No one who saw it could forget Gerry Cooney's annihilation of Ken Norton a year ago, when Cooney charged across the ring at the sound of the first bell, drove Norton into a corner and battered him against the ring post.
"When I gave him instructions before the fight, I could see a change in his eyes," said Cooney's trainer, Victor Valle. "He changed from an actor or a ballet dancer into a beast. I tell him, 'Now you go in and do that job, damn it. It's you or him. Now do it.' And I see in his eyes that determination. His hands are already moving."
The problem is that heavyweight champion Larry Holmes, whom Cooney faces Friday for the World Boxing Council title, has seen the videotapes of the Norton fight, too. He'll be trying to exploit Cooney's wild-eyed approach.
Valle says his job for this fight is to control Cooney, to keep the 6-foot-6 slugger's powerful left hook in check until the right moment.
"I'm looking for my fighter to control his jabs and to cut off the ring when he has to," said Valle, "but not to go right after Holmes, charging him like a bull to a toreador. We are not going to throw the big, wild left hook to the body so they can throw the right over it. That's old-time stuff."
Valle says he can control the beast. But at the same time, asked what he expects from Holmes, he says, "You can't change the spots on a leopard."
There will be neither bulls nor beasts nor leopards nor toreadors in the 24- by-24-foot championship ring Friday--only two men, each with a plan. How long the plans hold up is a function of intelligence, endurance and adaptability. And it's a function of whether the plan is working.
Every day in the sparring ring, for example, Valle runs his fighter through a drill. Cooney retreats to a corner, Valle wades in after him and after a few fake blows are exchanged, Cooney hooks an arm around the portly, 64-year-old trainer and spins him into the corner, reversing the positions.
"This is a little trick they have to get Larry against the ropes," said Holmes' trainer, Eddie Futch. "But it's not going to work because Larry isn't going in there after him." So much for Plan A.
In fact, the only time Holmes wants to be near a corner is between rounds. A truism of this matchup is that the ropes and corners are Cooney's friends. Holmes, the superior boxer, will dance and circle to keep the fight in the center of the ring, where he can pop his quick, explosive jabs and dodge the challenger's slower punches. But if Cooney gets him against the ropes or in a corner, Holmes' escape routes are gone and Cooney's power takes over.
It is the classic matchup of slugger versus boxer.
In his final sparring session Tuesday, Cooney was banged around by Walter Santemore. Knowledgeable observers at ringside kept talking about Cooney's slow hands.
Holmes intends to capitalize on that slowness by beating Cooney to the punch. "When Cooney throws the left, he does this," said Futch, dipping his left shoulder, cocking his fist and looping a punch.
"You know that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but the hook is an arc," said Futch. By the time Cooney has wound up and delivered the arcing punch, he said, Holmes will have delivered a blow of his own--a straight right directly from the shoulder to the challenger's chin.
It is this kind of logic that has led Holmes to declare he will win by a knockout in seven rounds or less.
"I don't need strategy," said the champion. "I'm a boxer. I'll hit him with 70 or 80 punches a round. You count 'em.
"He can't take that. He's got that pretty skin, been laying out in the sun. Everlast is going to cut it."
Says Valle in response, "For 15 punches that he throws, the one that we throw is the one that is going to pay off."
Added Valle in a comment tantamount to admission that Holmes is the better boxer: "Gerry always fights better against a good fighter. Why? Because when a fighter goes with a better fighter, he's more awake, more alert. And when he punches, he knows it has to be hard because he is not going to get that many chances.
"This guy (Holmes) is a good fighter," said Valle. "That's good for us because we know what to expect."
What Valle is banking on is his man's ability to deliver the telling blow when Holmes makes a mistake and leaves himself vulnerable.
"Errors," said Valle, "are what turn the fight. Fights are won by the right punch. If you hurt a man, that's when you win. If you hurt me, then I think twice before I throw another punch. I say, 'If I miss, he's going to hurt me again.'
"That's the beauty of a puncher. The fight may be going one way, but one punch changes the whole picture."
For that reason, Valle says, he won't predict the round Cooney will win in.
"You can't predict," he said. "They get the coffin and the flowers ready, but the guy don't die."