A couple of weeks ago, I watched the “Fight of the Century” — Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao — at a friend’s house. Like most people, I thought the fight sucked; it was boring and they danced together more than they punched each other. If that was the “Fight of the Century,” please take me back to last century!
Back in the day, we really had some great fights: Leonard vs. Duran I, Leonard vs. Duran II (the No Más Fight), Leonard vs. Hearns, Hagler vs. Hearns, Alexis Arguelo vs. Aaron Pryor I & II… so many great fights. Then there were some over-hyped fights that didn’t quite live up to their expectations, but they were still way better than the MayPaq fiasco. Like Larry Homes vs. Gerry Cooney, for example — the fight that made boxing promoter Don King a household name.
Larry Holmes was the Heavyweight Champion of the World back in 1982. He had defended his WBC Heavyweight Championship belt 11 times. He was a surgeon in the ring, taking opponents apart with his piston-like jab, and hammer for a right hand. Larry Holmes had fought all the top contenders in the heavyweight division and beat them soundly, but for some reason he could never win over the love of the average American fight fan. Maybe it was because he would always be viewed as Muhammad Ali’s sparring partner, or maybe it was his lack of charisma. Whatever the reason, it seemed like America looked at Larry Holmes as an interim champion. There was only one problem though: Larry Holmes refused to lose.
Then “Gentleman” Gerry Cooney came along — an Irish Catholic heavyweight from Huntington, NY — who had a wicked left hook to the body and was knocking out all his opponents. After Cooney KO’d former Heavyweight Champion Ken Norton in the first round, the promotional wheels for a mega fight between Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney began to steamroll ahead. It was a promoter’s dream: A black Heavyweight Champion that was looked upon as a heel, against a handsome white heavyweight contender. It had all the makings of a Hollywood movie. It was the real-life version of Apollo Creed vs. Rocky Balboa, and Don King milked the race card for all it was worth. He immediately dubbed contender Gerry Cooney “The Great White Hope” and billed the fight as “Black vs. White;” “Good vs. Evil.”
Back in the day there was no pay-per-view. Most prizefights were broadcast on free television, Saturday afternoons at 4 p.m. The big events could only be seen on closed circuit TV, and the only way to watch the really big fights was to buy a ticket to the movies. Yes, at the movies.
The build up to the fight was overwhelming. It was before the days of “political correctness” and racial slurs would fly hot and heavy on the nightly news whenever a reporter stuck a mic in front of a working man’s face and asked “who are you picking for the fight?” In melting pots like New York, talk of the “Big Fight” was forbidden at some work places and schools.
There’s almost nothing more exciting than the anticipation of the opening bell for a prizefight. Now add a million more butterflies into your stomach, and that’s how it felt to be seated in the Astoria Movie Theatre before the start of Holmes vs. Cooney. Because it was billed as “Good vs. Evil,” some people truly believed that the future of mankind hung in the balance (as ludicrous as this seems today, that really was the sentiment at the time). As a matter of fact, at the end of the third round, in an attempt to motivate Gerry Cooney, his trainer Vic Vitale yelled, “C’mon Gerry, America is counting on you!”
While the early rounds of Holmes vs. Cooney were competitive, by the middle of the fight it became clear that Cooney was overmatched, and that Holmes was the far superior fighter. Gerry Cooney eventually got knocked out in the thirteenth round, and with his defeat went all the hopes of having the first white heavyweight champion since Rocky Marciano.
The Astoria Movie Theatre is gone now; it’s been turned into a fitness gym. The heavyweight division in boxing is all but dead, too. But the one constant throughout all these years is still racial tension — for some reason it’s the hardest thing to kill. Maybe MayPaq II could kill racism, or who knows, maybe Don King will come out of retirement and try and sell it to us.