Gerry Cooney works hard in the daytime and quietly plays poker in his hotel room at night. Meantime, the architects of his future go about the dirty work of building Cooney's image at the expense of the world heavyweight champion's.
Cooney and champion Larry Holmes meet Friday night for the World Boxing Council title. While both fighters say they do not hate each other, each claims a "genuine dislike" of the other.
Their prefight schedules have been redrawn to avoid ugly face-to-face confrontations. Today at the final press conference before the bout, Cooney chatted amiably for five minutes, then headed off before Holmes came in.
Between the two men's appearances, Cooney's comanager, Dennis Rappaport, held court for awhile. He was not kind to Larry Holmes.
"He's walking around talking to himself," Rappaport said. "It's probably the first time he's ever had a conversation he could understand."
And, "Let's face it--Larry Holmes is probably the only guy who can look at 'All in the Family' (the television satire) and see it as a serious drama instead of a situation comedy."
Or: "In Philly they call this fight the pride and the glory. The thing is, Gerry Cooney is both. The only way to give Holmes equal time would be to call it beauty and the beast."
Says Rappaport, a New York real estate man when he isn't with his fighter, "The way you handle somebody that you view as a threat is to ridicule him."
It is a tactic the Cooney camp is clinging to in a war of nerves against Holmes. In the view of veteran fight man Angelo Dundee, it's paying off.
"Larry's letting this guy get under his skin," Dundee said. "He's got an ax to grind. He should be pinpointing this fight. He should be saying, 'Hey, I'm the champ. Come and get it.' Instead, it's like he's got something to prove.
"And I don't like guys going into the ring with something to prove."
Cooney's people are building their fighter into a public figure. What seems to distress Holmes is the ease with which it is working after he has spent four years in obscurity as undefeated champion of the world.
This is an age of public relations and stereotypes. Rappaport plays this game while his fighter goes about his work. Holmes' camp, by contrast, consists of fight people and family; there is no one to play the game and Holmes' image suffers while Cooney's soars.
Rappaport on Cooney: "He goes out and touches people and they respond . . . He's a good, human kid; the kid next door . . . Girls want to touch his hair . . . There's a love affair here and it's not just an image. It's reality."
Or: "We live in a time when a real macho man doesn't have to be a bully. He can smile and bring warmth to people."
And: "After Friday, Gerry Cooney will be the most recognized figure in the nation and he'll become the first billionaire athlete."
Cooney has watched the new film "Rocky III" seven or eight times. According to ex-football coach John Madden, who watched it with him, "He knows the lines before they say them."
Cooney admits he identifies with the character of Rocky--an unknown, white challenger who rises to take the title from a tough black champion. "It's a great character--the underdog trying to make it," Cooney said Monday after a workout.
But the character of Larry Holmes, he said, is not admirable. "He's a good fighter," said Cooney, "but as a person I feel distaste. If I were married and had children, I wouldn't want them to look up to him."
This undisguised character assault, coupled with the Cooney buildup, has put Holmes in a curious position. As champion he traditionally is the center of attention at fight time. But Cooney's workouts draw more fans than his; Cooney is on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Time; Cooney is advertising electric shavers on television, and Cooney demanded and got full parity on the purse for this fight, which brings each fighter somewhere between $5 million and $10 million, depending on the closed-circuit television gate.
All this for a 25-year-old fighter who compiled a 25-0 record, but never fought a top-10 contender.
It rankles Holmes. "Gerry Cooney never had any obstacles," said the champion to an assemblage of fans after a workout this week. "He fought a bunch of washed-up guys. But now he has to fight me in my prime.
"The press says I'm angry. Yes. I'm only human. I'm bitter and I'm angry because of what people say."
But Holmes insists he is only mad at Cooney because, "He is trying to take away my job, my house. When he steps in the ring, that's my domain. I can't like him. It's my job to make him mad. It's nothing personal. It's just business."