SCOTCH PLAINS/FANWOOD, NJ -- There’s more than meets the eye when one first meets a towering giant like Gerry Cooney, for instance his affable personality or charitable heart. Despite his success, he had to struggle to become one of the hardest hitting boxers of all time.

A compelling story and many life lessons could be told by Cooney, who at one time was the No. 1 ranked heavyweight fighter in the world and rose to glory and other aspects of his life.

Cooney grew up in a tough, Irish-Catholic household in a suburban Huntington, Long Island. His brother, Tommy, would venture off to the boxing gym, and one day, 15-year-old Gerry followed along. Six months later, a 6’4, 160 lb., 16-year-old would win the Golden Gloves Middleweight championship in 1973 at Madison Square Garden in front of a crowd 21,000.

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But life wasn’t all that easy for the fighter, he had some hurdles to overcome.

Like his brother, Cooney left the house at the age 17. He needed to physically fight to live, to pay the apartment’s bills, to feed himself, but to also prove his father wrong by making it as a boxer. Though this life may have been scary for him, boxing was the way out of his troubles. The sport helped channel the anger within and negativity surrounding him

“Boxing taught me to grow up and be persistent. I had to train for three to four months of the year for an anticipated fight, walk into a ring and try to protect myself from a guy trying to rip my head off, while coming out safe,” Cooney said.

As an amateur fighter, his record was 57-3. In every international bout he appeared in, Cooney knocked out his opponent, including four in Europe. Each time a fight would be planned, Cooney would always try to have the upper hand, “just like playing chess.”

Being a professional boxer it was not easy, but Cooney loved the sport and needed to provide for himself.

“Gentleman Gerry” became a household name in the boxing community with many notable victories over top heavyweight contenders. Cooney KO’d Ken Norton in 54 seconds, beat Jimmy Young in four rounds, and in one round beat Ron Lyle.

In his most famous fight, Cooney fought undefeated heavyweight champ Larry Holmes in the parking lot at Caesar Palace in Las Vegas on June 11, 1982. Boxing promoter Don King marketed Cooney as “the Great White Hope,” against Cooney’s preference. it was the first time in boxing history where the challenger earned similar money as the champion.

King, by promoting the fight as one between the two races, generated millions of dollars and introduced a new concept: pay-per-view. Cooney reported getting calls from the Klu Klux Klan, while Holmes received death threats. Snipers were needed to secure the parking lot because 35,000 people were in attendance. After 13 rounds, the fight was stopped and Holmes was declared the winner because Cooney could not safely continue.

Was there anything personal between Cooney and Holmes?

“No. And now we are the best of friends,” Cooney explained. “It was simply two combatants trying to win a fight. At the end of the day we respected each other.”

The next question that followed was if Mr. Cooney noticed a change in boxing. He said there was, the sport lost its popularity due to the promoters ruining the sport for young athletes. They robbed the game of its glory and reputation. The lull came from those great fighters like Gerry Cooney who avoided boxing, they turned to other sports like football, basketball, and baseball where they weren’t getting punched in the face but still being paid millions. Cooney knows what it’s like to be a young boxer trying to make a name for himself, and so he feels empathy for a fighters struggling in a tough sport like boxing. In fact, he still has a connection to boxing.

Today, Gerry Cooney has a busy schedule. His Gerry Cooney Boxing Academy at Yeti MMA in Scotch Plains trains young fighters and people who just want to get in good physical shape. He also hosts a radio show on SiriusXM Fight Nation channel 156 on Mondays and Friday from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. He recently released his autobiography, Gentleman Gerry, which is being turned into a major motion picture. Cooney also is doing a boxing TV show where he tours the country and finding fighters with potential that he could coach.

Cooney also devotes a lot of his time to charity work with organizations like the Youth Consultation Service (YCS) that helps troubled kids learn boxing and life skills needed to survive. He understands it because Gerry Cooney has always had to endure hardships to survive.

“Boxing was just a metaphor for life; every day is a battle,” he said. “There are people out there trying to take your job and your food, so you must fight every day, just like I did, to support yourself.”

The sport he loved so much has given him what he always wanted: the ability to support a family he loves. Along the way, he met all different types of wonderful people, including Muhammed Ali and many other celebrities. Boxing helped him become a better person. It made him mature and grow up to be the great man and boxer he wanted to be, despite the odds.

What really struck me was how happy boxing made him feel. The gloves did something for him: it made Cooney “a somebody.”

The most notable quote that I took out of this interview was “the longer you stay stuck, the longer you miss out.” I believe what he was saying is if you don’t take your shot or make your move, then there is nothing to gain.

Gerry Cooney came from nothing, to working hard and taking his shot to become the legend he is today. I think we can learn a lesson from him, his experience and struggles can teach anyone that no matter the challenge, you need to fight.

Want to get in the ring with Gerry Cooney? He's offering a free boxing clinic on Sunday, October 13, 2019, from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. at his boxing academy at Yeti MMA, 2507 Route 22 West (just past Bowcraft), Scotch Plains. This free seminar is open to teens and adults only. In anticipation of a big turnout, registration is suggested at is Scotch Plains-Fanwood’s only free daily local news source. Sign up for our free daily eNewsletter and “Like” us on Facebook and twitter @SPF_TAP. Download the free TAPinto App for iPhone or Android.