“I’m going to win this fight, win it big. I trained hard for this and have it all together. I heard that Cooney kid is a boxer. Look, I’ve fought punchers before and forgot their names. Cooney is just another.
These words belong to the late heavyweight Jimmy Young and were spoken to writer Randy Gordon ahead of the veteran’s scheduled fight with Gerry Cooney, which will be televised nationally. And Young gets points for telling the truth: he’s fought “punches” before, some of the greatest in heavyweight history.
The truth was that Jimmy Young, with a record of 25-9-2, was one of the most experienced heavyweights, giving And Norton AND Muhammad Ali highly competitive tilts and bragging victories Earnie shavers AND Jerzy Foremantwo of the most powerful fighters in boxing history. So you’d have to forgive Young for thinking that a fight with Gerry Cooney meant nothing he couldn’t handle. After all, while Jimmy had been top heavyweight for years, Cooney was just the flavor of the week, a green, unproven challenger riding a wave of excitement that had more to do with his pale complexion than his actual boxing prowess. At least that’s what Young thought.
Looking back, Cooney vs. Young was another classic “crossroads fight” where the stakes were high and the consequences profound. It was the match that made Gerry Cooney a true contender for the heavyweight title and officially made Jimmy Young a thing of the past. Gerry then knocked out two of Young’s former opponents, Ron Lyle and Norton, and at that moment Cooney was a sensation, a boxer worth millions. But it was his battle with a man who, according to some, was deceived about the victory over the great Muhammad Ali which was a turning point and inspired millions of sports fans to the trendy Cooney crowd.
But before Cooney vs Young actually happened, the truth was that it was a serious test for Gerry because Jimmy Young was a boxer not to be underestimated. Having been an active professional since 1968, he has undoubtedly forgotten more ring wisdom than the young Cooney possessed. His records were spotty, lacking the glory years and the ability to cause Ali, Norton, and Foreman all sorts of trouble, but at least he thought he would provide a means of assessing Cooney’s potential. Still slippery and secretive, if anyone knew how to exploit the budding professional’s weaknesses, it was a sneaky, experienced boxer from the big fight city Philadelphia.
“Young is in great shape,” said one of the veteran’s sparring partners, Randall (Tex) Cobb, as he prepared for the match. “He moves really well.” He looks like Young from the old days. He’s almost impossible to hit.”
Such statements no doubt helped fill the seats at the Atlantic City Convention Hall, and indeed it was a crowd of people who witnessed the game, along with millions watching it on national television. But instead of a dramatic and competitive battle, everyone saw the birth of a phenomenon, the emergence of a powerful new force in boxing.
From the opening bell, Cooney, 22-0 with 18 knockouts, took the lead, his height and reach advantage allowing him to control the fight after a hard jab forced Young to back down. The veteran fought half crouched, circling to the left of Cooney’s infamous hook, a strike everyone knew to be the bigger man’s most dangerous weapon. At the end of the round, it was Young who drove his own hard hook, but the punch had little effect; Jimmy was never known for his punching power.
The pace picked up in the second round, as did Cooney’s attack which forced Young to throw himself on the ropes and landed powerful blows to the older man’s ribs. But between rounds, Young told his corner, “I think I have his number.”
Very quickly that sentiment turned out to be such a very wishful thinking as Cooney continued to stalk in the third round, firing heavy artillery to the body. Then midway through the round, the bigger man hit Young hard in the face, followed by a ferocious left hook and a powerful right cross. The blows landed evenly, and as the veteran stumbled back, seemingly dazed, he pawed his right eye, where suddenly blood flowed freely: Cooney’s punches ripped Young’s left eyebrow.
After the fight, Young’s trainer George Benton insisted that the wound must have been the result of a blow to his elbow or head. “No strike,” insisted the veteran trainer and former top middleweight, “can open a cut that wide or that deep.” But he was wrong. Nothing but skin hit Young’s face before it was covered in blood. Just as Cooney’s punches tore John “Dino” Denis’s mouth open in their match six months earlier, Gerry’s incredible power tore a deep gash in Jimmy Young’s face.
Wounded and bleeding, Young retreated to the ropes and crouched down, hoping to avoid Cooney’s next attack, but a straight punch to the body caused him to groan loud enough for the ringside people to hear, despite the roars of the excited crowd. The fight turned into an exciting brawl as the half-blind Young had no choice but to fight Cooney head to toe. The veteran took a few solid shots, but took many more in return, and after the bell rang, his face bloody, he walked slowly to his corner, like a man turning away from some terrifying and completely unexpected truth.
The fourth round was a slaughter. Only the hardness and pride of the veteran kept him on his feet and did not allow the match to be interrupted. Knowing that Young couldn’t hurt him and that the fight was almost over, Cooney launched a terrifying attack, punching Jimmy’s body with both fists before hitting him with his hooks and right hands to the head, the blows re-opening a deep gash above the veteran’s eye and blood spraying spectators at the ring. Young landed just enough punches to prevent the referee from stopping the fight, and at the end of the round he staggered back to his corner like a train crash survivor, his face bathed in scarlet. A few seconds later, the ring doctor signaled that the match had to be stopped, and a delighted Cooney threw his hands up high.
And so, in just twelve minutes of action, Gerry Cooney went from an exciting contender with a big left hook to a formidable heavyweight contender. Brutal knockouts of Lyle and Norton in the first round soon followed, then the stage was set one of the biggest and most lucrative title fights in boxing history. -Neil Crane