Nov. 23, 1991: Holyfield vs Cooper

Let’s raise a glass and give a heart-felt salute to Bert Cooper, may he rest in peace. He went on to that big ring in the sky in 2019, leaving us far too soon, at the age of only 53, a victim of the scourge that is pancreatic cancer. But thanks to his thrilling wars with a host of excellent heavyweights, the fight game will never forget him. He was, by all accounts, a wayward and wandering soul, erratic and searching, lacking the focus and discipline to take his gifts to the next level. But what excitement he gave to those who love a good, old fashioned heavyweight slugfest.

Bert Cooper: 1966-2019

They called him “Smokin’ Bert Cooper” because he came from the fight city of Philadelphia and was trained for a while by no less a legend of boxing than heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier. And like Frazier, Bert knew only one way to box: drive forward and look for the knockout. No he didn’t have a Hall of Fame career, and yet there’s something wholly admirable about this tough, carefree battler who retired with a record of 38-25, a journeyman who had an incredible journey, who partied as hard as he fought, who faced a long list of talented contenders and champions, including Riddick Bowe, Mike Weaver, Ray Mercer, Michael Moorer and, yes, Evander Holyfield.

Part of what makes Cooper hard not to like is the fact he was something less than a totally committed athlete. Us regular guys can relate to a man who loves a good fight, but at the same time isn’t enamored with all the self-denial required to excel in boxing. Reportedly the Frazier-Cooper partnership dissolved primarily because Bert just could not resist a good party. At any given time there was a more than reasonable chance you’d find Bert enjoying himself in a crowd of fun-lovin’ people with a cold brew and likely one or two other contraband substances. More than once Bert’s penchant for partying led to trouble with the law and a stint in rehab.

Cooper broke Ray Mercer’s jaw in their 1990 war.

Some of course judge Bert harshly for quitting after the second round in his fight with George Foreman in 1989, as if any of us would have the guts to do differently given the circumstances. Not only was Cooper going up against a genuine heavyweight legend with dynamite in both fists, but the former cruiserweight was also dealing with a forty pound weight disadvantage. Cooper tested positive for cocaine after that bout and at the time it appeared there was no reason at all to take “Smokin’ Bert” seriously ever again. Everyone just shook their heads at the lack of discipline and the waste of so much natural talent and figured Cooper was all done.

Bert turned the Foreman debacle into a fun story, which may or may not be true, but which, again, only endeared the man to some. According to Bert a pair of identical twin prostitutes propositioned him not long before his date with Big George and he ended up on a wild bender of non-stop partying that lasted several days. “I was set-up,” he declared. God love ya, Bert, but if the story’s true, all you had to do was say “No.”

But it seems saying no just wasn’t in Cooper’s make-up. Lucky for us, because a boxer less reckless and more shrewd and serious about his career might have said “No” when he was offered the chance to fight for the world title on just a few days’ notice, in the champion’s home city no less. Evander Holyfield had been in training for a huge money clash against Mike Tyson, but the fight had to be cancelled once “Iron Mike” found himself facing a rape charge. Top contender Francesco Damiani was the fill-in, the match having been moved to Atlanta, but the Italian suffered a foot injury in training. So Cooper got the call and the chance to be a substitute for the substitute in Holyfield’s big homecoming bout.

It can’t be overstated how much of a long-shot Cooper was that night, how absolutely no one took him seriously as a challenge for “Real Deal” Holyfield. Sure, he was on a four fight win streak and had looked impressively strong and tough in a losing effort against Ray Mercer the year before, but the bottom line was he had a record of 26-7, with five of those losses coming in the last two years, and in addition to quitting against Foreman, he had been blown away by young contender Riddick Bowe in just two rounds. Surely he posed no threat at all to an undefeated heavyweight champion in his prime.

And in round one such views appeared confirmed when an overanxious Cooper, not the least bit intimidated, got off to a shaky start, bringing the fight to the hometown hero with admirable zeal, but also leaving himself wide open. Evander took full advantage, unleashing a fusillade of heavy blows. A hard liver shot caused Bert to fold up like a cheap suitcase and crumple to the floor and at that moment it appeared those who had dismissed Holyfield vs Cooper as a total mismatch were correct. But the challenger beat the count, survived the round, and, if nothing else, had shown he could take Evander’s best punches and keep going.

Holyfield vs Cooper
Holyfield lands a right.

Round two was more of the same as the fans in Atlanta were treated to an action-packed battle, Holyfield’s straighter, more accurate shots giving him a solid edge. Cooper was standing his ground and firing back, but the cleaner punches were definitely Evander’s. Still, they didn’t seem to be bothering Bert that much as he just kept catching and throwing, willing to take any number of punches to land his own. And while it was turning out to be an excellent show for the fans in the Omni Coliseum and those watching on HBO, Holyfield was taking a risk fighting Cooper’s fight and giving Bert the chance to land big shots. Soon enough, he would pay the price.

Round three opened with the champion working to take full control, coming out hard, looking to put the long-shot challenger in his place. He unloaded with six big bombs to start the round, but Cooper just grinned, righted himself and fired back. The heavyweights traded at a manic pace, but then, a minute into the round, Bert found the angle he was looking for, dug in and crashed home two vicious right hands. The first one forced Evander to give ground, which in turn created room for the second shot to land even harder. It detonated perfectly, full force on Holyfield’s jaw, and buckled his legs. The champion tried to clinch but Cooper got off two more rights, causing the dazed champion to lose balance, turn his back on Cooper, and teeter into the ropes like a drunk at closing time falling into the bar.

Holyfield vs Cooper
Mills Lane directs Cooper to a neutral corner.

No part of Evander’s anatomy other than his feet touched the floor, but since only the ropes had prevented that from happening, referee Mills Lane correctly called a knockdown and issued the champion a mandatory eight count. It was the first knockdown of Evander Holyfield’s professional career. When the fight resumed the crowd was going berserk and “The Real Deal’s” legs looked more than a little shaky. There was one minute and forty seconds left in round three and the heavyweight champion of the world was on “Queer Street.” And it was then that Bert Cooper made a huge mistake.

Instead of calmly coming forward and taking the openings available to do further damage, Cooper frantically threw a series of huge home run swings at Evander’s head as the champion backed off. But only one punch landed cleanly and all the while the long-shot challenger ignored the open target that was Holyfield’s midsection. Soon enough Cooper was arm weary and breathing hard as the champion, just twenty seconds after getting the eight count, pushed his tormentor off and landed a thudding uppercut. The blow sparked a furious exchange but it was Holyfield’s punches finding their mark as his opponent’s wild right hands hit nothing but air.

Round three was a classic.

A powerful right stunned Cooper and moments later two thunderous uppercuts snapped Bert’s head back and Evander went for the finish, unloading a volley of non-stop punches, ten consecutive power shots landing flush. But, amazingly, Cooper wasn’t going anywhere. He timed Evander and landed another of his big right hands. Now a tired Holyfield was looking to cruise through the final thirty seconds of the round, but Cooper wouldn’t let him, Bert landing two more big rights and then a left hook just before the bell ending what has to be one of the most exciting and action-packed rounds in heavyweight history.

Holyfield vs Cooper was supposed to be a “gimme” for “The Real Deal,” less a title defense and more a “tune-up” fight. Smokin’ Bert Cooper was supposed to be no threat at all, but here we were, three rounds in and Cooper had scored a knockdown, both fighters taking and giving tremendous punishment. And round four was no different as it began with the fighters digging in at ring centre like a pair of bull moose locking horns and refusing to budge. For three minutes they traded on largely even terms, Cooper throwing right hands, Holyfield unloading with uppercuts and left hooks to the body.

In round five it was now obvious that Holyfield was the fresher man with more gas in the tank and once again he fearlessly looked to take control. He stunned Cooper with an uppercut and then a right hand, then another uppercut, then another right, his attack so ferocious a stoppage appeared imminent.  Seriously hurt, the challenger for a moment turned his back in the face of the onslaught, but one imagines a voice in Bert Cooper’s brain screamed, “You quit against Foreman and they branded you a coward! Show ’em what you’re made of, damn it!” And instantly he returned to the fray, coming forward, taking still more uppercuts but refusing to cave in.

Like a ditch-digger heaving up one huge shovelful of rocks after another, Evander launched blow after powerful blow with all his weight and strength, and if it seemed impossible that Cooper could keep absorbing so many big shots, so too was it impossible for Holyfield to keep throwing them. And then, just as the champion appeared spent from dishing out this non-stop torrent of hellish punishment, Mills Lane called time. Why? Because Holyfield had smashed Bert Cooper’s rock-hard jaw so many times, and with such force, that his right glove had split open.

A lengthy break ensued as the champion’s glove was removed and replaced and when action resumed “The Real Deal” and “Smokin’ Bert” battled on largely even terms for the rest of the round, as they did in round six, the only difference being the pace slowing somewhat, as it had to, given the ferocity of what had come before. Holyfield vs Cooper was now threatening to become a war of attrition, but that was one war Cooper couldn’t win, as he no doubt understood. The more disciplined athlete who had been immersed in a Spartan training camp for many weeks was Holyfield, whereas it was entirely possible that Cooper, who hated training, was only days removed from his last bender.

Holyfield vs Cooper
Evander’s big uppercuts decided the fight.

And so Bert started round seven strong but desperate, looking to give the fight all he had while he had it. To the crowd’s delight they were slugging toe-to-toe again, Cooper throwing the right and body punches on the inside, Holyfield the uppercut, but then, with twenty seconds left, Evander struck with a left hook followed by a right and Cooper froze like someone who just got some really bad news. Where Holyfield found the energy to pounce as he did no one can ever say, but he didn’t hesitate and again he was landing that fearsome uppercut over and over, Bert’s head snapping up and down like a loose shingle in a windstorm. Evander went for the finish, Cooper paralyzed, taking too many shots, in all twenty unanswered flush blows before Lane, finally, mercifully, stepped between the fighters, pushed Holyfield away, and embraced Smokin’ Bert Cooper.

And so it was and so it had to be. For an iron-tough battler and a gifted puncher who refused to make all the sacrifices necessary to be an elite-level prizefighter, it was the defeats which were the most memorable and noble, not the wins. Smokin’ Bert Cooper came so close against Michael Moorer, Ray Mercer and Evander Holyfield, and in the process gave us some of the most thrilling slugfests in heavyweight history. It’s not a bad legacy, not at all. Especially when you had so much fun the rest of the time.

 —  Robert Portis 

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