On the record with Gerry Cooney

by MaryEllen Cagnassola
To most people born after 1985, Gerry Cooney is just your average 6’6”, 200-pound man with a wise guy’s nose. He attends his son’s football and baseball games and his daughter’s dance recitals. He has a dog and a loving wife. To the unsuspecting eye,Cooney is nothing more than a typical family man.
Where it all began…
But the Fanwood resident and Long Island native is much more than that. Cooney has graced many a magazine cover and fought numerous televised fights, beginning with the 1973 New York Golden Gloves championship at Madison Square Garden. At just 16 years old, only a year after he began fighting, Cooney brought the championship title home.
Home was a large Irish-Catholic family with a forboding father. ­­­“He took out his frustration on us,” Cooney said of his father, “I did a lot of hiding.” A steel-construction worker and heavy drinker, Cooney’s father was a big push toward his fighting career. Inspiration also came for young Cooney from watching his professional idols: Muhammad Ali, Jack Dempsey, and Sugar Ray Robinson.
“I remember when I was 17 I got to see Ali fight in Yankee Stadium against a guy named Ken Norton. That was the greatest,” Cooney said, sounding still in awe of the fight. Six years after watching Norton fight Ali, Cooney would defeat Norton less than 60 seconds into the first round with his daunting left hook, a feat for which he is still admired by boxing enthusiasts.
Cooney describes boxing as a kind of tunnel vision through which he found success. “It gave me complete control, unlike in my household,” he said. “I found it was a great way for me to express my anger.”
When Cooney was 18, many of his friends were moving on to college. Though he had no way of getting there himself, bigger things were beginning to happen. He joined the professional boxing world.
“I guess I wish I could have gone [to college], but I’ve had a great life. I traveled around the world, made a lot of money and met a lot of people. I don’t have any regrets,” saidCooney.
He knew boxing fit him like the gloves he wore while punching out fighters such as Eddie Lopez and Ron Lyle. Though he enjoyed the ride, Cooney confesses that at times he wished life would slow down as “the number-one contender Gerry Cooney” sped ahead.
“My life was crazy, living in hotels and planes. It was all very alluring. I remember back in those days I used to leave in the spring and come home in the winter. I missed a lot of seasons that way,” he said.
Career highlights…
Celebrities such as Chevy Chase, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Kareem Abdul-Jabbarbegan to work their way into Cooney’s social circle. The spotlight became an integral part of his professional career. Looking back, Cooney is not entirely sure how he accomplished all that he did.
“Getting into the ring, climbing up those four steps and waiting for the bell to ring; it takes a big person to do that,” said Cooney, who, with a reach of 81 inches, is certainly big in the literal sense.
Despite his size, Cooney is no stranger to low self-esteem. In 1976, he was invited to travel to Colorado to train for the Olympics, but turned the opportunity down. He regards the decision as one of the biggest regrets of his career.
“My father was ill at the time, so I say that was why I didn’t go, but I also wasn’t confident in myself. I didn’t try. I always tell my kids to try; it’s how hard you try that determines if you make it,” he said.
In 1982, Cooney faced his most daunting foe, heavyweight world champion Larry Holmes, in one of the most fiercely hyped and widely watched fights in boxing history. Though Cooney lost the bout when it was stopped in the 13th round, he remained a fan favorite for his gentlemanly, mild-mannered and modest demeanor.
Life after the ring… Cooney’s boxing career ended in 1990 after his loss to George Foreman, one of only three losses in his entire fighting life. Today, his interest lies in raising his two children, Jackson, 13, and Sarah, 10, with his wife, Jennifer, and spending time with his 22-year-old son, Christopher, from a previous relationship.
“My family is my favorite thing, and I still enjoy my life a lot,” he said.
Cooney is still approached by fans and admirers. His name was slipped into an episode of 30 Rock (likely thanks to friend Alec Baldwin), and he finds it a pleasure to beremembered after 30 years.
Currently, Cooney hosts a talk show on Sirius Satellite Radio, called “Friday Night at the Fights,” which airs Fridays at 7:00 p.m.
“The fight game is coming back; it’s growing again and it’s really exciting,” said a thrilled Cooney of his show’s subject matter.
When asked if he would do anything differently if he could, it is clear he has pondered the question before.
“I would have had different management who really cared about developing my abilities as a fighter before anything else. I also would have taken better care of myself and been more proactive in my career. And I would have beat Holmes!” he said.
He and Holmes have become close friends since they battled nearly 30 years ago. “Gerry is a heck of a guy,” said Holmes. “One of the nicest fighters.”
Cooney’s feet are firmly planted in one place these days. He no longer misses the seasons; he is able to see the vibrancy of New Jersey’s autumn, shovel the snow during the winter and garden during the spring and summer at his Fanwood home.
“It’s cool having him as a neighbor and a close family friend. He does a lot of community service and he’s a very nice man,” said sophomore Kathryn Cunningham, who lives nearby.
From battered child to boxing superstar, Cooney has experienced life at both ends of the spectrum in his 55 years. For now, though, Cooney thinks he will just enjoy watching his children, and garden, grow.