Missing the Mark of Greatness A tale of heavyweight Gerry Cooney and his alcoholic father.

Gentleman Gerry: A Contender in the Ring, a Champion in Recovery

By Gerry Cooney and John Grady (2019, Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, Maryland) 298 pages, with foreword by Randy Gordon, acknowledgments, prologue, bibliography, index, and photos

This work is the first book-length biography of boxing contender Gerry Cooney, who challenged many of the top heavyweights of the 1980s. The six-foot, six-inch Long Island native turned pro in 1977 after fifty-eight amateur fights with only three losses. In 1980, he fought Ron Lyle; and in 1981, Cooney fought a historic match with Ken Norton. He struggled twice for the lineal heavyweight title—against Larry Holmes in 1982 and against Michael Spinks in 1987. And for those high-profile matches and behind-the-scene stories, boxing aficionados and sports fans of that era will be interested in this book.

The Prologue introduces the reader to Cooney’s most notable event in the prize-ring: the sensational first-round, 54-second-KO of Ken Norton. However, reader be warned: it will take some patience, concentration, and interest to ferret out and connect the pieces of this pugilistic pie, but it is worth the effort.

The book sets out to explore how an alcoholic father affected his son’s early and later professional life. Actually, the book covers three main subjects: the Cooney contender story, the damaging psycho-social effects of alcoholism, and author Grady’s writing process. The first subject would have been great—the second, informative—but the intermittent shift to the subject of the writing process as its own chapter at the end of eight organizing “Parts” becomes an awkward and unnecessary distraction to the biography.

From the outset, the book’s point-of-view is unnecessarily skewed. By listing the boxer’s name first as the author, the reader expects an autobiography written in first-person from Gerry Cooney’s point of view. What the reader gets is a biography about Cooney written by and from the point of view of John Grady. Cooney’s voice is limited in the text. This is truly unfortunate because the subject is alive and well and readily available to give the author a wealth of detail in his own authentic voice. The author gives his subject only a few sentences at the beginning of each of the “Parts,” while he gives himself as the writer entire chapters. That process should have been reversed to allow the boxer to have the final word in each of the sections. At the beginning of Part One, Cooney announces: “I had a great career, had a lotta fun, a lotta troubles. I want to talk about what happened … and maybe change some things for today’s fighters, hopefully help some people out along the way.” (2) Sadly, the reader rarely hears Cooney’s voice or his direct comments about these life events. There is no mention of the programs Gerry Cooney established to help retired and other boxers, and very little is written about his youth programs.

Cooney’s voice is limited in the text. This is truly unfortunate because the subject is alive and well and readily available to give the author a wealth of detail in his own authentic voice. The author gives his subject only a few sentences at the beginning of each of the “Parts,” while he gives himself as the writer entire chapters.

Author Grady tells us that this is his first “literary effort.” Apart from the biographical material, his chapters on “The Writing Process” discuss how he was selected to be the writer, how and where he interviewed his subject, and how he felt about the process. These chapters interrupt the flow of the Cooney story, and, in their ad hoc addition, pull the reader out of the story’s coherent whole. An editor should have pointed out before publication that any mention of the writing process is superfluous unless it directly informs the boxer’s story or forms a side note of interest that adds to the story’s development. Eight Parts always ending in the “writing process” makes this category seem laboriously required, and the author loses the opportunity to give any kind of significant terminal emphasis or anticipatory development to the biographical story at end of each of these organizing sections. These personal postscripts seem artless and unprofessional.

Because Grady is a private social counselor, Cooney’s life is interpreted through the psychological lens of alcoholism and abusive parenting. The author ties Cooney’s prodigious punching power to a “primal rage” to explain his rise to contender status. Gerry Cooney was born August 24, 1956 in Huntington Station, Long Island into an Irish working-class family with six children (four boys and two girls). We are told it was a “chaotic and unsafe household” run by an alcoholic father. (Any eight-member family is by nature bound to be somewhat chaotic.) Father Tony’s abuse is explained: “Tony Cooney’s moods and complicated repertoire of attacks were frequently unpredictable. The abuses had damaging consequences. Gerry fought persistent feelings of unworthiness.” (5) The reader expects the writer to discuss a number of abusive physical attacks. And this is certainly not to minimize the psychological effects of any physical or emotional abuse of a child, but one such activity in the repertoire that was mentioned was something that this reviewer experienced without debilitating results. I was also born in the fifties and remember my mother directing me to get out of the bed for school by threatening to pour cold water on my face when I would not budge. And she did “splash” me on several occasions, but ultimately decided that the mess was not worth the effort. Maybe it was a common disciplinary technique back then; but it worked, and I learned that it was important to be on time.

Another “extension of Tony Cooney’s abusive tactics” mentioned was when Gerry and his brothers were in training (two of the boys became boxers). Father Tony built a working boxing ring in the backyard. He directed Gerry (and his brothers) to do roadwork and other activities to improve their conditioning. But it was the “threatening manner in which they were directed” (7) that the writer says caused the psychological problems. It would have been helpful if the author had identified Tony’s “threatening manner” or explained if these tactics affected his brothers or his mother. The degree to which the author repeats the word “abuse” without advancing the notion renders the word and concept ineffectual for his purpose.

The book is at its best when the author is not talking about writing or repeating the word “abuse.” The story of the fight with Larry Holmes is skillfully written over six chapters, with only minor interruptions of psychologizing.

The author tells us that Gerry honed his defensive skills and found quiet in the basement, solace outside with his dog Domino, and escape at the Huntington Athletic Club boxing gym. There at the gym, young Cooney met with early success outside the home. Gerry Cooney’s high school legacy was in outscoring the football coach in the ring. Within six months of learning to box, he competed for the 1973 New York State Golden Gloves Middleweight Championship at Madison Square Garden. The sixteen-year-old successfully defeated all opponents to win the Championship and, along with Johnny Turner, co-earned the title of “Fighter of the Year,” an award presented to them by the great Jack Dempsey. For the “Gentle Giant,” these early successes benefited his developing sense of self. But when the accomplished boxer was ready for the Olympics, his father died unexpectedly, and Cooney was unable to attend this pinnacle of athletic competition. The psychological loss of the male figure to Cooney, his siblings, or his mother is left unexplained. In fact, the women of Cooney’s life are rarely mentioned other than we are told he had a loving and adoring grandmother and that his family loyally attended his fights.

The book is at its best when the author is not talking about writing or repeating the word “abuse.” The story of the fight with Larry Holmes is skillfully written over six chapters, with only minor interruptions of psychologizing. Author Grady deftly describes the action in the ring and ring corners from the trainers and promoters.

Holmes began this title defense favored eight-to-five. Holmes had speed and accuracy and protected himself with his jab as he danced around the ring. Cooney followed closely with his arsenal of punches of blunt power. In the second round as Gerry searched for an opening to land his powerful punch, he was stunned by a right from Holmes to his chin. His legs wobbled. He moved away from his foe and slid to the canvas. But the author is not satisfied with describing what is seen in the ring. Here is how the author describes that moment on the floor that seems longer than mere seconds:

 

“Entering this very rare life state, inner dialogue commenced beyond Gerry’s awareness. His father’s voice, or the doubts that unquestionably accepted his emotional abuse, asked Gerry what he was doing on this stage, fighting for the heavyweight championship. He didn’t belong there; he was nothing, no good, and would never amount to anything. The war between his need to prove his father right and his ardent desire to prove him wrong resumed with great vigor. What in the hell am I doing here? And, as the lifelong internal war commenced, Gerry simply acted. He stood, facing the external world with resolve and courage, intent on fighting even harder.” (190)

 

One would ask the writer: How were you made aware of Gerry’s inner dialogue at this moment if, as you said, that dialogue “was beyond Gerry’s awareness”? While fighters may be in a delirium—that confusion at that moment is not filled with thoughts of their psychological lives. It is a moment where muscle memories honed by years of training prevent them from having their brains beaten out. Jack Dempsey explained what was going on when he took a hard hit on the jaw by Billy Miske: “My head clouded and I lost all sense of balance. I staggered and clutched for his hands. … I held him until my head cleared and (the referee) pulled us apart.”  (Jack Dempsey, “The Hardest Punch I Ever Landed,” Boxing and Wrestling, Vol. 7 no. 4, Dec. 1956, p. 63.)

Before the Holmes bout, Gerry Cooney had never gone beyond eight rounds in a fight. Between rounds nine and ten, it was evident that he needed to do something other than strike a low blow that would take away points. Longtime trainer and father-figure Victor Valle screamed at his charge, “Now get rough, goddamn it, get rough.” (202) In round ten, a third point was deducted for one of Gerry’s low blows. The round had been intense and it looked as if both fighters were tapping into the bottom of their reserves.

Grady turns the on-going action into a theme: “The contender had never approached such a later round in his career—it was unexplored terrain. His father’s condemnations of Gerry’s lack of value became more intense as the fight’s theme—Gerry pursuing and hurting the champ but not quite enough to set him down while absorbing more and more punishment himself—suggested that he couldn’t win.” (204) Grady metaphorically connects the loss of this fight to Gerry’s battle with his powerful father; but the actual fight remains just what it is: a physical contest between two highly trained individuals where one battler outlasts or puts the other down to win the match. Gerry Cooney never makes this metaphorical cause-and-effect comparison to any of his ring losses or even his contender status using his father’s condemnations.

Like a true fighter, and as video shows, Gerry Cooney’s heart was in the fight to the end which came in the thirteenth round when, as Grady writes, “The champion began landing vicious combinations—lefts, rights, crosses, and jabs. As was the case throughout the fight. Holmes’s rights—set up adeptly by his piston-like jabs—were the most consequential. Gerry was determined to absorb Holmes’s entire arsenal.“ (210) And that is the real story of the fight in a nutshell. If there were any residual effects of Cooney’s father’s abuse, they certainly did not stop the boxer’s rise to the top of the heavyweight division.

Grady metaphorically connects the loss of this fight to Gerry’s battle with his powerful father; but the actual fight remains just what it is: a physical contest between two highly trained individuals where one battler outlasts or puts the other down to win the match. Gerry Cooney never makes this metaphorical cause-and-effect comparison to any of his ring losses or even his contender status using his father’s condemnations.

After the Holmes bout, Gerry Cooney did not fight again for 27 months. He waited for a fight where his managers could make a financially lucrative deal. Gerry admitted, “I was a young guy, directionless … My managers were supposed to help me, they knew about my problem.” (223) Like many famous boxers and film stars of the era who earned a great deal of money (estimated by some to be as much as $20-million), Cooney lived in the “fast lane” of self-indulgence and turned to alcohol. This is a story we hear all too frequently.

Cooney’s managers announced his retirement at age 29. But at his prime and needing to keep active, Gerry was not ready to throw in the towel. Grady explains, “From a business standpoint, Gerry’s management team had preserved their fighter’s earning potential by limiting exposure to significant challenge—and the accompanying possibility of loss—while maintaining the public’s interest in paying for a Cooney fight.”(231) The team felt they could refuel public interest by having Gerry chase Michael Spinks. First, he needed to defeat a highly ranked heavyweight.

Cooney fought twice in 1984 before he was matched in 1986 with the powerful Eddie Gregg. Gregg was ranked number three by the World Boxing Association with a record of (24-1-1, 18 Kos). Before the fight, Gerry, his three brothers and mother attended Catholic Mass and went to breakfast. That night, Gregg succumbed to Cooney’s power. The win propelled the new contender into the ring in 1987 with Michael Spinks. However, Cooney’s second attempt to capture the title was unsuccessful. His last fight was in January 1990 against George Foreman.

Clearly the writer of this biography has a psychological position to defend. But readers may see Cooney’s early and professional life from the perspective of the glass half-full: Did Gerry Cooney’s father sabotage his son’s ring record and personal life, or did he fuel his son’s instinct and drive to reach the contender level in a brutal sport that would enable him to become financially set for life?

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