‘SMOKIN’ BERT COOPER: ONE PUNCH FROM GLORY
By Dean Berks
A puncher’s chance. Writers and reporters regularly use this description when a heavy-handed fighter is the prohibited underdog and is generally granted the opinion that they have only one way to win the fight: If they can land the proverbial knockout blow. But that is the blessing and curse of the puncher. On one hand, he can turn his fortunes around with one well-placed shot, on the other, if he fails to land this, the superior skills of the opposing boxer will render him to defeat.
The line is a fine one, and back in 1991 and 1992, a fringe contender from Philadelphia nearly crossed that line, not once but twice, being within one punch of holding boxing’s most esteemed title, the heavyweight championship of the world. In each defeat, he displayed enormous heart and courage, but that was the problem with the man known as ‘Smokin’ Bert Cooper. When motivated he could be one of the most dangerous fighters out there. However, when that motivation was missing, he could appear as ambitious as a clubfighter, going through the motions as he suffered an inevitable defeat, picking up a payday that funded his battles with both drugs and alcohol. Cooper was an enigma, frustrating so many around him. It was a career that really could have been so different.
Born 10 January 1966 in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, Cooper gravitated towards boxing aged sixteen when he accepted that he wasn’t cut out for the academic side of high school. He started at the Upper Darby Gym before making his way to the legendary Joe Frazier’s Gym in 1982. Arriving with no socks or boots, Frazier saw something he liked in the young Cooper and took him under his wing. Cooper learned his trade in the toughest of environments, swapping leather with Frazier’s son Marvis and future WBC heavyweight champion Pinklon Thomas, whilst embarking on a brief ten-fight amateur career. He lost the last one as he ran out of gas, a result of not being in condition due to a complete lack of roadwork. This lack of discipline would become a constant theme throughout his career, where he over-relied on his power to see him out of trouble.
He turned over to the professional ranks on 11 September 1984, knocking out Dennis Caldwell in the first round. A further run of 9 wins, 8 by knockout, all in the cruiserweight division followed, before his lackadaisical approach to training caught up with him when he was stopped in eight rounds by heavyweight Reggie Gross. However, two fights later he reminded many of his potential when he upset Olympic champion Henry Tillman, knocking him down twice in round two before pounding out a twelve-round points win, taking both his NABF title and unbeaten record. He was pushed to the limit in his first defence, taking a split decision over future WBO title holder Tyrone Booze, before two wins saw him compete at heavy again, this time against Canadian Willie DeWit. DeWit was being heavily hyped, having won silver at the ’84 Olympics, and had put together an unbeaten run of 15-0-1, 11 KO’s. Cooper was seen as an attractive name to add to his growing reputation, but it was Cooper who stole the headlines, blitzing DeWit with four knockdowns in two one-sided rounds.
But behind the scenes, things with Frazier were falling apart. The former champion was becoming increasingly unhappy with his charge’s outside of the ring distractions. Cooper was neglecting training to hang out with friends who were providing him with drugs and alcohol. And after Cooper went in with number one contender Carl “The Truth” Williams, the relationship came to an end. Williams proved too big for Cooper, knocking him down before hammering him to an eighth-round retirement.
It was back down to cruiserweight for three straight victories before moving back up to drop a points decision to journeyman Everett Martin. A ninth-round TKO of Tony Morrison saw Cooper retain his NABF title before the battles of making the cruiser limit finally caught up with him, being stopped in seven by future WBA champion Nate Miller. It was here that things began to unravel.
As Cooper’s life spiralled out of control, his in-ring career followed suit. A meeting with a returning George Foreman ended after just two rounds. Whilst taking some hefty thuds, Cooper had boxed reasonably well, so his corner retirement elected the crowd to fill the arena with chants of “bullshit.” Traces of cocaine were found in his system and later he admitted to having been on a three-day session of drink, drugs and hookers that ended on the morning of the fight!
Then just three fights later, he found himself as the new NABF champion when Orlin Norris twisted his knee and, behind on points, was unable to continue, handing Cooper an eighth-round TKO victory. His first defence of the title may have ended in defeat to unbeaten Olympic gold medal winner Ray Mercer, but it also showcased Cooper’s talent. Rising from a flash first-round knockdown, Cooper dragged Mercer into the trenches, eliciting a gruelling twelve-round slugfest that left Mercer looking like he had shoved a melon into the left-hand side of his jaw, evidence of the power of Cooper’s right hooks. The wide unanimous decision in no way reflected the competitiveness and brutality of their contest.
He should have taken some time out after that fight, but just two months later he was back, and unfortunately so was the other side of Cooper. With a supposed argument with his management over his purse on his mind, he was blown away in just two rounds by another unbeaten Olympian, super-heavyweight silver medallist Riddick Bowe. After a solid first round in which he crowded Bowe, negating his jab and forcing him to battle on the inside, Bowe found his distance and connected with a long right cross that buckled Cooper’s legs and sent him down. As the round ticked down, he went down for the second and final time from a solid combination. It appeared that his position as the division’s gatekeeper was established. That was until the hand of fate worked in the most mysterious of ways.
One Punch From Glory
Four victories later and Cooper found himself in the most peculiar of situations. World heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield was originally scheduled to face former champion Mike Tyson in a colossal showdown in Las Vegas on 8 November 1991, but a rib injury forced Tyson to withdraw. Italian Francesco Damiani was brought in as a replacement before he himself had to pull out injured. The fight had already been moved to Holyfield’s home town of Atlanta, Georgia, where he desperately wanted to perform in front of his fans. With just 12 days to go until the rescheduled date of 23 November, Cooper, ranked 12 by the IBF, was offered the chance of a lifetime; the opportunity to become heavyweight champion.
Holyfield (25-0, 21 KOs) was recognised by many as one the finest fighters in boxing. Olympic bronze medallist, former undisputed cruiserweight champion, and now the undisputed heavyweight champion, his list of opponents was impressive, as were his performances, and he entered this fight as a big favourite to knock out Cooper before moving on to the rescheduled Tyson fight. Cooper was well aware of what the expectations were, but he knew that chances like this very rarely materialised and that he would have to grasp this with everything he could. And how close he nearly came.
He entered the arena, the deafening roar of Holyfield’s fans ringing in his ears, cheering their homeboy whilst mimicking the tomahawk action of the Atlanta Braves baseball team. Holyfield started fast, determined to put on an impressive performance after the Tyson debacle. And it wasn’t long before Cooper felt the power of the champion when a left hook thumped through his cross-armed defence, famously used by ring legends Archie Moore and George Foreman. His legs stiffened as Holyfield ripped off a tide of blows, attempting to end things swiftly. Cooper weathered the storm, but a left hook to the body sent him sinking onto the seat of his trunks. It looked like this would indeed be an early night for Holyfield. However, the winded challenger climbed back onto his feet and made it clear that he was ready to continue. He got through with a solid right hook and then left hook as the round wound down, making a small statement that he was here to win, not to make Holyfield look good. Round two saw Cooper almost glue himself to Holyfield’s chest, but at the same time absorb a lot of well-placed punches as Holyfield varied his attack from head to body. Then in round three, the Cooper legend was born.
Holyfield immediately put Cooper under pressure, backing him up to the ropes, before going to work up close again. But in his eagerness in trying to put Cooper to sleep, Holyfield was leaving gaping holes in his defence. And with just under a minute gone in the round, he very nearly paid the price. As he let go with a short left hook, Cooper unleashed a thudding right hook over the top, catching the unprotected champion on the side of the chin. It was time for Holyfield’s legs to stiffen as he anxiously tried to grab Cooper before being sent to the ropes with two further rights. Cooper, his heart now almost bursting through his chest with adrenaline, went for the finish, landing another right that sent Holyfield limply spinning to face the stunned observers with only the ropes preventing him from falling face first into their laps. Referee Mills Lane correctly ruled a knockdown, the first of Holyfield’s professional career. Cooper pounced, launching rights as Holyfield desperately covered up, whilst at the same time trying to tie up the marauding challenger.
Cooper knew that one clean punch or attack would garner him the biggest prize in the sport. But Holyfield’s durability and powers of recovery would go on to cement his status as one of history’s finest. And on this night they would prove instrumental in the difference between victory and defeat. Slowly he weathered the storm, slipping in a shot here and there to remind Cooper that he still had his faculties together. With just over a minute left, he stunned Cooper with a hard right. Now he was on the offensive. Uppercuts slammed underneath Cooper’s defence and for a split second, it appeared that the fight would conclude there and then.
Still, Cooper punched with him but it was becoming apparent that his moment had passed. Even so, a hard right caught Holyfield, a warning that he wasn’t out of the woods yet. The crowd were in uproar at the sound of the bell, having just witnessed one of the most dramatic rounds in heavyweight history. The fourth was understandably quieter as both men regrouped although the last minute featured some tough exchanges. Holyfield tried to pick up the pace at the start of the fifth, once again snapping back Cooper’s head with right uppercuts. But the Philadelphian’s resiliency was certainly something to be admired. Once again he stood strong before gaining a reprieve when the action was paused due to a tear on Holyfield’s right glove. As the champion’s corner went to work, Cooper’s placed the stool in the ring to allow their man to gather his strength.
After a short period, the round resumed, but the frantic pace of the fight was taking its toll. Round six was quiet as both attempted to catch their second wind, but the seventh demonstrated the difference in conditioning, and levels, between the protagonists as Holyfield came out with the intention of establishing control of this unexpected war he had found himself in. In close, jarring uppercuts snapped Cooper’s head back as he attempted to emulate his earlier success by retaliating with right hooks. It was a gruelling round. Then, as the clock ticked down, Holyfield found the breakthrough he had been searching for. Allowing himself some distance, he thumped an overhand right into the side of Cooper’s head. The punch stunned him and suddenly Holyfield sprung into action, unleashing a torrent of hooks and uppercuts into an almost defenceless Cooper. At 2:58 of the round, the referee brought to an end one of the gutsiest challenges for the title and put Cooper’s name into boxing folklore. The crowd applauded his effort and his reputation was installed with a new sense of purpose.
He returned to action three months later, scoring a highlight reel second-round knockout of Cecil “Instant” Coffee. The final blow was a devastating right uppercut that broke Coffee’s nose, sending him on to all fours as blood cascaded from the broken area. With the impressive victory and his profile at an all-time high, Cooper was offered a second bite of the cherry, this time in the form of the WBO title. And if the Holyfield fight had been a battle, then what was to come would be a downright war that would sit proudly on the list of the greatest ring battles.
On Any Other Day….
Opposing Cooper in the other corner would be former WBO light-heavyweight champion, Michael Moorer. The vicious punching southpaw was another talent off the production line of Detroit’s world-famous Kronk gym. His explosive power had seen him knockout twenty-six of his twenty-eight victims, with only his last two opponents lasting the full ten rounds. He had made nine defences of his WBO title before he could no longer boil his frame down to the 175lb limit and promptly jumped straight up the heavyweight division. Six straight victories put him in line for the title vacated by Ray Mercer. On paper, it promised to be explosive.
On 15 May 1992 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Cooper was determined to finally capture the world title that had eluded him for so long. Foregoing any feeling-out process, the pair started firing with bad intentions from the off. Cooper launched his right in all manors, straight, hook, uppercut, as Moorer countered with a short right hook of his own. Two straight ones from Cooper sent Moorer back to the ropes before landing flush with his honey punch. Moorer’s legs gave way, a vacant expression now engulfing his face, as he struggled to remain upright. Cooper pounced, unloading with a barrage to send Moorer sagging onto his knees. Blankly, Moorer rose, gaining vital extra seconds when Cooper had to be sent back to a neutral corner. Cooper went on the attack as Moorer covered up, but Moorer carried the dynamite in his fists to alter the course of the fight at any moment. After backing up to the ropes and weathering the storm, Moorer landed a short right hook, stopping Cooper in his tracks, before another one sent him cascading to the canvas.
The tables had now turned and Cooper was in deep trouble. Climbing up from the canvas, Cooper wore a drunken expression as Moorer now took his turn to bring things to a swift end. Short, crushing blows that had sent many a light-heavy into the land of sweet dreams, connected into the dazed cranium of Cooper, almost sending him down for a second time. But this was the Cooper who had turned up for both Mercer and Holyfield, and he was not about to roll over for anyone. A brief respite in the action lead to the referee pausing to reinsert Cooper’s mouthpiece that had been blasted out of his mouth when Moorer had knocked him down, and then it was straight back to it, with Cooper landing a straight right that moved Moorer back to the ropes.
The crowd went wild at the sound of the bell, whilst Moorer patted Cooper’s backside in a mark of respect. The bell for round two saw Cooper straight back on the front foot, pushing Moorer, now holding a tighter guard, back to the ropes as he looked to repeat his earlier success. Moorer carefully picked his punches, driving vicious uppercuts through Cooper’s guard as phone booth warfare ensued. Cooper exploded again at the start of the third, hammering away before a big right sent Moorer down onto all fours. This time, however, Moorer appeared more clear-headed as he climbed up, listening intently to the referee’s mandatory eight count. Cooper recognised this too as he pressed but not with the reckless abandon of earlier. Moorer glued his left glove to the side of his jaw, protecting it from the bombardment of Cooper’s right hook.
Even though Cooper was the busier, Moorer’s counters were sharp and Cooper ended the round with a cut around his right eye. As the pace eased, Cooper spent the fourth looking for the one big punch that would finally see him win that elusive “world” title, but it was plain to see that even though he was dangerous, his momentum was slowing, with Moorer turning him more off the ropes and delivering short, clean punches that were clearly troubling the veteran. As the bell sounded for the fifth Cooper was displaying the effects of battle, vaseline smeared around the puffiness of his eyes. He stuck to his bullish approach but Moorer was now finding it easier to push him off. With just over a minute to go Cooper faced the beginning of the end. A whipping right hook from Moorer drew gasps from the crowd. Cooper was stunned. Moorer turned him onto the ropes as he picked his punches with precision, each one knocking the fight out of Cooper. Finally, a devastating right uppercut straight left combo sent Cooper down heavily, his head hanging through the bottom ropes, his eyes emanating a drunken glaze. Instinct alone lifted him from the canvas before the count of ten, but the referee had seen enough. His challenge for major honours had once again ended in defeat. But his performance would live on in fistic history.
It was Cooper’s last shot at a legitimate world championship. His career nosedived as drink and drugs once again took hold. He was back to fighting for paydays that would fund his addictions, losing more than winning but still springing the odd surprise, even capturing the lightly regarded WBF trinket. But by the end of 2002 it appeared enough was enough and he walked away. He turned to educating youth on the temptations that lay ahead and was brutally honest about his own demons. Battling to get himself clean, he returned to the ring in 2010 at the age of 44, scoring a sixth-round knockout over one Corey Winfield. After another low-key win, three defeats in a row finally brought the curtain down on his remarkable journey. His final record: 38-25-1 NC, 31 KO’s.
But Cooper’s time in retirement was cut tragically short when he passed away in 2019 from pancreatic cancer. He was just 53 years old.
Bertram Cooper was from an era that featured some of the most colourful personalities in the sport, from journeymen right up to world champions. It was also an era when the vices of life ate away at the talent of many of these individuals. Unfortunately, Cooper was one of them. He acknowledged himself that without these his career could very well have taken a more rewarding path. Nevertheless, he will always be remembered, especially at his best, as an explosive puncher who tested and pushed the best. And he came oh, so close to twice becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.