To see Gerry Cooney is to think of Primo Carnera. Carnera was 6 1/2 feet tall and weighed 250. A week's black stubble gang a cowcatcher jaw gave him a dark countenance unrelieved by the mountain ridges of his brow and nose. He came from Italy, a giant in the '30, and later the movie, "The Harder They Fall," convinced us his fights were fixed, so he rose to a championship fight by arrangement and not skill. He was a fraud.
Gerry Cooney is real. He will be the heavyweight champion soon, not by arrangement but by the power of the left hand that leveled Ken Norton in 54 seconds Monday night.
Yet, to see Cooney is to see Carnera, for Cooney, too, is a foreboding giant at 6-6 and 225. The week of fights, he doesn't shave. He moves so mechanically, he clanks. Only a little-boy quality in his tiny voice, its rhythms almost apologetic, is evidence he doesn't eat villagers for breakfast.
"Carnera couldn't fight at first," Cus D'Amato said today when a student telephoned the master for an evaluation of Cooney. "Canera still knocked out all those stiffs.Or they got them to lay down; I don't know which. But later he did learn to fight some.
"So it isn't fair to say Gerry Cooney is a Primo Carnera who can fight. Carnera, while not a great puncher, became a ponderous puncher. Slow but heavy.
"The difference is this kid Cooney has a whip in his punch, a real whip. He is a vicious puncher and a good finisher. When he gets a man in trouble, he attacks him with such a fury that some critics have said, 'He goes crazy because he's scared.' All fighters are scared. It doesn't stop Gerry Cooney from doing his work.
"He can be a great fighter someday if he doesn't run into problems. He's young and in a transitional stage, discovering things about himself. Did you see him right after they stopped the fight? He was jumping up and down, he was so happy. Even more than happy, in fact; he was wildly happy, which to me was a sign he was saying, 'What a relief, it really happned!'
"Cooney can be great, even with his considerable flaws of defense; he cannot avoid getting hit. But now he doesn't have the feeling of real confidence on Ali or Joe Louis had. I believe if he wins a few more fights, he will have that and he will not jump around like that."
D'Amato, 73, lives up the Hudson River in Catskill, N.Y. As a trainer of fighters, his masterwork was Floyd Patterson, a cautious middleweight transformed into a resourceful heavyweight champion. Even 40 years ago, long before the current rage of psychological voodoo, D'Amato believed a fighter's will as important as his skill. The boiler explodes, he said, when pressure finds a weak point in the welding.
No one yet has put pressure on Cooney, and so D'Amato can't make a definitive evaluation of the No. 1 contender for the split championship held by Larry Holmes and Mike Weaver. But even in the fleeting 54 seconds with Norton, D'Amato saw in Cooney enough to say the kid could beat Holmes.
That's a surprise. The champion nearly three years, the undefeated Holmes has a stinging jab, nice mobility, stamina and courage. He knocked out Weaver last year, although it took 12 rounds and came only after Weaver had nearly decked him. Cooney and Weaver have signed a contract to fight for the championship this fall.
"Weaver is a very dangerous fellow," D'Amato said. "Against Holmes, he showed great determination and heart. He's a good puncher with a left hook who, when you corner him, keeps clawing hand, too, and if I were Cooney I would rather fight Holmes than Weaver."
Only the refee's pity stopped Holme's fight with Muhammad Ali last fall. After 10 rounds, Ali yet stood, although he threw no punches and mounted no defense. That fight, D'Amato believes, exposed Larry Holmes as ineffectual.
"To start with, Holmes is easy to hit," the old trainer said. "He carries his chin up, like a lantern in a storm. Moreover, for a 'great' fighter, this guy can't fight. That was revealed when he was incapable of finishing Ali. He was in with a helpless punching bag, and he couldn't stop him."
As more evidence of what D'Amato sees as Holme's power-puff punching, he said Cooney's destruction of Norton has nothing to do with Norton's advanced age of 35.
"People often have wondered why Ken Norton gave Ali so much trouble, and, indeed, gave Holmes trouble. It's because he knew they couldn't hurt him. Against a puncher, though, he is very careful, to say the least. And last night he reacted to getting hit exactly the same way he reacted when he was 21. Age had nothing to do with last night.
"Ken Norton simply was intimidated by Cooney. A right hand put the fear of God in him. Then he looked absolutely frightened to me when the punches started to come."
When will we know Cooney has arrived at greatness?
"People used to say of Cooney, when he was an amateur, that he was a 'dog,' that he had no heart," D'Amato said. "I believe heart is developed and comes along with maturity and strength of character. The Jakes LaMottas and the hired killers have 'strength of character,' however unseemly it is, that allows them to persist against all odds.
"Ali had that kind of I-cannot-be-beaten attitude. Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis did, too. When they walked into the ring, everything went out of their opponents. With Cooney, there is a quality that isn't there yet. But it may come. Then we'll know how great he is."