nobody really knows what to make of this pleasant hulk, whether he's real or just the creation of a sport that likes its heavyweights of a correct hue and disposition.
Certainly in the ring, with one highly notable exception, he has been as devastating a boxer as ever pushed leather. His 23 knockouts in 28 fights--eight within one round--briefly encouraged the belief that a new savior had come to boxing, an open-faced Irishman with an inexhaustible sensitivity and a tremendous left hook.
On the other hand, since his famous loss to Larry Holmes in 1982, he has not been in the ring much. Today, when he fights Eddie Gregg at the Cow Palace, he will be fighting for exactly the fifth time in five years. Bigfoot has had more sightings.
Because of this ring reluctance, which is further documented by the fact that even the fights he did make were postponed 13 times owing to injury, he has spent the last four years as the punch line to boxing's biggest joke. After an incredible buildup, in which the uncredentialed challenger came to overshadow even a befuddled champion, the backlash has been just as severe. Hopes had been high, the disappointment great. Perhaps boxing, proud of it or not, wanted him to succeed more than it realized. So comeback after comeback, he has become the Great White Hoax.
And yet, for all that, his grip on the sport seems as strong as ever. For a relatively meaningless fight, and for his first in nearly 18 months, he is commanding a purse of at least $300,000, not to forget a nationwide TV audience. Moreover, a title shot is in the offing. Like Holmes before him, opponent Eddie Gregg is baffled by Cooney's ability to galvanize a sport just by announcing one of his periodic comebacks. "Why would ABC do this?" Gregg asks, scratching his head. Why, indeed.
"He's bigger than life," says Cooney's manager, Dennis Rappaport, trying to explain the appeal of the 6-7 boxer. "And he has a presence. When he walks into a room, well, I have seen nothing like it."
Says Cooney, with his characteristic simplicity: "I just like people. We have a good time together."
But why would they like him as a boxer after all this time unless, it is suggested, it's because he's white. "That's ridiculous," Rappaport says. "Look at the two most popular fighters of our time--Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali. Were they white? Jerry Quarry was Caucasian. So that's not it. Gerry Cooney embodies people's strengths and weaknesses. They like him. Even when he took the setback so badly. Why? Because he's human."
Maybe even a little too human, at least in a sport that does not much encourage humanity. That Cooney has been vulnerable to injury is no doubt true. He has been plagued by shoulder problems. His knuckle was hurt before the Holmes fight. "They're excuses," Rappaport admits, "but sometimes excuses are true."
However, other boxers fought hurt, do it all the time. Does it make Cooney appear overly squeamish to point out that Holmes has fought for the title with a ripped biceps muscle? The only charitable thing to say is, who knows what it feels like to be Gerry Cooney?
But it seems there is always something to keep Cooney out of the ring, healthy or not. For a long time, it was simple, flat-out disappointment. The loss to Holmes kept him out of the ring a long time, even though his career was relatively undamaged by the stoppage. He was still young, but no longer, in his mind, invincible. The idea of a rematch pretty much ran his life for a while, as if only Holmes offered redemption. Only Holmes would do. And he didn't.
There were some who said that money--having too much of it--kept Cooney from working up an honest sweat. But Rappaport, who invested Cooney's $10-million score from the Holmes fight into enough scattered real estate to perhaps make Ferdinand Marcos envious, insists that Cooney doesn't have a materialistic bone in his big body. "He takes the Long Island Railroad to the gym," he says of his young millionaire.
There are others, Cooney among them, who say it was family that kept him out of the ring. In 1984, he made two fights, against unremarkable opponents Philip Brown and George Chaplin, and his comeback, if not his opponents, seemed sincere. And then, to the renewed scorn of the boxing community, he dropped out again.
"I had personal problems," he says. "I was spending 50% of my life on my family, 50% on boxing. Neither was getting anywhere. It was killing me. So I had to break away from fighting."
What were these problems, he is asked.
"Personal," he says.