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The story of cult hero Bert Cooper

Bert Cooper
Even as the embers fizzled out, Smokin’ Bert Cooper was still yearning for the happy ending

WHEN former heavyweight contender Bert Cooper died last year, he took his stories, secrets and memories with him. The veteran Pennsylvania slugger, a boxing cult hero and one of the most entertaining bruisers of the last several decades, was far removed from his violent pomp, when he gave the likes of Evander Holyfield, Ray Mercer and Michael Moorer all they could handle. That’s not just used as a turn of phrase, it’s fact. All three of those were Fight of the Year contenders, wild, apocalyptic wars that saw Cooper come within a punch or two of causing major upsets. If only…

“Smokin” Bert’s last fight was in 2012, 21 years after the biggest night of his career against Holyfield. Bert only had six days’ notice for that world title fight after Italian Francesco Damiani injured his ankle and withdrew. Damiani had been a replacement for Mike Tyson, who had damaged a rib. Bert was making $750,000 against Holyfield’s $6million.

Cooper, a crouching, bobbing blown-up cruiserweight with a cross-armed defence and grenades in his gloves, had been as much as a 32/1 outsider in front of 11,000 people at the Omni Arena in Holyfield’s Atlanta hometown. He was seconds from sporting illicium in the third round as he clubbed Evander into the ropes, forcing referee Mills Lane to give the future great the first count of his career.

“My heart skipped a beat,” Cooper, who climbed off the floor from a first-round body shot, excitedly smiled post-fight. “Then it went boom, boom, boom. I said to myself, ‘Oh boy, this is it’. I was one punch away from the heavyweight championship.”

It wasn’t to be. It never would be.

“He fought his heart out and I have to commend him,” said Holyfield, whose stock had plummeted to the point that the now defunct KO Magazine declared, “Holyfield is a very beatable champion. And it took Cooper, heretofore a journeyman heavyweight, to reveal it to the masses.”

“They all want Holyfield now,” stormed the Boxing News headline, referring to the queue that formed to face the apparently vulnerable champion.

“Suddenly the world heavyweight championship seems wide open,” was the report’s opening line.

HBO had been worried about a mismatch and their relieved commentator shrieked, “Thank God for Bert Cooper”.

I visited Bert in his hometown of Darby, Pennsylvania a few months before his final contest – in 2012 – more than two decades on from Holyfield. Cooper wanted to fight on. He was doing odd jobs for work and had dried paint flecks over his T-shirt. His lack of career alternatives meant his focus would always inadvertently reset on the ring and one last heist as he pondered how he was going to get rich again.

“It’s in my blood,” he said. “I’m not finished yet. I’m 46, I feel like I’m 23. “Some things I was doing then, man… I’ve learned.”

It was at that point he buried his head in his hands, shaking it in mock disbelief. “What else am I going to do?”

A few months later he was stopped while out on his feet in the boxing outpost of Hammond, Indiana. Carl “Iron Fist” Davis halted him in two rounds. That was the full-stop Cooper sadly needed. It wasn’t there anymore. His chances had gone, squandered in half-baked training camps, frittered in crack shacks with too much time eaten up in a prison cell. A couple of fights later, Davis lost to Andy Ruiz in 35 seconds.

Bert and I met by chance in upstate New York a few years later. By then, inactive for nigh on six years, he knew it was over. There would be no comebacks. That dream had withered and died. “I have early-part dementia,” he confided of his boxing-related injuries. “I was diagnosed in Vegas by neurologists. Symptoms are I’m good but sometimes I get tripped up on my words, I can’t think and my equilibrium is off a little bit.”

Was he worried about it?

“Nah,” he sighed, brushing it off. “My grandma lived to 100, my dad to 86 when he passed to cancer a couple of years ago. I don’t drink or smoke… I thank the Lord He had His hands on me and He’s still got His hands on me. I eat good, I eat healthy. I eat nuts, almonds, oatmeal with honey or blueberries and strawberries, you know what I’m saying? I’m having vitamins. I was just being a teenager pretty much [through his fighting days], but now I feel good. Fighters don’t like to talk about it [fighting and brain trauma] but it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. I don’t mind talking about it. It makes you slobber, your mind goes, your speech goes. My speech is pretty good, it ain’t bad.”

Cooper had come out the other side, from 64 professional bouts, from addiction to drink, to drugs, to women, he had survived. Now was his time to thrive.

Hookers and drugs. Lead pipes and wild fights. Mansions, cars and high-priced dogs… Cooper was the son of a Baptist minister but fell out with early trainer and mentor Joe Frazier because he couldn’t match the legend’s resolve in tough fights. A disappointed and frustrated Frazier was the one who’d leant Cooper his “Smokin’” moniker but they’d gone their separate ways after Bert’s capitulation to Carl Williams in 1987. Cooper tumbled into lost months and years of booze, broads and narcotics. It was widely reported that his nutrition for the George Foreman fight was cocaine and his engine work was provided by paid-for groupies. By the time it was fight night he’d cut more corners than a sit-down mower.

As Jon Hotten wrote in his excellent book The Years of the Locust, which peaked through the curtain at the murkier heavyweight shenanigans of the late eighties and early nineties, Cooper was there in Phoenix ready to fight the old returning preacher. “Bert was relaxing in his hotel room a couple of days beforehand when he answered a knock on the door,” Hotten wrote. “Standing there were three hot girls loaded with booze and blow. Bert thought he’d died and gone to heaven. They partied right up until the fight. He didn’t sleep for 72 hours. Didn’t need to. When the bout started, he had nothing left at all.”

Of course, Cooper flunked the Arizona dope tests, too. Marijuana and coke were in his urine sample. He went to rehab. He emerged from these prolific binges, which lasted several days, to save a show, top a bill or try to force his way up the ratings and he’d either deliver with gusto or slip back to the streets. “I knew this girl in Westchester, bought her a BMW, I was giving away a hundred-dollar bills,” he told me. “If I saw someone in a bad way, I would feel sorry for them and say, ‘Here you go.’ I had a Porsche 944 Turbo. I had an estate with a tennis court and a swimming pool. I was young, man. I didn’t know what to do. I was in my addiction.”

One day he was kicking his heels, bored and isolated in his mansion, the next he was unravelling. In ’97 Cooper was sent to prison for beating up a drug dealer in a crack house. He served eight months. Word was he’d taken a tyre iron off someone and beaten them with it. All he had to say about it nonchalantly was, “That’s what happens in the drug world.”

He saw that time as a blessing. Eight months to get straight without alcohol or drugs. New freedom offered new temptation and boxing’s door remained ajar because it could still bleed cash out of his name. By now, the man who nearly beat Holyfield was just a measuring stick. Could 18-0-1 Derrick Jefferson get through Cooper without the same issues Holyfield faced years earlier? Would 15-0 Fres Oquendo learn a thing or two by doing a few rounds with Bert? Could 19-0 Joe Mesi put his name in lights alongside the likes of Foreman and Riddick Bowe as fighters who stopped Cooper? By the time he retired on his stool in Philly at the Blue Horizon against an also shop-worn Darrol Wilson in 2002, many thought that was the end for Bert. It should have been.

“I was back and forth with my addiction, I’m tired of it now,” he shrugged, looking blankly into an abyss that stretched from several years but one that saw him eventually go sober and clean in 2007. He thanked religion for his fresh outlook and positive disposition.

His 2010 return came against the hugely overweight Floridian Gabe Brown – on a winless run of 14 – and he won on points but Bert lost his next three, to Luis Ortiz, Chauncy Weliver and Carl Davis.

Finally, that was it. He’d turned professional 28 years earlier and was walking away with 38 wins against 25 losses. Thirty-one of the wins came the short way, so did 16 of the defeats. “They caught me when I wasn’t right,” he said, when offered the names of some of the fighters he capitulated against. “I wasn’t myself then. I was still partying, doing my thing, drinking booze, smoking cigarettes and doing dope with the brothers.”

But there were opponents who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, not just Holyfield. Future champions Mercer, who outpointed him but ended up sporting a grotesquely disfigured face, and Moorer – who won a sizzling five-round firefight – also bore the brunt of motivated and ambitious Cooper who had nothing to lose. It wasn’t just them. Derek Williams, Orlin Norris and Willie de Wit were all given ‘Ls’ by ‘Smoke’, as pals called him later in life. It was the only defeat in de Wit’s 22-fight career.

Holly Stein /Allsport

Sure, Bert sat it out against Foreman after getting hurt early, he got blitzed by the much bigger Bowe and he didn’t go on against Reggie Gross when well ahead after being caught by – he claimed – a thumb in the eye. He also showed his back to big punching Corrie Sanders forcing the referee to intervene after he’d been on the floor. He’d quit on his stool against Carl Williams.

There were two versions of Cooper; hell on wheels and get the hell out. If he hadn’t trained right he knew he didn’t have a long fight in him. Get out. Get paid. Go party.

Even before he stunned blubbery Joe Hipp, a win a few weeks before the late notice shot with Evander, Bert was led astray. It didn’t take much. “I was 26 years old and there was this girl I was dating at the time,” he thought back. “She lived in South Virginia and we was partying, drinking, smoking crack, smoking cigarettes and we were up all night. I had a Rottweiler, imported from Germany. We were partying and drinking until 4am. I wasn’t worried about it. I just wanted to fight. I know I couldn’t party and fight and stay healthy, too. You don’t think about it, you just go ahead and do it.”

“I can do it now,” he said, talking about the comeback as he neared 50 years of age. “I’ve still got some fight left in me. I will fight until the commissions stop giving me a licence. What else is there for me to do? I work a little bit here and there… It is what it is. I’m clean. I’m sober. I’ve got a good mind. I’m good. I mean, come on man. I want to go out right.”

According to a page-long biography on the order of service at his Bert’s funeral, as a youngster he enjoyed fishing, fixing cars, riding his motorcycle and weight lifting. At 16, a neighbour said he looked like a boxer and that seed was planted. His dad took him to Joe Frazier’s Gym on Broad Street in Philadelphia and there was no going back.

Then came years of ups and downs, torment and addiction.

I’d been speaking with Cooper on and off for several weeks before he died. I wanted to record a podcast about his life story. One time I called he was busy; he told me to try back. Another time, he was in hospital but he assured me it wasn’t for anything serious. Once I rang and he was with a friend. He put me on the phone with the guy who checked my credentials and promptly hung up. One last time I tried, explaining that I wanted him to take me through his journey. “I can’t give you all my cookies. I need to save some cookies for my jar,” said Cooper.

What he was getting at, in a roundabout way, was he was saving his story, the nitty gritty, for a book and a movie deal. Now, this book and movie deal wasn’t a thing. It didn’t exist. But in Cooper’s head he was the next Jake LaMotta; the next Raging Bull. He was the next Rubin Carter; the next Hurricane. No, nothing was in place. But his numbers would come up. The jackpot was imminent.

Who wouldn’t want the story, about a crazy, exciting heavyweight contender who was one punch from the promised land; about a man who sometimes loved a war but would sometimes call it a day if he wasn’t feeling it, who was sideswiped by drugs, drink, women and hookers as regularly as night follows day? He would be the lovable rogue who could never quite get it right, who’d headlined in Las Vegas and Atlantic City but who had ultimately been undone by his own ill-discipline and wound up following the church, finally living a healthy lifestyle while making ends meet by working in a friend’s concrete business and helping out at a plumbing company. He was trying to make an honest crust. You could see a sinister past in his eyes. You could sense the venomous distrust remained from being shafted, passed over and mocked. You could see why a police officer had told Hotten for his book that Cooper – who was promoted for a while by the eccentric chancer Rick Parker – was “a one-bullet n*****,” meaning he was such a handful that they’d been told to shoot to kill if he played up.

One bullet? Bert was just one movie, one book deal, away from being big news again. He didn’t want anyone to steal his thunder, to plunder his cookie jar so there was nothing left for the blockbuster.

But no one was preparing to drop off a briefcase of money for his life story. There would not be one last cash grab. I stopped calling him.

A week later there was no more smoke. Bert had gone. He died on May 10, 2019. Pancreatic cancer killed him at the age of just 53. His cookies stayed in the jar.

On the order of service at his funeral at the Ever Abundant Life Ministries in Darby on Ridge Avenue on May 25 they used a picture I’d taken of Bert on the streets when we’d hooked up in 2012. On the T-shirt were the words ‘The Smoke is Back’ with his likeness on.

The Boxing News report of that great Holyfield war had concluded, “Cooper will be able to tell his grandchildren of the day he almost knocked out the heavyweight champion of the world. Unfortunately, he will probably spend the rest of his career trying to find something to compare it with.” That was fair and accurate. Bertram Blair Cooper, the ninth of 11 children when born in Philly in 1966, had a story to tell but he was gone before he ever really got the chance to tell it. Those cookies stayed in the jar.

The fire had been put out. The smoke had cleared. Bert Cooper took his Hollywood dreams to the grave.

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