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
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
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
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
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.
Smokin' Bert Cooper: A Diamond with Many Facets and Many Flaws.
by David Warren Kirsch
© 1999 The Cyber Boxing Zone