In Las Vegas, the Caesars Palace gambling joint will erect a 30,000-seat arena in its parking lot to accommodate the March 15 world heavyweight title fight that brings Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney together.
Just about anywhere else in the world, two men seen fighting in a parking lot well into the night would be run in by the police and socked with disorderly conduct charges. In Las Vegas, the same two guys will get a reported $10 million each, base pay, for their nocturnal belligerence.
Only in money terms is Holmes versus Cooney the greatest heavyweight match of history. They do own an eye-catching, collective record of 64-0 in their boxing careers. While their unbeaten status has helped them become rich, they are not an awesome pair. Both have specialized in knocking out the likes of Ron Lyle, Ken Norton and Jimmy Young, who represent boxing's aged and infirm. For good measure, Holmes last year stopped an enfeebled 38-year-old Muhammad Ali, who came not to fight much but to get a payday.
But unlike Ali and Smokin' Joe Frazier, who personified excitement as champions, Holmes is the embodiment of Dullsville. His fighting style is stand-up, overly patient and lacking in delight. The most stirring moments of his fights, it can be said, were provided by three of his opponents who suddenly decked him.
For all Cooney's 21 knockouts and his 25-0 record, the depth of his skills is still unplumbed. He is massive, rising to 6 feet 5, and has a left hand that, his manager boasts, "breaks ribs." But with Holmes and millions in mind, he has had a stage-managed career, carefully sidestepping the likes of Mike Weaver, Renaldo Snipes and the punching perennial, Earnie Shavers, all of whom had Holmes on the floor.
Yet, for this one the promoters are pricing ringside seats at $600, without a blush, for Vegas high rollers. It was regarded as scandalous in 1927 when Mike Jacobs scalped ringside seats at $125 for the second Dempsey-Tunney fight, a contest that almost rated as a national festival.
Equate some of the following figures with the $10 million each that Holmes and Cooney are getting for their night in the parking lot: Jack Dempsey never was paid more than $450,000 for any fight. In his whole boxing career, Joe Louis did not earn more than $4 million. Louis' nine bum-of-the-month fights netted him a total of $113,000.
In 1971, the whole nation blinked when it was learned that Ali and Joe Frazier would split a $5 million purse. Three years later, Ali and George Foreman earned $5 million each for their fight in Zaire. But $10 million per fighter? Only when the world went mad.
That madness did occur to an extent earlier this year when one fighter, Sugar Ray Leonard, a mere welterweight, took home $10 million for knocking out Tommy Hearns. Where is all the money coming from? It is found in those satellites that beam the action all over the world. A seat 5,000 miles from ringside will sell for $30. In boxing, the name of the game is closed-circuit theater television.
There is another element in the big payoffs for Holmes and Cooney, although in this enlightened age the promoters are discreet about shouting it from the rooftops. They don't have to. Everybody knows that Holmes is black and Cooney is white, and that the old rabble-rousing white hope stuff is available to those bigots who insist on Caucasian supremacy in the prize ring, years after Joe Louis proved he was everybody's champion.
It was a couple of years ago, when Muhammad Ali still had valid dreams of regaining his title again, that he (1) recognized the rise of Cooney in the heavyweight ranks and (2) how he could exploit it. "Hey, you the Great White Hope," he told Cooney. "Me and you could draw $60 million. We be the biggest fight of all time."
The upcoming $20 million fight almost went up in vapor for a few frightening moments Nov. 6 when a right hand thrown by the unorthodox upstart, Snipes, connected solidly with Holmes' chin and the champion went down as if clunked. End of fight, end of Cooney's upcoming $10 million payday, end of the goodies for both of them, it seemed.
At that moment, Cooney's gulp could have been measured, from wherever he was watching the fight, on a seismograph. But it ended happily for Holmes and Cooney when Holmes got up and eventually stopped the amateurish Snipes, who didn't know how to finish off a man he had in distress.
Of Holmes' courage there never has been any question. And he is a fine, methodical fighter. But he had no business getting hit like that by a Snipes type. Many another heavyweight would have known how to finish off the champ. Cooney does. He specializes in quick knockouts, and is no novice. He had 54 fights as an amateur and won 52. He is the only white heavyweight in the last 25 years to win the New York Golden Gloves title. He likes to hit.
But nobody has ever claimed that Cooney is crafty. That's where Holmes, the ultimate gymnasium fighter, has the advantage. And he is at his best against big, slow-moving targets. His reaction at confronting the 6-5 Cooney could be reminiscent of what Whitey Ford said on surveying 6-7 Frank Howard in the batter's box for the first time: "Jeez, what a strike zone."
The obscenity of the money they are getting aside, Holmes-Cooney could be a good fight.