Posted: July 05, 2007

TWELVE DAYS before Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney fought for the heavyweight title, the Daily News' boxing writer of the day flew out to Las Vegas to begin the daily buildup. It was 25 years ago, but I remember getting there with surprising clarity.

Holmes was training in a converted

indoor tennis facility in the back of the Casears Palace property, which is where they had held the training sessions for

other big fights. But where was Cooney? Someone told me that they had stuck him way on the other side of the complex, in a converted hotel ballroom. But why?

Looking for somebody who might know the answer, I found Jay Edson out by the pool. He was a retired boxing referee who now worked for promoters as a kind of major domo, handling many of the zillion details that allow a fight to go off on schedule.

"You're not going to believe this," Edson said, telling me the story of a near-brawl in the tennis facility between the two fighters' entourages, a near-brawl that also featured the allegation of a gun pulled by one side or the other, followed by a meeting in the office of the Caesars Palace chairman and a demand that all guns be checked

immediately into a hotel safe. Except the part about the chairman could not be attributed to Edson - it was too sensitive.

This was a national exclusive story, or at least that's how I remember it. I can't remember if the guy from the New York Post showed up that day or the next day. But as writers began arriving in subsequent days to chronicle the biggest fight of its time, the matchup between an undefeated black champion and a big, credible, white challenger, it became the first story they all wrote, about the guns and the separate training arrangements.

Holmes-Cooney. June 1982. If you ever wanted a mirror onto a different time - for boxing, for newspapers, and maybe for race relations in this country - those are an instructive couple of weeks.

It is almost impossible to imagine it happening today - at least part of it. Boxing and its heavyweight division just cannot come close to generating the same level of interest, to cultivating the same kinds of personalities. Newspapers would never consider advancing a national sporting event for 12 days - nobody has that kind of attention span anymore.

And as for the question of race, well, you decide. Could it ever be so blatant again?

You have to remember back. Randall "Tex" Cobb, bar bouncer/wise man/white heavyweight contender from a bygone era, was forever getting hurt or getting squeezed by some boxing promoter, always seeming to miss his title shot. Yet his folksy realism never flagged. As he reasoned, "If you're going to make the big money happen, the name of the game is kicking a white boy's ass. They'll come looking for me."

Black, white, sports. They are still intertwined, most assuredly. It is subtle and it is hard to identify sometimes, but it continues to complicate everything from the process of hiring a coach in the NFL, to the content of radio shows like that of Don Imus, to the ongoing saga of Barry Bonds chasing baseball history.

But it was not subtle in 1982, when Holmes fought Cooney for the heavyweight championship. The all-timer might have been the people at Time Inc. On the cover of Time magazine before the fight, they had Cooney and Sylvester Stallone - no Holmes. On the cover of Sports Illustrated, they had one of those fold-back flaps. The half you saw on the newsstand was Cooney. Folded underneath was Holmes.

A near descendant of Muhammad Ali in the heavyweight division, Holmes had been a very good champion whose major failing was that he lacked Ali's charisma. Yet there he was, folded underneath. I can still remember how embarrassed Pat Putnam, the SI boxing writer back then, was when the magazine hit the stands.

It did not matter, though. This was about selling the white challenger to white America, period. And when Holmes won in the 13th round, when Cooney's trainer ran into the ring to force the stoppage of the bout as his fighter was being pounded, there was no phone call from President Ronald Reagan in congratulations. It has been reported, though, that a phone line from the president had been installed in Cooney's dressing room, just in case.

It is hard to imagine it going down like that today. You would like to think we have traveled a distance from that mind-set in the last 25 years. You would like to think. *

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