Boxing fans across the U.S. will probably remember that Gerry Cooney came from nowhere.
“I had a great career!”
Cooney, raised on New York’s Long Island, made the jump from amateur boxer to professional prizefighter at just 19 years of age. And it seemed like to everyone, including himself, he would be unstoppable.
“I built up a record of 25 and 0,” says Cooney. “I got the chance to fight for the Heavyweight Championship of the World!”
But what many didn’t know at the time was how much a part alcohol played both in Cooney’s career and in his personal life. He drank early himself, but it wasn’t until later that booze began to run his life at a time when his professional life needed tending to.
But his alcoholism didn’t begin early.
“I drank as a kid, 14, 15 years-old on the weekend, hanging out in the park,” remembers Cooney. “Beer, usually.”
Cooney’s bad childhood memories of alcohol, had little to do with his own drinking. His father, he says, was what made alcohol bad.
“My father was a pretty big drinker,” remembers Cooney. “He drank every day. He was very physical. You learned to keep out of sight and out of mind.”
And the physical abuse wasn’t the only abuse in Cooney’s childhood home. What stuck with him, and would fuel his drinking later on in life, is how his father verbally and emotionally mistreated him.
“You’re no good,” Cooney’s father would tell him. “It’s a terrible thing to grow up with.”
His father passed away when Cooney was 18, a year before he began his career in the ring. He trained hard, fought harder, and rewarded himself with a little cocktail.
“After I knocked out Kenny Norton, I felt like I deserved it,” says Cooney, referring to his 25th consecutive win, in 1981.
But soon, he learned that the world of professional boxing was as much about politics as it was about athleticism. Due to who he chose to do, and not do, business with, he began to fight less and less. And after that momentous 25th victory, he hit a long dry spell.
“I wasn’t part of Don King’s empire,” laments Cooney about the charismatic promoter. “And so, I was fighting once a year. As a professional athlete, you need to perform three to four times a year.”
And with nothing else to do, besides training, he started drinking for fun and partying more.
“I got distracted.”
Cooney’s dry spell ended when he agreed to a bout for the title, against his future friend, Larry Holmes. But more than a year had past since his last fight.
“I don’t fight for thirteen months and then I fight for the title?” asks Cooney. “I couldn’t win either way.”
He would lose that fight with Holmes after 13 rounds. And that brought back the ghost of Cooney’s father.
“All that negative stuff i heard, the ‘you’re no good, you’re a failure. You’re never going to amount to anything.’ Those things I learned in my household,” all came back to his head. And to quiet it all, he reached for the bottle.
“I started drinking again.”
And with no future fights on the horizon, He didn’t do much else.
“I didn’t have a job. I was just training,” said Cooney. “And seven nights a week there was a place to go.”
Fights came in two-year increments, and his performance which one dazzled fans and columnists, now was considered lackluster. And so Cooney turned his focus to drinking, and kept it there until one April morning in 1998.
“One day, I woke up and thought, ‘who’s in charge of my life?’ I quit,” says Cooney. “The next day I woke up the same way.”