On November 23, 1991, more than 12,000 fans gathered at The Omni to see Holyfield, their hometown hero, add the punchline to a gag most sporting observers considered to be in bad taste.
But Dan Duva, who promoted Holyfield, was nervous about Cooper. “A desperate man is a dangerous man,” Duva said about the hard-punching Cooper. At 5’11" and, at his peak, roughly 220 pounds, the stubby Cooper was built along the lines of Mike Tyson—with one exception. Cooper had extraordinarily long arms. His reach, reportedly 78 inches, allowed him a little more leeway than the average inside grinder. Cooper could land looping shots from the outside as well as his patented compact shots in the trenches. In the ring, Cooper also resembled Tyson: black trunks, short hair, and a hyper-aggressive style that showcased a ruinous left hook to the head and body.
If Holyfield had entered the fight overconfident, then Cooper gave him no reason for doubt in the first round. “The Real Deal” opened by bouncing on his toes, working behind a sharp jab, and dropping straight rights over the top. With Cooper floundering in front of him, Holyfield unleashed a damaging combination and stepped out of range. A few seconds later, he ripped a left hook to the body that sent Cooper to the canvas in sections.
It was no surprise to see Cooper down so early; wiseguys from one betting parlor to another had practically guaranteed it. But what was surprising was the fact that Cooper survived the follow-up onslaught and returned fire, catching a careless Holyfield with a looping right, and then, as the round wound down, a thudding left hook. Even so, Holyfield appeared virtually unstoppable at mid-range, and he battered an onrushing Cooper with blistering combinations in the second. Cooper seemed as overmatched as his critics had feared. Still, brawling with a man trained by Joe Frazier was a tactical error, and it gave Cooper his only chance to win. Even after being outclassed for most of the round, Cooper managed to land a cracking right and a pinpoint uppercut that forced Holyfield to clinch.
Then, in round three, The Windfall Factor nearly became a crashing reality. After being rattled by a fusillade of blows, Cooper grinned at Holyfield and redoubled his assault. A savage right about a minute into the round wobbled Holyfield, and a bloodthirsty Cooper charged after his wounded prey. “My heart skipped a beat,” Cooper would later say about the moment when his dreams seemed so close to being fulfilled. “Then it went boom, boom, boom. I said to myself, ‘Oh, boy, this is it.’” A follow-up barrage sent Holyfield stumbling around the ring like a man who had just stepped out of a whirligig. When he finally crashed head-first into the ropes, referee Mills Lane jumped in, ruled a knockdown, and began the mandatory eight-count. It was the first time Holyfield had been floored in his professional career. After the count had been completed, Cooper closed in on Holyfield and whipsawed both hands against the woozy champion, who leaned and buckled against the ropes in hopes of riding out the storm. Moments later, Cooper was out of breath and Holyfield suddenly opened up with a cross-fire attack. It was a remarkable turnaround for a fighter who only moments earlier appeared to be on the verge of being stopped. Before the round ended, however, Cooper would again rally, landing two long rights that drove Holyfield back as the bell rang. Both men, groggy, staggered to their corners.
If any bookie had laid odds that Cooper would quit, as he had in the past, after taking his first serious dose of punishment from Holyfield, then he would have gone bust. That night, November 23, 1991, Bert Cooper, high school dropout, son of a minister, professional flop, was dead game. Which is exactly why he came out in the fourth bobbing and weaving, walking into a hail of punches just to land his own thumping shots—hard rights to the body, left hooks to the head—and in the last minute of the round landing a shocking multi-punch combination with Holyfield against the ropes. Despite his occasional successes, Cooper was taking one barrage after another. It was clear: Holyfield was breaking him down with hooks to the ribs, stiff one-twos, and an unerring right uppercut.
In the fifth round, Holyfield battered Cooper so relentlessly that one of his gloves split open and had to be replaced. A five-minute respite followed while Holyfield had his glove repaired, and Cooper sat on his stool, trying to recuperate from the jackhammer blows he had received. From that point on, Cooper was bone-weary, and the sixth round saw him decelerate with every passing second.
Although Holyfield slowed the pace and picked away at Cooper with uppercuts and body shots, Cooper, at this point, had still managed to land at a remarkable 55 percent clip. Needless to say, Holyfield was even more successful with his connect ratio. No fighter, particularly against a heavyweight, can withstand that kind of sustained punishment, and Cooper, little by little, was withering away under the ring lights.
Early in the seventh round, Cooper walked into another corkscrew uppercut. Seeing that Cooper was ready to give way, like a levee against hurricane waters, Holyfield attacked. Again and again Holyfield lashed out at Cooper. Again and again Cooper shook, tottered, and shuddered, but would not fall. With less than a minute to go, Holyfield tore after Cooper with a two-handed cannonade, including numerous uppercuts that threatened to decapitate him. Although Cooper practiced a version of the cross-armed defense (pioneered by Archie Moore), his variation had a counterintuitive flaw: He only crossed one arm. With his left elbow pointed up to the rafters in a strange chicken wing formation, Cooper left a wide gap through which Holyfield torpedoed one crushing uppercut after another. Nine times out of 10 a man who is hit with dozens of shots from a world-class heavyweight is going to see the black lights; hear, if from a distance, the 10-count tolling in his ear; feel, in the words of Floyd Patterson, as if he were on a pleasant cloud. But Cooper remained upright throughout the barrage and only the intervention of Mills Lane with just two seconds remaining in the seventh saved him from being seriously injured. “Bert Cooper is a tough guy,” Lane said after the fight. “But he took a lot of punches. He seemed to have lost the ability to fight back.”
In the aftermath of the loss, Rick Parker, cockeyed with rage after seeing his dream destroyed, seethed. “Every conceivable thing that should not have happened to Bert Cooper happened,” Parker railed, summing up the life and times of Bert Cooper to KO Magazine in 1992. “HBO would not give me the theater to voice my discontent and protest. They turned the power off on me at the press conference. We’re not idiots. Bert was robbed of the championship of the world.” Counterfactual history is something of a fad in boxing. Enough what-ifs hover over the Sweet Science to keep Harry Turtledove busy for the rest of his life. In this case, the what-ifs added up to a dream scenario hard to resist elucidating. What if Cooper had had a full training camp? What if Lane had not called for a mandatory eight count when Holyfield was stunned? What if Cooper had not been ill in the days leading up to the fight? What if, what if, what if—but it was Cooper who ruminated about it all for years to come. “I was one punch away from the heavyweight championship,” he said during a press conference to announce a contract signing with Don King a few weeks after losing to Holyfield. “They robbed me, but what can you do? What can you say?” King, creative as usual, simply referred to Holyfield as “The Welfare Champion” and promised a bright future for Cooper.
In one night, Cooper, only 25 years old, went from being a trialhorse in the Rick Parker stable to a feared contender, which turned out to be a mixed blessing. A higher profile meant more fame and money, two temptations a man like Cooper found difficult to resist. For Cooper, just stepping over the threshold of his trailer door qualified as a potential pitfall. Below him stood no safety net; he was, after all, managed by a man with ties to pro wrestling and promoted by a drug-addled hustler. In no time, it was back to the hinterland circuit, drugs, booze, and partying.