The classiest move of the night came from neither fighter, but from the trainer who ensured that this World Boxing Council title bout would end, the little man who barged into the ring in the final 10 seconds of the 13th round to keep Gerry Cooney from suffering anymore.
"I would not let my fighter take a beating for all the millions in the world," Victor Valle said. "I love this boy too much. He tried. He showed you all."
As Cooney was being thrown all over the ropes, his face assuming an almost grotesque look, Valle could take no more. Through the ropes he burst, past the pushing of referee Mills Lane and to his man. They had kissed seconds before the fight; the small trainer half-carried the 225-pound Cooney back to safety.
Still, Cooney left a sour taste. In losing his challenge for the WBC title, predictably, to Larry Holmes, he was equally brave and bush. The courage he showed in taking all Holmes could give, in flailing forward and meeting blow after blow, was almost countered by his hurting Holmes more below the belt than above.
Holmes said as much:
"Gerry Cooney's best punch was a low blow."
That was near the end of his press conference. He had been gracious to Cooney earlier--and bitter for a moment at everyone, real and imagined, who had done him ill over the years.
Holmes has whipped everybody who wanted a piece of him these four-plus years as champion, and has not been given what he considered his proper due from the proper sources. And when he had finally disposed of the vastly over-rated Cooney, Holmes appeared to collapse in the ring.
From the enormous heat?
"From everybody climbing all over him in the ring," said trainer Eddie Futch. "The weight of so many was on him. So he sat down. Briefly."
As he left the ring, having punched out humiliation only he could comprehend, Holmes stopped just before the top step, paused and then thrust both hands high in the air. At last! he seemed to be gesturing. Here I am, the best you've got. Whattya think?
Perhaps half the crowd of 32,500 noticed him, and they offered respectful applause. Holmes still doesn't get the respect he covets, except from the man he respects most: himself.
His first public words were a defiant: "I still have it." And he held high the WBC title belt. Later, he added: "I cured all the critics; I feel good. My dreams always come true. I dreamed I would be heavyweight champion of the world; I am heavyweight champion of the world.
"I think all of us want a little recognition in life; I want to put a mark on life."
He put some ugly marks on Cooney as early as round six. Already, Cooney had delivered several low blows, throwing that awkward left as though he were seeing not Holmes but a dwarf.
Finally, referee Mills Lane got assertive, telling Cooney in the seventh he would warn him no more. By the ninth round, Lane could tolerate no more. After Cooney doubled up the champ with his best shot frightening low, Lane halted matters and told the officials to deduct a point.
As Holmes tried to recover, Lane changed his mind. He retraced his steps and demanded another point deducted. Then he said to Cooney: "One more time and I'll disqualify you."
There was another time, two rounds later, but only another one-point deduction.
One of his fans offered a plea for him to retire as the only unbeaten black heavyweight champion. If not immediately, soon. Clearly, the champ was touched, but he laughed that off by saying lots of men would be scrambling for that vacant title.
"I don't now if I want that to take place right now," he said.
The challenger was especially late for his part of the press conference. In fact, his mother beat him there by 20 minutes.
"Never been hurt real bad," she said. "I have no quarrel about his getting hurt tonight, because he did it his way. He covered himself with glory."
He could take most of what Holmes could muster. And no one is quite sure that Cooney would not have been flattened inside 10 rounds had he not sapped so much energy from Holmes with those off-target lefts.
"Only time he hurt me," Holmes said, "was with those low blows."
That was after the champ had been reflective for a few moments, saying his pre-fight anger had been more with Cooney's mouthy managers (Dennis Rappaport and Mike Jones) than with Cooney.
"I shook Gerry Cooney's hand before the fight," Holmes said, "and I shook Gerry Cooney's hand after the fight. Too bad people in his corner told him different things. I hope he knows I have no hard feelings. I wish him well."
There was more:
"Sorry I can't be what you expect," he said. "Sorry I can't be Muhammad Ali or Joe Louis or Leon Spinks. I wasn't born to be those people. I was born to be myself."
He grew to learn his craft and practice it with quiet dignity, acknowledging the work of the recently added cornermen, Futch and Ray Arcel. We'll nod approval for his good deeds tonight, for flailing out of Ali's shadow. But we fell in love with Valle.