It was an early summer night over 35 years ago, one of those June evenings when the weather gods trick you into thinking that mid-August has arrived early, and if it’s this damn hot already, how in blazes will we survive the real heat to come?
Tickets for seats like mine were going for $1,500. When I looked around at those seated behind me, in the $1,000-section, I saw a galaxy of stars that you might find on Oscar night. Johnny Carson was four rows behind me, and just in front of him were Michael Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone and Bo Derek, still basking in her newfound fame from the movie “10.”
I pondered during the preliminary fights whether I shouldn’t just turn my chair around and stare at Bo. All the other guys in our section seemed more interested in her than the brawling flyweights from Mexico on the undercard.
The event was being held outdoors at Caesars Palace. And while the mercury registered over 100 degrees, the heat index in the boxing ring under the blistering glare of television lights was approaching 115.
The whole world was watching this stage when the main bout fighters were introduced and made their grand entrances – the Caucasian fighter to the pulsing beat of the theme from Rocky, and the black fighter to the R&B anthem Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now, by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. The electricity in the air was so highly charged that I felt like throwing a few jabs myself.
I mention the race of the fighters only because it had been underscored in the buildup to the bout. The unofficial billing was the Black Champion against the Great White Hope, and the crowd was evenly divided by ethnic origin in their loyalties.
Among the hundreds of memorable evenings I’ve experienced as a writer in Las Vegas, none stand above June 11, 1982, when I sat in the front row for the long-awaited heavyweight championship bout between world champion Larry Holmes, who had held the crown for seven years, and the handsome and likeable Irishman from New York, Gerry Cooney.
What made the night special for me is that I had scored this desirable front-row seat by virtue of writing a cover story on Cooney for a national magazine. Even though I was offered $5,000 for my ticket the afternoon of the fight, I wasn’t tempted to give it up.
The fight opened with Holmes favored at 10-1, but the betting public’s affection for Cooney, and the fact that he had beaten three “name” opponents: Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle, and Ken Norton, with early-round knockouts in the previous two years, soon brought the betting odds down to 7-1. The Irishman had a punch, that was certain, but would he have the legs and the ring savvy to handle the veteran Holmes?
The fight went 13 rounds with intense flurries delivered by both fighters and very little wrapping up in long clinches, although that had to be a temptation considering the heat. Twice, Cooney’s punches landed well below Holmes’ belt, almost resulting in his disqualification. But finally, at the end of round 13, after a courageous attempt by his fighter to knock out the champ, Cooney’s trainer Victor Valle threw in the towel. His man had given his all, but the tank was empty.
I hurried from my seat to get a good spot in the Caesars’ press room to hear Cooney’s thoughts about his effort and was shocked to be one of just three reporters in place when the beaten challenger, his shoulders hunched in exhaustion, shuffled in and took a seat in front of the microphone.
His ruggedly handsome face had morphed into a bruised and bloody palette of pain, and as he began to apologize for letting down all his fans and friends, he broke down in tears. As Gerry kept apologizing over and over for not delivering the heavyweight crown, I found myself tearing up. I had never before, or since, seen an athlete express such naked raw emotion.
I thought back to what Cooney had told me in the interview weeks before: “Two weeks before my father died (in 1975) it hit me— things I wanted to say to him and never did, things I wanted to do with him again. I realized why he made me train six days a week, every week. He wanted me to be better than him. He wanted me to have what he never had.”
As the former club fighter was struggling to choke out the words, my only thought was to provide some consolation for the brave effort he had made.
“Don’t you think your father and friends are proud of you tonight?” I asked.
Gerry Cooney buried his face in his hands for a long moment before answering. “Yeah, I suppose,” he said. “But I still feel like I failed them. I wanted to bring them the crown.”
That moment is as fresh to me as yesterday.
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