Chaos and boxing are virtually inseparable, and the route it took for Cooper to reach the biggest night of his life should have been marked with milestones reading SNAFU and FUBAR all the way down the line. In early 1991 the biggest fight in boxing history had been announced: Mike Tyson, still the reigning king of both the box-office and the tabloid headline, would face Evander Holyfield for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world. Never mind the fact that Tyson was under indictment on rape charges that would eventually lead to a conviction and a three-year stint at the Indiana Youth Center. What boxing wants, boxing usually gets, and what it wanted more than anything in the early 90s was the temporary El Dorado of Holyfield-Tyson. But history would have to wait a few years. Tyson suffered a rib injury only weeks before the fight and Holyfield took a dramatic $24 million pay cut to face Italian Olympian Francesco Damiani on HBO instead. Holyfield requested that this downscaled bout take place in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, as a gift to his fans. Before Damiani could waddle over to The Omni Coliseum, however, he twisted an ankle and withdrew, despite the protests of his wife.
Enter Bert Cooper. Less than a month earlier he had battered fringe contender Joe Hipp into submission in Atlantic City. Now, sitting in his mobile home in Virginia, Cooper was shocked to receive a phone call outlining the details for the chance of a lifetime: a short-notice fight against Evander Holyfield for the heavyweight championship of the world. Cooper took the offer—and the reported $750,000 paycheck—only six days shy of the opening bell. “I just had time to shave and catch the plane to Atlanta,” Cooper told sportswriter Jim Murray.
Although Evander Holyfield was the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, respect was a little harder to come by than he had expected. In fact, Holyfield, 29, was already seeing his star lose its glitter. First, Buster Douglas took some shine away from Holyfield when he showed up overweight and disinterested for their title fight in 1990. Then, when Douglas nonchalantly listened to the full count after being dropped by a thundering counter right hand, Holyfield saw his title-winning effort diminished even further. The new champion also took his share of criticism for failing to stop geriatric George Foreman in their April 1991 superfight, an event in which the challenger was by far the popular favorite. Now, Holyfield, still undefeated at 26-0, would be facing an unranked journeyman best known for his chaotic lifestyle and a history of dogging it in the ring. No one gave Cooper—a 22-to-1 underdog with a spotty 26-7 record—a chance. (Cooper would enter the ring against Holyfield with more than just the odds against him. According to Jon Hotten, whose book The Years of the Locust chronicles the sordid rise and fall of Rick Parker, Cooper came down with the flu two days before the fight.) Not even the WBC considered Cooper a threat; they refused to sanction the bout, leaving the undisputed champion of the world defending only two-thirds of his titles.
Only Rick Parker, haunted by The Windfall Factor, thought Cooper could score an improbable upset. During the short media buildup for the fight, Rick Parker touted his darkhorse to anyone who crossed his path. Unimaginatively, Parker even referred to Cooper as “The Baddest Man on Planet Earth,” a sobriquet that belied just how erratic Cooper could be in the ring. But Parker had a serious wish-fulfillment mojo going for him, and the fact that Cooper probably needed a Nyquil/Dayquil co-pack in the corner more than he needed a water bottle could not diminish his hopes. If Bert Cooper could somehow spring the upset, Rick Parker, who had been a laughingstock as a promoter for years, would control the most prestigious title in sports. Overnight, Parker would become a de facto powerbroker—a notion that must have troubled even the strange bedfellows of boxing.
Murad Muhammad, who promoted 1990s heavyweight contender Razor Ruddock, seemed to have an inkling about the potential dark side of a successful Rick Parker run. “The bottom line is if Bert Cooper lucks out,” he told AP, “look what we have as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.” Whether Murad was referring to Cooper himself or the misfit team behind him is unknown.