ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Peace finally came to Gerry Cooney with nine seconds left in the fifth round late Monday night when referee Frank Cappuccino stepped between Cooney's helpless vulnerability and Michael Spinks' relentless aggression and waved the blows away.

Cooney seemed relieved by the decision. At long last, he could take a deep breath. At long last, he could relax. In his heart, he felt an unusual serenity. Winning the fight wasn't nearly as important as getting it over with. Gerry Cooney doesn't like to fight. His prolonged inactivity demonstrated his reluctance. He fought because his father pushed him to it and because his mammoth body warranted it. Now, he doesn't ever have to fight again forever.

"I was very tight, very stiff; I couldn't catch my breath," Cooney said Tuesday, reflecting softly on the defeat he'd suffered as if it had happened to another man, a man he wasn't likely to meet again. "I was a step behind all night. I couldn't relax. I kept trying to take a good, deep breath so I could relax. I kept waiting for that to happen. But it didn't. I was uptight." Cooney shrugged his audaciously wide shoulders and pursed his lips like a little boy having to apologize to the teacher: "Everybody handles pressure differently" . . .

Fear is an emotion we all confront -- some better than others. The nature of boxing is such that fear has an almost palpable presence. There's fear of physical punishment, fear of failure, fear of humiliation and, by extension, the worst fear of all for a boxer -- that his manhood will be mocked. The wiser fighters admit their fears and incorporate them into a psychological profile of self-awareness. Spinks has talked sensibly about his relationship with boxing, saying, "It's life-threatening, I'll tell you. It's terrifying at times. But it's what I do for a living."

In their fight -- as in their careers -- Spinks was better able to deal with his fears than was Cooney. Spinks respected Cooney's power, circled away from it, stayed away from the ropes and never presented himself as a stationary target. Familiar with the workplace and the potential peril there, he brought a professionalism into the ring. Cooney, on the other hand, couldn't bring anything into the ring but the tension of being somewhere he didn't want to be, doing something he didn't want to do.

What both men did after the fight reflected their approach to their vocation: Spinks rejoiced in his escape from danger, explaining that his strategy was to present himself to Cooney as an illusion -- "to be there and not be there." Cooney went directly to his hotel room "to relax." They sought different satisfactions from their bout: Spinks addressed himself after the bell rang. Cooney justified himself just by stepping inside the ring. Spinks continually improves his capacity for self-confidence. Cooney continually proves his capacity for self-torture.

What is next for Spinks, inevitably, is Mike Tyson in what will be recognized as the first true, publicly acclaimed heavyweight championship bout since early in the Larry Holmes Era, perhaps even since the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman Rumble in the Jungle. Butch Lewis, the ineffably shirtless promoter, already is pitching the fight for November, right here, coining it, "The Nitty Gritty in Atlantic City." Although it was scarcely 10 hours after Spinks-Cooney, Lewis proclaimed the general public starving for Spinks-Tyson. "They're already ranting and raving," Lewis said, apparently having pressed his ear to the door, though which door was uncertain. "They just want to know where to buy a ticket."

Responding to the widely held notion that Spinks dropped out of the ongoing heavyweight unification tournament rather than face the menacing Tyson, Lewis scoffed, "You can take that out of the headlines that we don't want to fight Tyson anymore. We want Tyson." And then, making sure to say he didn't think it seemly to "negotiate through the media," Lewis offhandedly estimated that in such a fight "both fighters would have to get a minimum of 10 {million dollars}. Guaranteed."

Tyson, however, is said by his co-manager, Jimmy Jacobs, to be booked solid for a year. There's Tony Tucker for the unification title in August; Tyrell Biggs in October; a December bout against an opponent to be named later, at a site to be named later; a March bout against another opponent still to be named, but with the site set: Tokyo; perhaps a bout next summer against the pacific Briton, Frank Bruno. "Next year -- no sooner," Jacobs said about Tyson fighting the Spinks-Cooney victor.

Again not wanting to negotiate through the media, Lewis nevertheless opined that Jacobs and co-manager Bill Cayton would see the light. "Why make a million, a million and a half, when you can make $10 million with one fight?" Spinks defers to Lewis in these money matters. Lewis makes the match, Spinks fights it. Spinks says he wants Tyson, but not with the ardor of Lewis. Asked how long he'd be willing to wait for Tyson, Spinks said he was in no hurry: "It doesn't matter with me." Spinks is the one, after all, who'll be fielding the punches. Tyson, at 20, is a stone-cold meal and a half in trunks, a reincarnation of Rocky Marciano. "He's a powerful young man," Spinks conceded in that laconic style of his. "A real powerful young man that a lot of us wouldn't like to climb in the ring with." Heaven can wait for Spinks.

As for Cooney, he's uncertain what he'll do next, whether he'll fight again. He posed with Spinks Tuesday, smiled at him, playfully got him in a headlock and applauded him. Cooney seemed so happy, even euphoric that the fight was behind him, it's hard to imagine him going back in the ring. His debts to his father are paid. When he waved goodbye to reporters, saying, "Okay, thank you, see ya," he was free, and as light and airy as the fresh breeze on the boardwalk.