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40 Years Later, Holmes-Cooney Still Rates as a Classic

Sentimental. nostalgic. Maudlin.

Get to a certain age and the gap between them narrows significantly.

Particularly when certain milestones arrive.

That was the case this past Saturday, when it was officially 40 years since the first big heavyweight fight of my boxing fan lifetime – Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney for the WBC championship.

It’s difficult to concede that I’m old enough to vividly remember something that occurred four decades ago, when I was a spry 13-year-old prowling the halls of Edward Town Middle School.

Nevertheless, in the interest of combat sports journalism, here we are.

Given Holmes’s status as an all-timer in the division, it’s no surprise that the 1982 bout with Cooney is already familiar to fight fans of all ages. And given the conspicuous racial undertones surrounding that particular event, it’s also not astonishing that it’s one of the sport’s most infamous, too.

It was featured as the second of 12 episodes in HBO’s spectacular “Legendary Nights” series in 2003 and was the first closed-circuit/pay-per-view purchase my parents made – on my persistent behalf.

“A great episode,” said Jim Lampley, who hosted it for the cable giant.

I watched it live for $39.99 or so that Friday night in June of 1982 and I don’t recall having watched it all the way through since, so I cued it up again over the weekend for old times’ sake.

Funny thing is, thanks to all those old times, I’d forgotten just how good a fight it had been.

The prevailing narrative across 40 years – given the context of Holmes’s overall quality and Cooney’s perpetual failures – was that the champ retained his title after 12-plus rounds of one-sided activity.

But upon further review, that wasn’t the case at all.

Not only did Cooney rise from an awkward knockdown in the second round – he gave as good as he got for most of the rest of the fight and scored particularly effectively to the champ’s body.

In fact, he won seven of the next nine rounds on my 40 years later scorecard before stalling noticeably in the 12th round as Holmes softened his man up for the eventual 13th-round finish.

Problem was, some of that body work strayed a bit below the belt line and prompted separate point deductions from referee Mills Lane in rounds nine and 11 that wound up totaling three points.

It was a scheduled 15-rounder so the scorecards never came into play, but two judges – Duane Ford and Dave Moretti – only had Cooney down by two points and the third, Jerry Roth, had him down by six.

Turns out my card matched Ford’s and Moretti’s at 113-111, with Cooney getting the third, fourth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th and 11th without the deductions. Had it been a 12-rounder and had he not been penalized he’d have been a 115-113 winner and history would have been drastically changed.

The scoring was controversial in the aftermath, and ABC hosted a follow-up show that showed each judge’s scoring from each individual round. At the post-fight press conference, Holmes said, “I’ve seen so much bad scoring out here I knew what I had to do. I was prepared for anything.”

Still, Randy Gordon was there with Bert Sugar for Ring Magazine and suggested an argument could be made for Cooney being up seven rounds to five – as both Ford and Moretti had him, minus the fouls.

Roth had it 7-5 the other way.

“The fight gets better every time I watch it,” he said. “I sat in that brutal heat in a suit and tie – we all wore that in those days to a big fight – in temps over 95. Inside the ring it was around 115 or more.”

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Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at fitzbitz@msn.com or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.

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