ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- They kept coming. Rights and lefts. From underneath and on top. Battering his head, knocking it from side to side like it was on a spring. It seemed like dozens of punches were landing on him, all at the same time. He couldn't stop them from landing. As he had done throughout the fight, he looked to his corner for counsel, and found none. He searched vainly through the pain and disappointment for something to hit back, but his arms were weary and his spirit was broken. We won't have Gerry Cooney to kick around anymore. Michael Spinks took care of that finally and convincingly.

Of all the scenarios offered for this fight, the least likely was the one that actually happened: Spinks by an early TKO. "I'm a headhunter," Spinks said. "And he's a big guy. I thought upstairs was the place to stay." Giving away five inches and 30 pounds, Spinks nonetheless waded in and traded blows with the ponderous Cooney, who often seemed slower on his feet than a credenza. The people who worried about Cooney having ring rust were justified in their concern. He didn't need water between rounds, he needed oil. Surely, Cooney owned the more fearsome punch. But as Spinks' trainer, Eddie Futch, said, "In boxing it doesn't matter how much dynamite you have. You have to plant it." Futch cautioned Spinks to avoid Cooney's long, arching left and counter suddenly with "The Spinks Jinx" -- a short, straight right.

The beginning of the end came midway in the fifth round after Cooney threw his most potent weapon, a vicious left hook. Had it hit Spinks, it might have launched him into orbit. But Spinks ducked it and answered with the right. From then on it was left, right, left, right and so on until Cooney fell. He got to his feet shortly thereafter, but Spinks bore in on him furiously. Six, seven, eight, nine, who knows how many more clean shots until Cooney fell again? Once more he stood, wobbling on coltish legs, open for another frontal assault. There was a statistic that said Spinks landed 84 punches in the fifth round to Cooney's five. "Jabs, jabs, left hooks, straight rights -- I tried to do anything that would take him down," Spinks said. When referee Frank Cappuccino stopped it with nine seconds to go in the round, Cooney was out on his feet, listing like an ocean liner in heavy weather.

"Gerry, believe me buddy, you've got nothing to be ashamed of," Spinks said after the fight, pressing a bandage tightly to the cut near his right eye. "Walk with your head high, buddy. You just didn't lose to anybody. I beat a lot of guys."

So ends a fight that struggled to overcome a lack of credibility from the time it was announced. Spinks-Cooney was surrounded by questions, most of them mocking: Why was Cooney, seemingly petrified from inactivity, getting this bout? If Cooney qualifies for a title shot by not boxing, so does Hugh Downs. What right did a fine light-heavyweight like Michael Spinks have to claim the heavyweight championship when anybody could see that Mike Tyson was The Real Deal? Would Cooney need a road map to locate the ring? When he got in there, would he remember what to do?

"The War At The Shore" was a nice rhyme but an easy target for a skeptical press to substitute "Bore" or "Snore." So disinterested was the general public that promoter Butch Lewis, a high-road kind of guy, offered $25,000 apiece to Fawn Hall and Donna Rice to work as round-card girls.

Some of the questions were certainly valid, though the judgment against Spinks is unduly harsh. True, Tyson is the most charismatic figure in the heavyweight division, in all of boxing if Ray Leonard is serious about this retirement. But for all this alphabet soup of boxing titles -- WBA, WBC, IBF, SLA, IRA, DOA -- the last true heavyweight champion was Larry Holmes. And Spinks beat him twice. It may be Spinks' curse to be naturally suited for the glamorless light-heavyweight division, but he is 31-0 now. To dismiss his legitimacy as heavyweight champion for the sake of expedience dishonors boxing's historic continuity.

The more formidable obstacle to this fight was Cooney, who gives the impression he'd rather be driving a cab. Mark Etess, executive vice president of the sponsoring Trump Plaza, admitted, "There's a certain historic suspicion about Gerry." Indeed, until the moment Cooney climbed into the ring, people wondered which typically exotic malady -- a strained shoulder, a bruised knuckle, a safety pin in the hoof like Spectacular Bid -- would cause him to postpone. The last time most of us saw Cooney was in 1982. He was losing his grip on the ropes in the 13th round against Holmes and tumbling down in sections like a carpenter's ruler. Since then he's been a rumor.

Cooney claims he wants to be a boxer, but he doesn't want to box. Nice work if you can get it. His lips say: Yes, yes. But his resume says: No, no. In the 1980s, Cooney had fought seven times before last night, often against grandfathers. Not counting the Holmes fight, Cooney boxed parts of 13 rounds in the last seven years -- less than 39 minutes! Why would anyone want to quit a job like that? Since the Holmes fight, Cooney had gone seven rounds. Leonard went nine rounds in the same five-year period, but had an excuse: He had retired twice during that time.

You need your fingers and toes to count the ranked heavyweights who have fought more than Cooney in the 1980s: Pinklon Thomas, Mike Weaver, Tim Witherspoon, Tony Tubbs, Tony Tucker, Bonecrusher Smith, Michael Dokes, James (Quick) Tillis, Carl (The Truth) Williams, Gerrie Coetzee, Greg Page, Trevor Berbick, Big John Tate, Leon Spinks, Holmes, Marvis Frazier, Apollo Creed. Bill Laimbeer has fought more than Cooney.

Yet Cooney haunts the heavyweight division like a poltergeist. Part of the reason is because he's white. Spinks was asked: Why Cooney? "Because he's got it," Spinks said. Read "it" as skin tone. Racial confrontations have traditionally sold well in boxing. (Ironically, the inability to sell this one will, hopefully, discourage such base appeals in the future.) But another reason is Cooney's thunderous punching power. As galootish as he is, Cooney is a devastating puncher, which is what the mythology of the heavyweight is based on. When he finally gets in the ring, he's as compelling as anyone in the game. Cooney has never been more than a one-trick pony. But with KOs in less than five rounds in 23 of his 29 bouts prior to this one, it wasn't a bad trick. It's one, however, that we're unlikely to see again.