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Original Issue

Trading Punch Lines

A quarter century after their contentious bout, the champ and the challenger are still going at each other--but these jabs don't hurt

The brand-newLincoln Navigator rolling down Pennsylvania's Route 22 on this balmy June dayis a major hunk of luxury automotive engineering, but the two men sitting upfront make it feel almost cozy. Twenty-five years before, to the very week,they fought for the heavyweight title, under the harshest of public spotlights.But today Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney are just a couple of old pals headingout for lunch.

"Gerry, I'm driving, so you know you better put on your belt," saysHolmes, showing more concern for the well-being of his passenger than he did onthe night of June 11, 1982, when he hammered out a 13th-round TKO of Cooney todefend his title in Las Vegas.

"I hear that,bro," says Cooney with a broad grin, clicking his shoulder strap into placeas Holmes guns the Navigator around a dawdling Toyota. Cooney shakes his head."I keep telling you, Larry, you got to take up golf. Relax alittle."

The two old foessee each other every few months at boxing events and charity functions. Todayit's a photo shoot at Holmes's office in Easton, Pa.--sandwiched betweenCooney's round of golf ("Thirty-eight on the front nine!") and Holmes'sflight to Atlantic City for an evening at the casinos. Their verbal sparringcontinues as Holmes, 57, and Cooney, 50, catch up on mutual friends and familyand compare notes on the state of their sport. Ultimate Fighting comes up."It's on TV every day," notes Holmes. Says Cooney, his jaw clenched andeyes wide in mock ferocity, "Yeah? I'd like to get you in thatcage."

Such camaraderieis in marked contrast to the vitriol that surrounded their 1982 bout, whenHolmes was the undefeated but largely unappreciated champion and thehard-punching Cooney--also undefeated but untested in his 25 bouts--was cast asthe Great White Hope. A disdainful Holmes called him the Great White Dope,while Cooney declared the champ had "no class." The promotion wasmarked by bad blood all around. "White people would come up to me and say,'You gotta beat him,' " recalls Cooney over cheeseburgers at a modesteatery in a Bethlehem, Pa., strip mall. Holmes laughs. "White people werecoming up to me saying, 'Gerry's gonna knock you out,' " he says.

Two patronsapproach the fighters and ask if they'd pose for a photo. "No problem,"says Cooney, jumping up to stand beside Holmes. "That'll be fivebucks"--he laughs--"apiece."

Back on theirstools, Holmes says, "People should take a page out of our book and realizeyou can get along with anyone."

After beatingCooney in what he calls his best performance, Holmes would defend his worldtitle eight times before losing in 1985 on a controversial decision to MichaelSpinks. After another loss to Spinks the following year, Holmes retired, onlyto make an ill-fated comeback in '88, when he got knocked out (for the onlytime in his career) by Mike Tyson. Two years later Holmes returned to the ring,and he boxed until 2000, his last fight a 10-round decision over 334-poundsideshow Eric Esch, a.k.a. Butterbean. "I wanted to get to 75 fights,"Holmes says. (His final record was 69-6, with 44 KOs.) Was it worth it?"Hell, yes," he says. "I made an extra $11 million."

Holmes alwaysliked his money--and he kept more of it than most fighters. "Every time Imade a title defense I bought a piece of property," he says. He acquired somuch real estate in and around his hometown of Easton that at one time it felta little like a Larry Holmes theme park. Though he has sold some of hisholdings, he still owns a gym there, the Larry Holmes Training Center, as wellas the Larry Holmes Ringside Restaurant and Lounge, which occupies the groundfloor of the Larry Holmes Enterprises building, which stands on Larry HolmesDrive, which runs along a river somehow still known as the Delaware.

"Hey, I'm 57,I'm alive and well and hanging in," says Holmes, who lives in Easton withDiane, his wife of 27 years. "While I'm here on this earth I'm going toenjoy myself."

Cooney, likewise,is a firm believer in savoring life--he moves through the world withseemingly unquenchable goodwill, greeting even strangers with playful banter.It has not always been easy, though. After the loss to Holmes he battleddepression and abused alcohol. He fought only five more bouts, winning threebut losing by KO to Spinks in 1987 and to George Foreman in 1990. Sober since'88, he has devoted much of his time over the past decade to FIST(Fighters' Initiative for Support and Training), a foundation he and his wifeof 13 years, Jennifer, created in '98 to provide job training and placement forstruggling former fighters. Says Cooney, who lives in Fanwood, N.J., "I'mjust glad to be in the picture."

Back in theNavigator, Holmes--his right foot clearly as heavy as his left jab oncewas--weaves through traffic on the trip back to Easton. That plane to A.C. iswaiting. Still, talk of the old days has put him in a contemplative mood."Hard to believe it's been 25 years," he says. "Bang, Gerry! It'slike a blink."

"You know whatthe lesson is?" says Cooney, with a small shake of his head. "It's thattime goes too fast. . . ." A pause, and then the wide-eyed grin as he looksover at his friend behind the wheel. "And so does Larry!" The two menlaugh.


PHOTOGRAPH BY Michael J. LeBrecht II/1Deuce3 Photography


Holmes is the lord of Lehigh Valley, while Cooney puts his energy into FIST,his outfit to aid former fighters.