NEW YORK — When Gerry Cooney hears a song by the pop singer Sade, it reminds him of a story someone told him about her.
"She found out her boyfriend left her right before going on stage one night," said Cooney, who is making another boxing comeback. "She came out, played three songs and said, 'All you people out there in love, hold on to who you have.' Then she walked off.
"People must have been mad, I guess they wanted their money back."
At 6-foot-5 with the power to be heavyweight champion, Cooney once left boxing the equivalent of three songs into his career. Now he is back he was scheduled to fight Eddie Gregg Saturday night at San Francisco. But he has made people mad and has more proving than ever to do.
Cooney's life took a turn for the worse after he failed to hold on to what he had. Before fighting World Boxing Council champ Larry Holmes on June 11, 1982, Cooney built a reputation as a paralyzing puncher, though he beat up on mostly washed-up and talentless fighters. But when he hurt Holmes early in their title fight, he lacked the killer instinct that helped him knock out 22 of his first 25 opponents.
"I hit him with a left hand in the first round," Cooney said. "I felt his backbone, I saw his eyes turn. Then, I said to myself, 'I gotta go the distance."'
Cooney didn't make it the distance. Holmes decked him twice and stopped him in the 13th round.
The loss haunted Cooney over many sleepless nights, eventually interrupting his career.
"It's hard to deal with," he says. "I could have performed much better. Inexperience showed, I sparred with him instead of fighting. That's what really bothers me."
Cooney, of Huntington, N.Y., is 27-1. The Gregg fight will be his first since stopping George Chaplin in December of 1984 and the third since Holmes stopped Cooney four years ago. Cooney announced his retirment last August, saying there was no reason to fight since Holmes would not give him a rematch.
At the time, his manager, Dennis Rappaport, painted the picture of Cooney as the rare boxer who made his fortune ($10 million against Holmes) and was happily going about with the rest of his life.
That picture was flawed. Cooney says there were family and personal problems that made him unhappy and unable to train. Now that his life is peaceful again, Cooney says he is ready to create a storm in the heavyweight division.
"It's like I had two things pulling at me: you want to be a fighter and you have problems," Cooney said. "So I couldn't be a fighter and I wasn't solving any problems.
"I had some serious problems, some hard times. I had the type of problems you don't discuss out on the street. I had a problem with my brother. People interpreted them in their own way. It's tough waking up in the morning and reading derogatory stories about you.
"I said, 'Where's the light at the end of the tunnel, what should I do next?' You can't understand what I've been through. You say, 'Why does this happen?' If it wasn't injuries, it was something else."
Cooney, who went away to a Lancaster, Pa., training camp last November, sounds sincere when he talks of fighting. He speaks of bouts down the road with International Boxing Federation champion Michael Spinks and rising star Mike Tyson. Yet he denies he decided to come back only because Spinks, a blown up light heavyweight, took the crown from Holmes.
"I always had the hope that Holmes and I would fight again," Cooney said. "When Spinks won, it said to me, 'There's the guy who beat Holmes. I could be fighting for Holmes's title.
"But I didn't come back just to fight Spinks. I'm 29, and as far as fighters go, once you're 32 or 33 it's time to start playing checkers."
Cooney's friends say he has never worked harder or looked better in training. He got his weight down to 235 before leaving for San Francisco 19 days before the fight. No injuries or personal problems interrupted his preparation. The only troubles with the fight this time were on the promotional end -- the site was nearly changed once and rival promoter Don King tried to cancel the fight because he has Gregg under contract.
"I'm just happy I'm fighting," Cooney said.