It wouldn't be quite accurate to describe Gerry Cooney as a hod carrier who is poised to become the idol of the hardhats simply because he is a former construction worker and the son of a construction worker. But you can look for that notion to catch on when the hype gets serious, along with something about how the budding millionaire bachelor with the striking good looks is breaking hearts.
For the time being, Cooney has been put on hold by his managers while they wait for offers for their man to fight Larry Holmes or Mike Weaver, claimants to half-shares of the world heavyweight boxing championship.
Cooney is a rare challenger in the Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali mold. He can bring more fans to a title match than the champions themselves. His true skill is still an unknown, although, at 24, he is unbeaten in 24 bouts, with 21 knockout victories, and ranked the No. 1 contender for Weaver's World Boxing Association title. He also figures to move up from No. 2 to No. 1 for the World Boxing Council title of Larry Holmes. Bernardo Mercado was the No. 1 WBC contender but lost to Leon Spinks.
The money managers appeared to have missed a good opportunity when Ali finally was destroyed as a gate attraction by the slashing fists of Holmes, although Ali received $6 million. John Condon, president of Madison Square Garden's boxing operations, says an Ali-Cooney fight would have been the biggest money bout of all time.
"Ali would have promoted the black-white aspect like no one else could," Condon said. "Larry Holmes will play down the issue of race if he fights Cooney."
Cooney tries to shrug off the burden of being designated the new great white hope with the catch phrase that he merely wants to be "the red, white and blue hope," the quintessential color-blind American. Yet he admits to liking greenbacks.
Before he recently dispatched Ron Lyle, 38, with an agonizing left hook to the liver in the first round, Cooney said that while he was picking Holmes to beat Ali, "My first choice is Ali. I could fight him and then my grandchildren could retire."
In detroit, after Tommy Hearns took the WBA welterweight title away from Pipino Cuevas, Ali, implying he would take Holmes' title, told Cooney, "You and I will be the biggest fight of all time. . . You the great white hope. . . We might draw $60 million."
But Ali wanted Holmes first, because of a misbegotten idea that he could become the first man to win the championship four times.
Whether Cooney was a world class fighter didn't matter to Ali when he envisioned a showdown with the Long Islander. Ali was impressed when they both got in the ring in Detroit to be introduced. When Ali made a move toward Cooney with a threatening series of punches, he found the novice to the big time gleefully joining the horseplay, in contrast to past reactions of other prospective opponents.
Cooney broke into laughter, imitated the Ali shuffle and wanted to continue the hand slap shadowboxing when Ali was ready to break it off. It was then that Ali picked up his cue and realized how the two of them could rise above the mere athletic aspect of conventional bouts between conventional boxers. Alas, Ali already was condemned for execution by Holmes.
Because of the quality of his opponents so far, there is a tendency to be skeptical when Cooney's flack pack suggests he is the reincarnation of Finn MacCool, the legendary Irish giant who was said to be so strong that he could hold himself out at arm's length.
The likes of Duane Bobick, Scott LeDoux, Joe Bugner and Chuck Wepner had given the concept of a great white hope a bad rap, if that is possible. Condon has credibility as a hard-eyed judge of boxing talent who has heard all kinds of hype and perpetrated some himself when he was a highly inventive public relations type.
"Cooney can fight," Condon says, "and I think he has a chance to go all the way. But I'd like to see him have a test against a tough heavyweight such as, say, Marty Monroe (a ranking boxer now in the Muhammad Ali Pro Sports, Inc., stable) before taking on Holmes or Weaver.
"Cooney has a good left hook that shakes up the whole body of his opponents. If he could hit Holmes with it early in a bout it might be enough. He knocked out Lyle with it and beat up Jimmy Young with it. But he doesn't trust his right hand. I don't know why. He had a good right in the amateurs.His career was incubated in the Garden when he knocked out a big Russian amateur with his right."
Nor is Condon, of Irish extraction himself, convinced that Cooney is ready to replace Ali as a showman, for all of his unbuttoned personality. Condon mans the microphone at basketball games and some boxing events in the Garden, and because native Cooney won two New York golden gloves titles -- the first white heavyweight to win the title in 25 years -- Condon had the Long Islander at the mike, as the color man for the most recent competition.
"He had no continuity to his remarks," Condon said. "He has a disconcerting snicker. I guest it's because he's still a kid who hasn't grown up. I don't know if he will. But, as I say, what is important is that he is big (6 feet 5 and 225 pounds), he can fight, and he is tough."
Cooney had a 55-2 record as an amateur, including three knockouts of European national champions. He took six of eight rounds in decisioning Eddie (Animal) Lopez, who drew with Spinks; he accounted for the first knockout in the career of John (Dino) Dennis, and knocked out Young in the fourth round.
Dr. Edwin Campbell of the New York State Athletic Commission said, "Cooney set an unofficial record as an amateur for breaking the most ribs."
Cooney probably will fight Weaver before he has to face up to Holmes, who is expected to fight Spinks next. Cooney can thus wait to try and become a man of rare distinction -- the first of his race to win the title since Ingemar Johansson knocked out Floyd Patterson in three rounds, on June 26, 1959.