Smokin' Bert Cooper: A Diamond with Many Facets and Many Flaws.

by David Warren Kirsch
  • Bert Cooper's Professional Record
    Every once in a while you see a fighter that you are sure is going to become a world champion. There is just something about the way he fights. He seems to have a fire in his belly that is just aching to get out. Hence he gets into a ring and promptly takes out his frustrations on his opponents. The end result of this is usually a knockout. The manager of such a fighter has a "diamond in the rough", a rare gem, a real commodity in the boxing world. This is generally how Joe Frazier described Bertram Blair Cooper when he first saw him. To be more specific: "The boy was a natural hitting machine. A little raw when he walked into Joe Frazier's Gym, but with a punch that went ker-boom from day one." Frazier saw potential in the eighteen year old cruiserweight and promptly set about convincing Bert Cooper's father that he should allow his son to fight professionally. Frazier was able to do this and on September 11, 1984 Bert Cooper started down a path that has dominated his destiny for fifteen years. Bert's tutelage began under the watchful eyes of Ex-Heavyweight Champion Smokin' Joe Frazier. Cooper learned much from the king of the brawlers. He learned to throw a vicious left hook and he seemingly adopted Frazier's "never say die" approach to fighting. That was not the only thing that Bert Cooper adopted from Joe Frazier, he also picked up Frazier's moniker. Bertram Blair Cooper became Smokin' Bert Cooper. Cooper's first two years out (1984 and 1985) he stopped every one of his opponents. Most of these opponents were "tomato cans" and "ham and eggers", but Cooper also managed to stop two named opponents, Mark Young (K.O.2) and Lorenzo Boyd (K.O.1), who were also trial horses for Iron Mike Tyson. In short, during those first two years, Smokin' Bert Cooper was doing exactly what a young, neophyte, bomber is supposed to do; blast his opponents out of the ring! 1986 was a year of mixed results for Bert Cooper. On January 31, Smokin' Bert was stopped for the first time by Reggie Gross. Cooper was supposedly thumbed in the eye during the fight and quit. To some people there was a question of whether he was thumbed and quit or just plain quit. This kind of controversy could have sunk the young bomber's career because there is nothing more unforgivable than saying: "No Mas!" Controversy or not, the fight went on Cooper's record as his first professional loss. In his next bout on April 18, Cooper stopped Oscar Holman (K.O. 10). Despite the recent loss, to Gross, on his record, Cooper's next fight would be for the NABF Cruiserweight Championship. At the time, the fight would be considered a big step up for Bert. The NABF champion at the time was Henry Tillman, who was an Olympic gold medalist from the 1984 boxing team and more notably a two-time conqueror of Mike Tyson to win that place on the 1984 Olympic Team. However, Tillman's reputation did not help him psyche out The Smoke that night. Cooper got off to his usual fast start, flailing lefts and rights from every possible angle. Tillman could not hold off the charging Bert Cooper. Tillman was knocked down twice in the early rounds and it went downhill from there. The end result was that Smokin' Bert Cooper was awarded a twelve round decision to become the new NABF Cruiserweight Champion. The new champion defended his title twice in 1986, winning a twelve round decision over Tyrone Booze and then stopped Spencer Chavis (K.O. 3). Smokin' Bert finished out 1986 by knocking out Carlos Hernandez (K.O. 8) in a non-title bout. 1986 may have been a rollercoaster ride for Bert Cooper, with "ups" and "downs", but what a ride it was. It seemed that Bert Cooper and his mentor Joe Frazier could do no wrong. On February 14, 1987 Cooper fought a bout in Regina, Saskatchewan against the 1984 Olympic silver medalist Willie De Witt. Unlike Cooper's other opponents De Witt was a big heavyweight. De Witt at that time had a record of 15 wins, 0 losses, 1 draw, and 15 K.O.'s. Cooper at the time had a record of 15 wins, 1 loss, and 12 K.O.'s. This bout had all the makings of a war, given both fighters reputations for putting people to sleep. The edge would obviously go to De Witt who was a "true heavyweight" and had all the advantages that go with that description: height, weight, and reach. However, come fight time, all of these advantages meant nothing. Cooper came out smoking and De Witt was cut, beaten, and knocked down. It only took two rounds for the shorter Cooper to chop down his taller opponent as if De Witt were nothing more than a big redwood tree and Cooper's hands were axes. As of Valentine's Day 1987 the future was, seemingly, there for the taking for the new Smoke. However, as always in boxing, a boxer has a public persona and a private reality. More often than not the two aspects of a Boxer's career rarely match. In the case, of Bert Cooper, there were whispers around Joe Frazier's Gym of drug use. Between February 14, 1987 when Cooper smashed Willie De Witt and June 21, 1987 when Bert had his next bout with Carl "The Truth" Williams, Cooper had completely fallen apart as a fighter and a man. According to Frazier in his autobiography, Cooper was admonished for his drug use and sent away from Philadelphia to South Carolina, where it was hoped that the solitude would get Cooper away from the drug element. It was a good plan, but it did not work. In the fight with Carl Williams, Cooper seemed to be sleepwalking through the bout. Williams methodically picked apart Smokin' Bert using every physical advantage he had over the stocky bomber. By the eighth round Cooper quit on his stool. In this one action, Cooper's career with Joe Frazier came crashing violently down. The Williams fight was a definite turning point for Cooper. Ties were split between Cooper and Joe Frazier because of the issue of drug use and Cooper returned to the 195 pound weight division after uttering the words: "I realized that I'm not a heavyweight." Cooper would now be managed by Lenny Shaw. Under Shaw's management Cooper immediately returned to his winning ways as a cruiserweight. His next three bouts would all end in knockouts: André McCall (K.O. 6), Tim Bullock (K.O. 3), and Tony Fulilangi (K.O. 4). There was also a new champion for Cooper to focus on, a young cruiserweight named Evander Holyfield. As long as Cooper kept bombing out his fellow cruisers, a fight with Holyfield seemed imminent. Unfortunately, at this point in Cooper's career the fast lifestyle and the illicit drugs that he was filling his body with were beginning to take a toll on his ability to remain a consistent winner. Of his next four fights Smokin' Bert would loose three. This would include a bout against comebacking ex-champion George Foreman. The Foreman bout, in the minds of many people in boxing circles, had to be the absolute low point of Bert Cooper's career. Not only was Cooper stopped by a fat, forty year old retiree, but after the second round stoppage Cooper's purse was held by the Arizona Boxing Commission. Bert's urine sample tested positive for drugs and he was then fined twenty-five thousand dollars, eight thousand more than the amount that his purse was to be. Certainly, Cooper had hit a low point in his career, but not because of the stoppage in favor of George Foreman. The actual fight against Foreman would have been a predictable loss for Cooper anyway, drugs or no drugs. Cooper's straight ahead brawling style was and is tailor made for the power-punching George Foreman. It worked against Bert Cooper on June 1, 1989 the same as it had sixteen years earlier against Cooper's one time mentor Joe Frazier. No. The low point of Cooper's career at that time was his drug addiction that had taken him so far from natural talents. Instead of choosing to be a fighter of championship caliber with murderous power, Bert Cooper chose to be just a journeyman heavyweight with a decent right hand. That is exactly the path that he has stayed on since the Foreman bout. Not that Smokin' Bert hasn't had other chances. On the contrary, Steve Albert boxing commentator for Showtime Events had mentioned in passing that perhaps Bert Cooper's nickname should have been "cat," because his career has had so many reincarnations. For example, after the Foreman bout Cooper stopped Rick Hoard (K.O. 1) and then fought an eight round bout against Mike Cohen the result of which was a no-decision. On February 17, 1990, only days after James "Buster" Douglas upset Mike Tyson, Cooper came up with an upset of his own by halting highly touted Orlin Norris (K.O. 8). Bert then lost a hard fought decision to an up and coming Ray Mercer. Despite the Mercer loss, followed by a second round stoppage by Riddick Bowe, the Smoke's stock seemed to be on the rise once again. Bert's next four fights were all victories by knockout: Loren Ross (K.O. 8), Conroy Nelson (K.O. 9), Anthony Wade (K.O. 8), and Joe Hipp (K.O. 5). Boxing, it seems, more than any other sport has, what could be termed, awkward moments. By the end of 1991 ex-champion Mike Tyson was to receive a chance to regain his title against the then heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield. However, the first one-hundred million dollar fight did not materialize because Mike Tyson injured a rib while doing sit ups in preparation for the bout. The proposed alternate fighter Francesco Damiani also pulled out. Holyfield, who had been in training for six months, insisted on fighting no matter what. Smokin' Bert was chosen as the alternate for Damiani on the basis of his past four wins. On November 23, 1991 Smokin' Bert Cooper would finally get a chance to fight a fighter whom he had been pursuing since the late 1980's when both he and Holyfield were 195 pound cruiserweights. In retrospect, the bout probably would have been much more competitive and dangerous at cruiserweight when Cooper was still relatively close to his prime, if not in his prime. Nevertheless, the heavyweight title fight, was a surprise. Actually, no one was surprised when Holyfield dumped Cooper on his trunks from a body-shot in the first round. This was exactly what was supposed to happen. Unfortunately, for Evander, the body-shot he had so crisply landed only put Bert Cooper down. When Cooper got up it seemed that Holyfield's punch had jarred something down deep inside Cooper, something that Cooper had not shown since his early days with Joe Frazier: "desire." After Cooper arose from the knock down he started to smoke, throwing what punches he could to force his way inside of Evander's thunderous barrages. Cooper caught plenty of leather off of Holyfield in the rest of round one and also in round two, but in round three the unexpected happened. In the middle of the flak caused by Evander's bombs Cooper found an opening and BLAM! Cooper exploited that opening by launching and landing a short, chopping right hook. Holyfield reeled, senseless, into the ropes and was given the mandatory eight count by referee Mills Lane. It had been the first knockdown of Evander Holyfield's professional career to that point. When the count was up and the fight resumed Holyfield was still not in total control of his faculties. Meanwhile, Cooper picked up where he left off, throwing every punch in the book. Evander looked helpless and it was amazing that referee Mills Lane did not step in and call a halt to the bout, or at least give the champion another standing eight count. By the time Cooper had tired from throwing a seemingly endless barrage of punches Holyfield had regained his senses and started to punch back. Rounds four, five, and six became a real "gut check" for both combatants. It was apparent that this fight would be won by force of will rather than a display of skill. Each fighter took his turn slamming the other. In round number seven, the last round of the fight, Evander Holyfield got the better of The Smoke. By the end of the round this final flurry of punches prompted Mills Lane to call a halt to the bout in favor of Holyfield. On this night, Bert Cooper had come within a punch or two of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world and in doing so he redeemed himself and seemingly brought new life to his once fading career. Smokin' Bert Cooper's career hit it's zenith with the Holyfield fight and then leveled off. After stopping journeyman Cecil Coffee (K.O. 2) Cooper's next bout, on May 15, 1992 would be against Michael Moorer. The embattled Kronkie was considered to be somewhat of a wrecking ball in boxing trunks. The fight promised to be short and exciting and that is exactly what it turned out to be. For this fight Cooper weighed in at a surprisingly high weight of 225 pounds. Despite being at one of the highest weights of his career, Cooper was more than ready to fight and he proved it by knocking down Moorer in the first round. It would be an understatement to say that the knock down of Moorer was vicious. It so shocked the viewers that even Joe Goosen, who was doing the TVKO broadcast prematurely announced the end of the fight in favor of Smokin' Bert Cooper. However, that was not to be for at least four more rounds. Moorer arose from that knock down to return the favor. Then Bert got up and the fighters nearly traded knock downs again at the end of the round. Round two saw each fighter trading their hardest shots with each other. In round three Cooper pushed Moorer to the ropes and proceeded to launch devastation upon him again and again this resulted in a knock down. In round four both fighters were visibly tired. However, Cooper was still the busier fighter and backed Michael Moorer into the ringposts and landed whatever hooks, body-shots, and uppercuts he chose to throw. Most of round five was the same until nearly the end of the round when Moorer fired off five chopping shots on Cooper and that was it. Michael Moorer had put out The Smoke. After the Moorer fight Bert Cooper surprisingly returned to his mediocre ways. He took matches against big heavyweights that he was always ill prepared to deal with and it seemed that Cooper stopped training altogether. For example, Bert scaled a huge 242 pounds compacted into his five foot eleven inch frame for his bout with Corrie Sanders on June 26, 1993. The results of his actions were predictable. His record suffered and Cooper became no better than a 50/50 fighter. It seemed Cooper had once again chose to become an opponent rather than live up to his talent. Every once in while you see a fighter who you are sure is going to become a champion, but even the most dedicated boxing fan is saddened when that fighter chooses to throw it all away. In conclusion, in 1984 Bert Cooper was a "diamond in the rough", a real commodity. By 1987 the boxing public had seen his many facets that allowed him to become a champion. Since 1987, with the exception of two bright, shining, moments against Holyfield and Moorer, all that has been apparent is the diamond's many flaws. In 1997, though, Cooper thrilled many New York fans when he exposed overhyped Richie Melito at Madison Square Garden. Melito's backers obviously wanted to pad his record with a win over the fading Cooper. They even arranged for the fight to be for the woefully bogus WBF version of the heavyweight title. Bert came out smoking and pulverized the trembling Melito in less than a round. But, in September 1997, Cooper dropped an eight-rounder to unheralded Anthony "T-Bone" Green, then dropped out of site for more than a year. So far in 1999, Bert has returned to his 50-50 ways in two fights. As of this date, Bert Cooper is just 33 years old.
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