They billed Foreman vs Cooney as “The Preacher and The Puncher,” but it quickly became known as “The Geezers at Caesars,” this unique crossroads battle between two aging heavyweights looking for respect. Gerry Cooney had lost his in the eight years following one of the biggest fights in boxing history and his first career defeat, a thirteenth round TKO loss to champion Larry Holmes. After that setback, his career had dwindled away, a result of his choosing to spend more time in nightclubs than the gym, pulling out of various fights at the last minute, and squandering his talent as one of the hardest hitting heavyweights since, well, George Foreman. In 1987 he lost by fifth round knockout to Michael Spinks and hadn’t been heard from since.
Big George, a former world champion dethroned by Muhammad Ali in 1974, had retired from boxing in 1977 following a decision loss to Jimmy Young and a spiritual crisis in his dressing room immediately after the bout. While in the shower he suddenly found himself in a dark pit of death and despair and he pleaded with God to help him. He subsequently retired, became a born again Christian and spent the better part of a decade working as a pastor at his church in Houston, Texas.
In 1987, to everyone’s bewilderment, Foreman returned to the ring, ostensibly to raise money for Houston’s George Foreman Youth Center. No one took his comeback seriously. At 38 years of age, he looked like a cartoon, his huge belly bulging out over the high waistband of his boxing trunks. But George paid the naysayers no mind and went about scoring knockout after knockout over various club fighters and fringe contenders. The Cooney bout, the twentieth in his unlikely return, was seen as Big George’s first real test, a match to determine if the new George Foreman and his comeback could be viewed as something other than a cringe-making sideshow.
In a crossroads fight, the stakes are high. Both fighters knew a loss meant the end of their career and both prepared accordingly. Cooney hired veteran boxing coach and manager Gil Clancy — briefly Foreman’s trainer in the 70s — to anchor his corner, while Foreman had the legendary Archie Moore in his. And if the boxing writers dismissed Foreman vs Cooney as a joke, the public knew a potentially explosive heavyweight match-up when they saw it and promptly sold-out Caesars in Atlantic City. And once the bell rang, as many expected, it didn’t take long for the fireworks to start.
Foreman, constantly coming forward, worked to walk Cooney down and corner him, while “Gentleman Gerry” boxed smartly, firing the jab and sidestepping George’s advances. The busier Cooney had the edge in most of the exchanges in the opening round and just before the bell he wobbled Big George with a short left hook on the inside. Round one to “The Puncher.”
But round two was a very different story. It appeared Cooney lacked the stamina to maintain his strategy of staying one step ahead of Big George. Under constant pressure, he relented and tried to stand his ground with “The Preacher.” The second he did, the fight was Foreman’s and the former champion wasted no time landing heavy shots to both body and head. A haymaker uppercut froze Cooney and George’s follow-up fusillade put him down. Hard. Cooney gamely climbed to his feet only to have Foreman casually stride up and land a drive-by left hook that rendered him helpless. Foreman landed a follow-up right, Gerry toppled over in a heap, and the referee didn’t bother to count. Cooney lay on the canvas for over a minute.
The bout’s aftermath proved it to be a true crossroads fight: “The Puncher” never fought again, while “The Preacher” would go on to astound everyone. The following year Foreman gave Evander Holyfield one of his toughest battles, and then, to everyone’s astonishment, the 45-year-old warrior actually regained the heavyweight championship of the world in 1994 with a one punch knockout of Michael Moorer. – Michael Carbert