By: Thad Moore
Bert Cooper’s career was a combination of triumph and letdowns, accomplishments and disappointments. As much as he was able to achieve, we are all left to wonder, what could have been?
Bert Cooper has always been a walking contradiction. When he wins a fight, he is thrilled with his performance. After he loses, he consistently chooses to assess blame on others.
When discussing Cooper’s TKO loss in round two to Riddick Bowe, he offered an explanation regarding his performance. “I was too messed up. There was a problem transferring money. I wasn’t getting my money. I wasn’t focused,” said Cooper.
Conversely, after winning the NABF heavyweight title from Orlin Norris by eight round TKO, Cooper’s tone and demeanor changed drastically. Norris had to retire due to a knee injury with Cooper leading on the scorecards. “He (Norris) was cocky. He thought he was going to get me out in the first round. I showed him. I beat him fair and square,” said Cooper.
When not dealing with drugs, alcohol and other personal issues, Cooper was a warrior. He could display an aggressive, hard-hitting style, while at the same time using head movement and a powerful right hand and left hook that could hurt anyone. Cooper was able to secure wins over undefeated cruiserweight and Olympic gold medalist Henry Tillman, future WBO cruiserweight titlist Tyrone Booze, a vicious knockout of undefeated heavyweight Willie de Wit, undefeated cruiserweight Andre McCall, future WBA cruiserweight and NABF heavyweight champion Orlin Norris, and future NABF heavyweight champion Joe Hipp. He also engaged in several wars including knocking down Michael Moorer twice and leading on the judges’ scorecards before being stopped in the fifth. Cooper scored an official knockdown of undisputed heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield in the third round and had a 15-20 second window where he was a punch or two away from winning it all as he had Holyfield reeling. Holyfield rebounded scoring a seventh round TKO win.
Cooper was recognized for his career accomplishments by being inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame in 2014. On the national stage, Cooper won the NABF cruiserweight title and defended it successfully five times and also won the NABF heavyweight title.
Growing up in Sharon Hill, PA, Cooper never was focused on school and quickly moved to the sport of boxing, “I wasn’t educated. School wasn’t for me. When I was 16, my Mom took me out of school. Two weeks later, I was in the Upper Darby Gym training,’ continued Cooper. “I wanted to learn before I went to Joe Frazier’s Gym. I didn’t know how to hit a speed bag. In 1982, I went to Joe Frazier’s Gym.”
Soon enough, Cooper showed up at Joe Frazier’s Gym and was invited back by his idol. “Joe Frazier took me under his wing and gave me the name Smokin’. When I went there, I showed up with no socks, no boots. I was only 17. Joe saw he had something special. Joe told me I was a bad dude. He saw that I could bang,” muses Cooper.
Cooper never had the support of his immediate family to enter the sport of boxing. In fact, his father was dead set against it. During his career, after a split decision victory in defense of his NABF cruiserweight title against Tyrone Booze, Cooper recalls, “My Dad watched that fight. He said you should have lost.”
Cooper, who rooted for Frazier against Muhammad Ali as a kid, proudly shows me the Smoke tattoo on his neck as an ode to the nickname penned by Joe Frazier. Cooper had access to sparring with some top-level talent at Frazier’s Gym as a teenager. “I sparred with Pinklon Thomas when I was 17. They gave me $36,” as Cooper laughs telling the story.
Frazier quickly moved Cooper into fighting amateur fights. He had 10 in total before turning professional. Cooper quickly heard something from Frazier that would be a precursor of things to come in his pro career. “In my last fight (as an amateur) I lost the fight because I ran out of gas. Joe told me you’ve got to be in shape. I thought I could use by punching power. I wasn’t running (training),” admitted Cooper.
Cooper’s first professional fight was a knockout in the first round against Dennis Caldwell. He remembers the transition to the professional ranks well. “He (Caldwell) was a heavyweight then. I was now getting paid. Once I hit him, he went back. It felt good. He felt what I had. He felt what I got. I felt good in the ring,’ said Cooper.
Cooper said at this point in his career that he loved the sport. Transitioning to the professional ranks, Joe was anxious to move Cooper’s career forward. “I started rolling. I liked hitting. I tried not to get hit. continues Cooper. “Joe told me you’ve gotta run. I thought I could use my punching power, but I wasn’t running.”
When the topic of Marvis Frazier arises, Cooper had some choice words to offer. “Marvis was jealous of me (of all the attention from Joe). I knocked Marvis down. He didn’t like that,” said Cooper.
Problems began to emerge with the relationship between Cooper and Joe Frazier. Cooper stated that Frazier changed the way he treated him over time. “When I fought Carlos Hernandez, I won the fight (By eight round TKO). After the fight, Joe yanked the mouthpiece out of my mouth. It bloodied my gums. I was 18.” Cooper acknowledges, “He didn’t treat me well because I wasn’t in shape. I used to smoke cigarettes back then, so I wasn’t in shape.”
By the time Cooper fought Carl “The Truth” Williams in a nationally televised bout on HBO, the relationship had deteriorated. Cooper challenged Frazier’s training methods and the philosophical differences became too great. “He gave me no respect. He had me fighting that Joe Frazier style. He (Williams) was too big for me. It wasn’t me. He gave me no respect,” said Cooper.
Frazier, in the past, disputed these accounts by saying that the split was largely due to Cooper’s drug use. In fact, leading up to the Williams fight, Frazier separated Cooper from distractions including his friends. Cooper acknowledges that the company he kept during his career wasn’t helpful. “They gave me beer, drugs,” said Cooper.
Cooper’s management changed hands and he was next managed by Lenny Shaw. This ended up being a pattern in Cooper’s career, as he would often change managers, promoters, and trainers.
One of the lowlights of Cooper’s career was when he fought George Foreman. The official result is a win by TKO in round two for Foreman as Cooper failed to answer the bell for round three. Officials with the Arizona Boxing Commission held up Cooper’s purse of $17,500. Cooper showed no signs of injury and tested positive for cocaine.
Cooper’s version of events are that someone (he wasn’t sure of who) was out to get him. “Before I fought Foreman I was set-up with two girls. I was told I was supposed to get $17.500. I got $2,500. I then got a lawyer (to fight for my money) and he charged me $5,000 and he didn’t do nothing,” claims Cooper.
When discussing the heavyweight title fight against Evander Holyfield, Cooper first addresses what happened inside the ring, “I was the first fighter to knock Holyfield down. I was close.” Cooper is more focused on his claims of what happened outside of the ring after the fight. “Dan Duva robbed me. My take was supposed to be $650,000. He (Duva-Holyfield’s promoter) split it up with Rick Parker (former Cooper promoter). I only took $191,000. He robbed me.”
Cooper doesn’t hesitate to describe who had the best chin of the fighters he went up against. It was Ray Mercer by a long shot. During their 12-Round war, which Mercer won by unanimous decision, both fighters sustained injuries. “Ray Mercer…you hit him in the jaw and it would go crack. He wouldn’t go anywhere. I broke his jaw.” Cooper continues, “He was in a lot of pain. His jaw was wired shot. My eye was all stitched up.”
Cooper felt that the best combination in his arsenal was the right hand, followed up by the left hook. Cooper is very clear about the highlights of his career. “When I dropped Holyfield. I was one punch away. When I beat Willie de Wit in Canada. I knocked him down four times in two rounds. I was 21 years old, “said Cooper.
In his post-fight boxing career, Cooper is thankful for his health. “I had ups and downs. I thank the Lord for keeping me. I’ll get it right,” said Cooper.
Bert Cooper’s career was littered with excuses for why things went wrong, choosing to do wrong instead of right, and the unfulfilled promise of a career that could have been so much more. Cooper’s response to how he would like to be remembered is most telling. “Bert Cooper wasn’t at his best. The majority of my career I wasn’t at my best,” admitted Cooper.