|The Return of “Smokin” Bert Cooper
By Ken Hissner, DoghouseBoxing (May 12, 2009)
He was being hailed as the “next Smokin Joe Frazier” when he turned pro under the guidance of the former world heavyweight champ in 1984.
Bert Cooper was really only a cruiser at the time, with a 9-1 amateur record and coming out of Sharon Hill, just outside the city of Philadelphia. Two of the people he sparred with daily were Marvis Frazier, and his cousin Rodney. Both were established by the time Cooper turned pro.
Cooper won his first 10 fights, 9 by knockout, all inside of 3 rounds, mostly in Atlantic City. He was put in with Baltimore’s Reggie Gross, 16-3, who had just defeated previously unbeaten Jimmy Clark. “I thought I won every round until he thumbed me in the 8th round,” said Cooper. The fight was stopped by now Pennsylvania commissioner Rudy Battle who was the referee.
It was decided that Cooper was a cruiserweight and would fight Henry Tillman, 10-0, the former 1984 Olympian, for the NABF cruiserweight title. Cooper had Tillman down twice in the 2nd round and won the decision over 12 rounds. Though Cooper was the winner, it was Tillman who would get a title fight with Evander Holyfield eight months later.
Three more wins in 1986 for Cooper and no Holyfield fight, so it was decided to go back up to heavyweight and take on the Canadian champion, and 1984 Olympic silver medalist, Willie DeWitt, 14-0-1, in his back yard. A broken nose and four knockdowns later, the fight was stopped in the 2nd round with Cooper the winner.
Next up would be a bigger opponent in Carl “The Truth” Williams, 17-2, who was robbed two years earlier in a title bout with Larry Holmes, but stopped in his previous fight with former champ Mike Weaver. This would be for the vacant USBA title in Atlantic City. “Joe took me to his home state of South Carolina for training. It was June and extremely hot. One night he brought out the food and I asked him what it was,” said Cooper. “Racoon,” said Frazier. From that experience and Frazier pushing his own boxing style on Cooper it lead to an 8th round stoppage against Williams.
Once again Cooper would return to the cruiserweight division with three knockout wins including the NABF title. In June of 1988 spending three months in a Pittsburgh training camp, on a grapefruit diet, Cooper came in the lowest of his career at 188, against Everett “Big Foot” Martin, 16-5-1, in Atlantic City. All judges had it 96-94 for Martin.
Cooper would defend the NABF title against future world champion Nate Miller, 13-1, in Philadelphia. It was Cooper’s first fight in the city where he trained. Dwight Braxton left camp and Cooper hooked up with Frank Bruno the British champ, drinking and partying. The lifestyle took its toll on him as he was stopped in the 7th round.
The low point of his career would be next when Cooper took on the former heavyweight champ George Foreman, 62-2, who was on the comeback trail. Cooper was a career high at 211, but his opponent was 252. Cooper’s purse would be held up when he tested positive for drugs and fined $25,000.00 which was more than his purse.
Next a break in a fight for the NABF title with Orlin Norris, 22-1, in Edmonton, Canada. Behind on points, Norris twists his knee in the 8th and is unable to continue. This set the stage for who Cooper calls “the toughest man I ever fought, Ray Mercer,” said Cooper. It was a fight people still talk about today, almost twenty years later due to its brutality. “My left eye lid was cut, but cut man Eddie Aliano kept me in the fight,” said Cooper. Mercer suffered a swollen left cheek bone and jaw that were reported broken, along with a split lip. Cooper was down in the 1st round and would lose the decision.
“I was using drugs when I fought Riddick Bowe, 19-0, next and hardly remember the fight,” said Cooper. Bowe scored a 2nd round knockout at 3:08 of the round. Cooper would pull himself together to score four straight knockout wins starting with Loren Ross, 17-1, who was hospitalized after the fight. Then back to Canada stopping their champ, Conroy Nelson, 19-14-2, and prospect Anthony Wade, 14-1, who was bigger than Foreman. In October of 1991 he would stop Joe Hipp, 21-1, with the latter hurt so bad it caused a stoppage due to excessive swelling around both eyes.
A little over a month later Cooper finally got his fight with Holyfield, 26-0, for the WBA and IBF heavyweight title in Atlanta. Cooper found himself on the canvas from a body shot in the 1st round. He came back in the 3rd round landing a right hook dumping Holyfield into the ropes and down for Holyfield’s first trip to the canvas of his professional career. Cooper beat Holyfield to the point that it looked like the referee Mills Lane might stop it. The next three rounds were give and take. By the 7th round Cooper was worn down and the referee stopped it just seconds before the bell in Holyfield’s favor. Cooper had come within punches of winning the title in the 3rd round.
Seven months later Cooper would fight for the vacant WBO title against the former light heavyweight champion, Michael Moorer, 28-0, of the Kronk gym. Both fighters were on the canvas in the 1st round. In the 3rd round Cooper would drop Moorer again. Going into the 5th round Cooper was ahead on two scorecards and even on the other. Both fighters seemed tired from the earlier action. Near the end of the round Moorer landed five unanswered punches causing the referee Joe O’Neil to put a stop to the fight.
In early 1993 Cooper went to China to fight the former champion Mike Weaver, 36-16-1, for the vacant NBA title. Cooper would lose the decision over 10 rounds. Several fights later the future champion Corrie Sanders, 18-0, of South Africa, would stop a heavy (242) Cooper in 3 rounds. At the end of 1993 Cooper decided to enter a “People’s Choice One-Night Heavyweight tournament” in Mississippi. He lost a split decision to the Australasian champion Craig Petersen, 19-5-1, in a 3 round bout.
Cooper would return to the same ring four months later and lose to Larry Donald, 13-0, in 7 rounds. Though the fight was stopped, Cooper would go to Canada eight days later and defeat the UK bare knuckles champion, Joe Savage, in the 1st round. (See U-Tube) More downs than ups would follow until July of 1997 when Cooper stopped Richie Melito, 18-0, in the 1st round for something called the World Boxing Foundation Title. Melito would win his next nine fights and retire 27-1.
Cooper found himself fighting in places like Allentown, Pennsylvania, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, along with a pair of fights in Gary and Merrillville, Indiana. The last bout against Fres Oquendo,15-0, was in a losing effort over 10 rounds. Twenty-one months would pass and again he found himself in the ring with a young unbeaten fighter, Joe Mesi 19-0, in Niagra Falls, New York. The honeymoon was over for Cooper, who was dropped in the 1st round, and whose right arm went out in the 7th round after being dropped two more times in the round.
Almost a year later in July of 2001, for the vacant Pennsylvania state title, Cooper was in a war defeating the local boxer, Craig Tomlinson, 23-9-1, in Reading. Remember the name. Three months later in September of 2002 Cooper had his last bout to date losing to Darroll Wilson, 26-6-2, in only his second fight in Philadelphia, at the Blue Horizon.
Cooper’s career record is 36-22 (30), and stopped 14 times. After several shots at the heavyweight title and most of his losses (13) after those two fights, Cooper can say he had a career that filled the arena with excitement at most of his fights. Starting out today he would certainly win a cruiserweight title.
I would see Cooper at various boxing events with his fiancé, and he looked good considering what he had been through. In October of 2008 at the Front Street gym in Philly, I saw Cooper in a short sparring session at the age of 42, and a higher weight than in his fighting days. Afterwards he talked about a comeback fight and then a meeting with Butterbean possibly in the UK. The next time I saw him was recently at the Costello gym in Northeast Philly, and he was down to 231, and still seeking a fight with the UK bout falling through. “I would like to fight a 6 round bout to get back. I have been clean for two years, engaged, and going to church regularly,” said Cooper. I immediately put in a call to Marshall Kauffman who was looking for an opponent for Tomlinson, who at 42, has not fought since 2004. When I didn’t get him, I called the trainer Jim Ruoff who said they would like to fight Cooper again, but not until the fall after a couple of fights.
It just so happens former champion Riddick Bowe is in Philly at the Philly Rumblers gym training under Javier Varela. It seems with “Big” George Foreman winning the world title at 45 it gave many of the “over 40” fighter’s false hope! Ray Mercer is 47, Evander Holyfield 46, Henry Akinwande 43, Bruce Seldon 42, Andrew Golata, 41 as is Matt Skelton. I asked Bert if he would get into a round robin tournament with those fighters. “I sure would,” he said. Don’t count out “Smokin” Bert Cooper!
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