Bert Cooper, a powerful ring brawler who was the first professional boxer to knock down Evander Holyfield — although he went on to lose their heavyweight championship bout — died on Friday at his home in Philadelphia. He was 53.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, said Vinny LaManna, one of Cooper’s former managers.
Cooper was not supposed to face Holyfield. Holyfield’s intended opponent, Mike Tyson, dropped out when he injured his rib cage. Francesco Damiani, Tyson’s replacement, then withdrew after hurting an ankle. Cooper, who had recently won four consecutive fights, signed up with about a week’s notice.
What then happened, on Nov. 23, 1991, at the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, had the makings of one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. In the third round, Cooper stunned Holyfield with a vicious overhand right. Holyfield went limp, and after another right and a shove, he fell into the ropes. The referee, Mills Lane, declared a knockdown because the ropes were all that kept the dazed Holyfield on his feet.
But Holyfield recovered, while still absorbing punishment from a tiring Cooper. In the seventh round, after pummeling Cooper with a barrage of punches, Holyfield retained his title by a technical knockout.
“He didn’t give up,” Holyfield said of Cooper afterward. “He was aggressive enough to put me in a fight I didn’t want to be in.”
Cooper was, at best, a journeyman fighter with a potent right hand. He had 38 career victories — 31 of them by knockout — but 25 losses. He was known more for his losses (to George Foreman, Ray Mercer, Riddick Bowe and Michael Moorer, whom he knocked down twice, as well as to Holyfield) than for his victories (over Henry Tillman in 1986, to win the North American Boxing Federation’s cruiserweight title, and Orlin Norris in 1990, to win the federation’s heavyweight championship).
Bertram Cooper was born on Jan. 10, 1966, and grew up in Sharon Hill, Pa., near Philadelphia. By age 12, he had decided that he wanted to box, so he took a bus to the North Philadelphia gym run by Joe Frazier, the former heavyweight champion.
Frazier, who saw possible greatness in Cooper, became his manager and gave him a nickname, Scam Booger. Cooper, in turn, nicknamed himself Smokin’ Bert — in homage to Frazier, who was known as Smokin’ Joe.
They fell out over remarks that Cooper made in 1987 when he was knocked out in his first heavyweight fight after moving up from the cruiserweight class. He said that Frazier had insisted he make that move.
“I put on a lot of phony weight just eating sloppy stuff, junk food,” Cooper said in 1991. “Joe just wants someone with a world title belt just like he did.”
But Cooper had more issues than feeling unhappy as a heavyweight, the class in which he would ultimately fight full time: He had a drug problem. Cocaine was found in his system in a drug test he took in 1989 hours before his loss in Phoenix to Foreman, a fight in which he would not leave the stool to start the third round. When the test results were learned after the bout, the Arizona athletic commission fined him $1,500 from his purse and required him to undergo drug tests periodically for six months.
“I spent most of my money on me and my pipe,” Cooper said in an interview with The Regina Leader-Post of Saskatchewan before a fight in 1991 against Conroy Nelson there. “I even sold my clothes to buy drugs. I had a couple of really nice outfits, and I sold them for drug money.”
After he was arrested and charged with cocaine possession in 1992, his mother, Henrietta Cooper, said, “Maybe when he dries out, he will come back home to those who love him.”
Information about Cooper’s survivors was not immediately available.
He continued to fight regularly until 2002 and returned in 2010; he fought five bouts over the next two years, losing the last three. He was named to the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame in 2014 and to the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame three years later.
Cooper acknowledged that he could have been a better boxer if drugs and other problems had not derailed him. When asked by the website Boxing Insider in 2015 how he would like to be remembered, he had a poignant response.
“Bert Cooper wasn’t at his best,” he said. “The majority of my career, I wasn’t at my best.”