Gerry Cooney is one of boxing's genuine good guys -- a gentle giant who moves through life with a ready smile and seemingly boundless cheerfulness, always ready to share a joke or trade friendly banter.
But it wasn't always so easy for the personable 52-year-old, who will be the special guest at tomorrow's Size Matters WBC Native American heavyweight title bout between Tye Fields and Nicolai Firtha at the River Cree Resort & Casino.
Twenty-seven years ago this week, Cooney was on a mission -- to win the heavyweight championship of the world -- but forces beyond his control turned it into something bigger and more sinister.
With a record of 25-0 that included first-round KOs of Ken Norton and Ron Lyle, Cooney was manipulated into the role of a reluctant Great White Hope long before he challenged Larry Holmes on June 11, 1982.
The fact he was paid $10 million to try to become the first white champion since Ingemar Johansson in 1960 only added to the pressure.
Promoter Don King shamelessly played the race card, to the point where the Ku Klux Klan staged rallies in support of Cooney and the FBI put snipers on rooftops overlooking the outdoor ring in Las Vegas because of death threats to both fighters. In anticipation of victory, a special hot- line was installed in Cooney's dressing room to receive a congratulatory phone call from President Ronald Reagan.
That call never came.
Holmes retained his title when Cooney's corner threw in the towel in Round 13 -- much to the challenger's chagrin -- and he never again fought for the title.
Between battling depression and alcohol abuse, Cooney had just five more bouts, winning three but losing to Michael Spinks in 1987 and George Foreman in 1990. He retired after the loss to Foreman with a record of 28-3, with 24 KOs.
"I'm just happy that I came through all that and I'm still able to do what I can to help boxing," Cooney said from his home in Fanwood, N.J.
"I remember when I first started out and I'd do my morning runs. I always waved to the garbage collectors because they were the only other guys on the street that early.
"I had a connection to blue- collar America and I loved being the working man's fighter. I felt that a lot of those folks looked forward to me winning, and I never wanted to let them down. I'm sure Tye and Nicolai feel the same way."
They'd do well enough just learning from Gentleman Gerry's fan-friendly demeanor.
By George, he's got it!
Speaking of fan-friendly fighters, Canadian icon George Chuvalo was the special guest at an amateur card in Athabasca a couple of weeks ago, and judging by the number of photos he posed for and autographs he signed, admirers young and old got what they came for.
"It was a huge thrill just to meet him, but when he gave me some pointers, I couldn't believe it!" said three-time national amateur champ Susan Haas of Edmonton's Cougar Boxing Club.
Mike Dibirov, founder and coach of the host Athabasca Boxing Club, said Chuvalo's visit won't soon be forgotten. "To see the looks on the faces of the kids and adults who lined up for his autograph was really something special," said Dibirov. "George is truly a national treasure."
I hope all the MMA fanboys who sent nasty e-mails when I dared predict a former boxing champ would easily destroy a cage fighter saw what happened in Birmingham, Ala., last Saturday.
"Merciless" Ray Mercer, a creaky 48-year-old who won Olympic gold for the U.S. way back in 1988 but hasn't had had a meaningful bout in more than a decade, took all of 10 seconds - that's right, 10 SECONDS! - to dispatch ex-UFC heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia to la-la land.
Mercer slammed a single counter overhand right to Sylvia's chin as the taller, younger MMA poseur threw a kick coming out of his corner. Sylvia - all six-foot-eight, 310 pounds of him - immediately crumpled to the canvas, dealing his "sport" an even bigger embarrassment than having ex-WWE 'rassler Brock Lesnar win the UFC heayweight title after only three fights.