By: Sean Crose
“What tonight is about,” said Larry Merchant, “is this…champions like Evander Holyfield fight journeymen like Bert Cooper between major fights. These interludes give us a chance to watch the champion do his stuff. Sometimes were surprised when they turn out to be more difficult than we anticipated – which could happen tonight – and about every fifty years in the heavyweight division, a Braddock beats a Baer, or a Douglas beats a Tyson.”
It was the evening of November 23d, 1991, five days before Thanksgiving and the holiday season. Evander Holyfield, the 26-0 undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, was returning to his hometown of Atlanta to defend his crown at the Omni against the overlooked vet “Smokin’” Bert Cooper. Holyfield had long been expected to throw down with Mike Tyson, who was unquestionably the biggest draw – if not the most famous athlete – in the entire world. Tyson was said to have suffered an injury, though. Then he was charged with sexual assault, an allegation which would eventually land the man a considerable prison sentence. Holyfield subsequently was expected to face the WBO heavyweight titlist Francesco Damiani instead. Yet Damiani suffered an injury just before the November 23’d fight date.
And so in stepped Cooper, a former protégé of the great Joe Frazier. Cooper’s 26-7 record made clear the fact Cooper’s career up until that point hadn’t been particularly successful. He had gone from heavyweight to cruiserweight and back to heavyweight again and had never made a major mark on the sport. “I never went to the Olympics,” Cooper said at the time. “I never got offered a million dollars to sign a contract…I came out of a slaughterhouse.” A slaughterhouse was exactly what many, if not most, might have expected the ring to turn into for Cooper once Holyfield answered the opening bell. The fight ended up being far from the expected blowout.
While Cooper was dropped by a terrific body shot from Holyfield in the first, he rose to his feet, continued the round, and then proceeded to get himself into the fight. Had Holyfield hoped to make quick work of his under-rated foe, he was quickly learning that the plan wasn’t going to come to fruition. It was in the third round that the nearly unthinkable happened. Holyfield got rocked by a Copper right, then – after a vicious flurry – was sent reeling into the ropes in photogenic style. Referee Mills Lane ruled it a knockdown, as a referee should if he or she feels the ropes are the only things preventing a fighter from hitting the mat.
Holyfield survived the scare, and even came on strong himself at the end of the round. Cooper, however, had made his mark on boxing. Holyfield, who had never been knocked down his life, had taken a count. What’s more, Cooper, the fighter no one seemed to have taken seriously had put his man in real trouble through skill and some powerful punching. Holyfield ended up winning the match at the end of the seventh due to some frightening shots, but Cooper would never again be a man people felt free to just shrug off.
The respected heavyweight continued to fight until 2012, eventually leaving the ring with a record of 38-25, with a no contest ruling thrown in to boot. Last Friday, Cooper passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 53. He may not have won the heavyweight crown, but his long ago war with Holyfield assured he wouldn’t be forgotten – quite an achievement in and of itself.