- Nigel Collins, ESPN Staff Writer
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Larry Holmes' final right hand landed squarely on Gerry Cooney's jaw and sent him teetering backward into the ropes, where he pitched over sideways like a drunk tripping over an empty bottle. Cooney instinctively wrapped his right arm around the top rope and tried to break his fall, but gravity prevailed and his left glove touched the canvas before he could pull himself up.
Referee Mills Lane moved in and began to count, but Cooney's trainer, Victor Valle, was already in the ring, white towel in hand, demanding that the fight be stopped. Lane immediately called a halt, and Valle wrapped his arms around Gerry's waist and steered him to his corner as gently as a parent guiding a sleepwalking child back to bed.
The poignant moment marked the end of Cooney's dream of winning the heavyweight championship. The clock had struck 12 and boxing's latest Prince Charming had turned into Humpty Dumpty. Cooney had five more fights stretched over the next seven years, including losses by knockout to Michael Spinks and George Foreman in the only bouts of significance.
Despite his potential and popularity, when all was said and done, Cooney's most enduring legacy turned out to be an inscrutable riddle: Was he one of the worst- or one of the best-managed heavyweights of all time?
Those who now yearn for a new heavyweight hero hope they won't be asking the same question about Deontay Wilder any time soon.
It's easy to understand why American boxing fans are currently enamored with the streamlined knockout machine from Tuscaloosa, Ala. He certainly looks the part: Wilder is 6-foot-7, weighs around 225 pounds and could easily be mistaken for one of those gifted young athletes who might have become boxers in the past but now choose to play in the NBA or NFL.
It is not, however, Wilder's size and shredded physique that have folks frothing with anticipation. It's his right hand, a terrifying punch that has been responsible for the majority of his 29 consecutive knockouts in as many professional fights. Moreover, Wilder's victims usually crash to the floor in a spectacular fashion reminiscent of prime-time Mike Tyson, creating the sort of over-the-top visual violence that has been lacking in the heavyweight division for far too long.
Of course, the same could have been said of Cooney before he had the misfortune of crossing gloves with Holmes. The way the 6-foot-6 Irish-American brutally dispatched Ken Norton, in his final bout before challenging Holmes, was truly chilling. But it was all a mirage, a concoction of half-truths and hype that fell apart when Cooney came face to face with reality the night he fought Holmes at Caesars Palace.
Cooney was not without talent. He was a decent boxer who had a lethal left hook. The problem was that, before tackling Holmes, he had never fought a top boxer who was still in his prime. The biggest names on his résumé -- Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle and Norton -- were all well past their best days when Cooney defeated them.
There was no way that easy wins over faded stars, journeymen and chronic losers could prepare Cooney for a fighter of Holmes' caliber. What made matters even worse was that he proved against Holmes that a big left hook wasn't his only asset. "Gentleman Gerry" was brave, determined and, for much of the fight, competitive. Who knows how much he could have accomplished with the proper apprenticeship?
Wilder is currently following an even cushier schedule than Cooney. None of the "Bronze Bomber's" carefully selected foes have made it past the fourth round, and 17 of them have exited in the first.
Although he won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics, Wilder had a relatively brief amateur career, so a certain amount of on-the-job training is understandable. But there has to be a limit to these record-padding bouts. Where's the progression? When is he going to step up to the sort of opponent capable of presenting him with at least a modicum of adversity?
Certainly not on Saturday night in Atlantic City, N.J., when he meets Nicolai Firtha on the Bernard Hopkins-Karo Murat undercard. Even Firtha (21-10-1, 8 KOs), the loser of three of his past five starts, realizes he is this weekend's sacrificial lamb.
"He has better skills than I do, and more power," Firtha told Boxing News. "This is a fight I'm supposed to lose. I'm at the end of my career and I get that he will try and get me out of there early."
But what's the point, anyway? What can Wilder possibly learn from such a cynical exercise? After 29 straight KOs, why is he fighting a guy like Firtha on Showtime?
There's nothing unusual about hot prospects, especially heavyweights, being protected during their formative years. But there's much more to matchmaking than simply lining up a series of wooden soldiers to bowl over. Building a fighter the correct way is an art, and requires a knack for gradually increasing the quality of opposition without advancing too far too soon.
"It's something you learn after years of experience," said Hall of Fame promoter Russell Peltz, who has a reputation for putting the boxers he promotes in tough fights. "I like to find out early what I have, so long as it's not against a big puncher. A fighter can make a mistake against a non-puncher and not pay for it immediately by getting blasted out. Sometimes you move them up a little too quickly and then you slow them down."
It's a tricky balancing act, and being overly cautious can backfire as easily as taking too big a risk. Still, whenever a prospect spends an especially prolonged period fighting bottom-feeders, suspicions are naturally aroused. What is his management hiding? Does he have a glass jaw? Is there some other fatal flaw we don't know about?
There is also the possibility that a fighter's team simply doesn't know what they are doing.
Cooney was co-managed by Dennis Rappaport and Mike Jones, collectively known as the "Whacko Twins" due to their zany management style. According to Gil Clancy, their reluctance to put Cooney in competitive fights chipped away at the fighter's self-confidence.
"Back then, I was working as matchmaker for Madison Square Garden, and we gave Gerry some easy fights at first because he was very popular in New York," Clancy said. "But I knew he needed to step up in class. After he beat Jimmy Young in 1980, I gave his managers a list of four average fighters, and Rappaport and Jones turned them all down. Word eventually gets back to the fighter, and Gerry had to be thinking, 'Hey, maybe I can't fight.'"
One school of thought claims Rappaport and Jones did a tremendous job of helping a limited fighter earn a fortune in the ring (Cooney was guaranteed $10 million for the Holmes fight), which might never have happened if they had matched him tough sooner. Others believe they did Cooney a disservice, and that had he been properly schooled by competing against a better class of fighter before challenging Holmes, he could have won the title.
There's something to be said for both points of view, but we'll never know for sure which one is correct. Cooney will forever remain one of boxing's most intriguing might-have-beens.
Fortunately, there is nothing whacko about Wilder's manager, Jay Dees, a level-headed guy who has been coaching, managing and promoting boxers since 1995. If you ask him about the seemingly endless baby steps Deontay is taking, he'll probably tell you that name heavyweights don't want any part of him. And there's likely some truth to that assertion. At this stage of his career, fighting Wilder is a high-risk, low-reward situation.
Eventually, however, the acid test will come and we will know whether Wilder is the next great American heavyweight or just another failed aspirant. But don't expect the moment of truth to arrive Saturday. Firtha is going down as surely as the number 30 follows 29.
Deontay Wilder wouldn't be the first heavyweight hope who fell flat when he first faced an opponent of import. Is Wilder the division's next Gerry Cooney, or is it possible that he has been avoided for good reason?