“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Gerry Cooney said, then noted that perhaps he had mentioned it before during an hour’s conversation. Which he had, several times.
But he can’t help himself these days at 62 and in generally good physical, financial and spiritual health, 31 years into sobriety and with a new book, “Gentleman Gerry,” that chronicles his life and times in and out of the ring.
The road from heavyweight boxing contender from Huntington to happy sexagenarian in suburban New Jersey was rocky, but here he was at his favorite restaurant, the Fanwood Grille, holding court at his designated table.
No need to order. The owner sent over a parade of dishes that systematically wrecked Cooney’s diet, including a cheesesteak sandwich named for him.
“I’ve got the best luck in the world,” he said. “I’m still in boxing. I’m on the radio. I run a gym . . . I’m participating in life. I’m active in my community. I love this town. I come hang out with people. Who’s got it better than me?”
Sports fans of a certain age, especially those from Long Island, recall Cooney as a rising star who peaked with a first-round knockout of Ken Norton at Madison Square Garden in 1981, improving to 25-0.
“I could have beaten anybody in the world that night; that’s what great shape I was in,” he said. “But my career ended then, little did I know. I started messing around with recreational drugs, which allowed me to drink a lot more.”
On June 11, 1982, he got his title shot and lost to Larry Holmes on a 13th-round TKO, a fight that earned him $10 million. Looking back, he said he did not have the proper seasoning. He also believes his approach was flawed.
“Everyone you spoke to said I couldn’t go the distance,” he said. “So that night I was trying to prove I could go the distance instead of going in and fighting [aggressively].” He added with a laugh, “I have a lot of excuses.”
The book, written with John Grady, chronicles Cooney’s childhood with five siblings and an abusive, neglectful, alcoholic father, a dysfunctional family atmosphere that prompted him to leave home at 17.
The echoes of that upbringing affected him for years, including in the aftermath of the loss to Holmes. “I didn’t get that at the time, but the low self-esteem, [being] not good enough, it got to me at that point,” he said.
Cooney has spoken of his troubled past before, but never in autobiographical form. Why now?
“I was ready to talk about what really went on in my life and what was going on in my head,” he said. “The great times, the times I screwed up, the mistakes I made, the wrong people I chose, how I got as far as I got . . . I don’t know where I got the courage from, but I wanted to go as far as I could. I wanted to prove my father wrong.”
Cooney finished 28-3, losing his last two fights, in 1987 to Michael Spinks and in 1990 to George Foreman. It took him time to find himself after that, but he has.
“I could have been way better; I regret that a lot,” he said. “But I have to let it go, because it ain’t doing nothing for me now. I got out pretty good [physically]. I saved my money. I have a great life.”
Next month he and his wife, Jennifer, will mark 25 years of marriage. They have a son, 21, and a daughter, 18. (He also has a 30-year-old son from a previous relationship.)
He has a show with co-host Randy Gordon on SiriusXM Satellite Radio called “At the Fights” every Monday and Friday.
“It’s the best thing I’ve done in my life,” he said. “I shouldn’t say that; I’ve done a lot of best things in my life, and I’ve been blessed in that. But it gave me a venue to stay alive [in boxing].”
He has a gym, Gerry Cooney’s Boxing Academy, in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. He makes frequent appearances, including for charitable causes, often with his old friend Holmes and sometimes in familiar places back on Long Island.
There are television and movie projects in the works, details of which he cannot yet share publicly.
And there is the book, which is written in the third person but gives voice to Cooney’s childhood demons.
“It took a long time to really come out,” he said. “I didn’t want to look at it, didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to deal with it. And finally, I realized that until I let it go, I can’t go forward.”
Cooney joked, “I tell people that I finished my first book. Now I’m going to read another one.”
But seriously, his hope is to reach other people facing the challenges he did, especially young ones. “My life’s mission is to find the guy [like me] where I can say, ‘Hey, come here, kid,’ ” he said. “I’m praying for that.”