With Kell Brook and Amir Khan’s long-time rivalry set to be resolved in the twilight of their careers this weekend, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks back at another late battle of veterans featuring George Foreman against Gerry Cooney.
Sure, Kell Brook vs Amir Khan should have happened in, say, 2014. That was the year Brook won the welterweight title by beating Shawn Porter and Khan outclassed world-ranked 147-pounders Luis Collazo and Devon Alexander. But it’s happening now. Eight years too late, maybe, but at least we finally get to see these fierce rivals settle it all in the ring this Saturday.
Brook vs Khan isn’t the only better-late-than-never fight I can think of. The rematch between Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns was a long time coming. Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson were arguably past their best when they faced each other. Then we have George Foreman vs Gerry Cooney.
Foreman vs Cooney didn’t, strictly speaking, occur later than it should have, because while Cooney was No. 1 contender in 1982 Foreman was still in retirement. But Foreman was 40 years old (actually five days from turning 41) and Cooney was 33, and the feeling in the boxing industry was that both were past their prime.
The unlikely meeting, scheduled for 10 rounds, took place at the Convention Center in Atlantic City on January 15, 1990, having originally been mooted five months earlier when Bob Arum, who was promoting Foreman, expressed an interest in the match-up.
By early September, Arum said he was close to announcing that a deal had been made. Foreman, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, said he expected a war when he and Cooney faced each other. “We’re two heavy hitters,” Foreman told reporters. “I’ll probably get knocked down…But I’ll get back up and win.”
Cooney had been inactive since Michael Spinks stopped him in the fifth round in June 1987 while Foreman had won 19 consecutive bouts against hand-picked opponents since starting his unlikely comeback, after a 10-year absence from the ring, in March 1987.
Foreman had been the more active boxer but Cooney was younger and his big left hook had brought him 24 KOs in 28 wins. Spinks had been too slick, too elusive, too cunning, but, the reasoning went, the 250lbs Foreman might be a lot easier for Cooney to hit.
And Foreman was a master salesman in the lead-up to the fight. “This is a dream fight,” columnist Jack Fiske quoted Foreman as saying. “Two gladiators, one from the past, one from the recent past. It makes you wonder what will happen when two real punchers get together.”
The fight was officially announced at a press conference on September 28, 1989. “I was not so happy with how my career ended,” Cooney told the media. “I had a short bout with alcohol and drugs. I don’t have that problem any more. George Foreman is a big, powerful guy. He has the perfect style for me.”
Veteran Gil Clancy was brought on board to train Cooney. “He’s completely changed his lifestyle,” Clancy told reporter Jon Saraceno. “When he fought Michael Spinks he was totally lost.” The great Archie Moore headed Foreman’s corner crew. Foreman was a 1/2 (-200) favourite.
This was still in the days when the leading US newspapers had boxing writers. Not all of them were enthusiastic about the Foreman-Cooney fight. “Unbelievable. They are actually going to go through with this, a fighter well past his prime against a fighter who never had a prime,” Steve Springer wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
Bob Arum, however, said that the fight was attracting a lot of interest. “I know this is hard to imagine, but people are talking about this,” Arum told Springer. “These guys are established names, recognisable. Foreman is somebody everybody has heard about. And people know this is not going to be a pitter-patter fight. Nobody is going to run.”
Arum billed the fight as ‘The Preacher vs the Puncher’ in a nod to Foreman’s well-documented spiritual awakening and work as a minister in Texas. But, as Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Robert Seltzer noted, the more irreverent members of the media were referring to the fight with the derogatory tag ‘The Geezers at Caesars’.
Bob Arum was right in that it definitely wasn’t a pitter-pat fight. It was brief but exciting, with Foreman rocked by a left hook in the first round but coming back to bludgeon Cooney to defeat with two knockdowns in the second round.
I was ringside that night for Issue No. 1 of the ill-fated publication Boxing Weekly. An image of Foreman flooring Cooney adorned the cover of that first issue. The publication used a rather odd headline: “Foreman comes of age!” What did that mean?
A crowd of 12,581 attended the event. An estimated 400,000 watched on pay-per-view at $20 per household. The famous old Convention Center was rocking with excitement. Foreman knocked out Cooney’s mouthpiece with a jab in the opening round. Cooney’s vaunted left hook had Foreman briefly wobbly. Cooney won the first round on all three judges’ cards. But by the second round Foreman was walking Cooney down and pushing him into a defensive fight. Cooney couldn’t keep him off.
“Foreman was ponderous, yes, but he moved with surprising quickness and considerable economy to cut off Cooney’s retreat,” I reported.
Cooney went down fighting. One could detect a sense of relief in his manner as Cooney, slightly bruised around the eyes, told that there would be no more comebacks. He said he had no regrets.
“I trained diligently for four months,” Cooney said. “I planned to start slowly and come on in the middle of the fight, but it wasn’t to be. George was strong and he was very accurate. I gave it a shot.”
Foreman was generous to Cooney in his post-fight comments. “He hits harder than Joe Frazier with the left hook,” Foreman told us, pointing to a swollen right eye. I didn’t stumble in the first round. I was hit. I knew if I didn’t do something quick it would have been me on the canvas.”
I think it’s fair to say that the way he annihilated Cooney had sceptics taking Foreman’s comeback seriously for the first time. And, three years and 10 months after blowing out Cooney, Foreman regained the heavyweight title when, at the age of 45, he knocked out Michael Moorer in Las Vegas.
Cooney, true to his word, never boxed again.
Main image: Top Rank.