The Night Bert Cooper Almost Beat
Evander Holyfield for the Heavyweight Title
By the late 1980s, the end of the glitziest decade since the Jazz Age, Bert Cooper was at rock bottom. Zealous partying had waylaid his stamina. At times, he popped more tabs on Old Milwaukee cans than jabs in sparring sessions. He swapped speedbags for dimebags—and worse. His mentor, Joe Frazier, had left him, and his reputation in the ring was in ruins after he quit on the stool against a comebacking George Foreman in Phoenix on June 1, 1989.
Against Foreman, the luckless Cooper, who refused to answer the bell for the third round, fell to more than just the earthshaking blows of “Big George.” In fact, Cooper would later claim that a low-rent conspiracy had taken place in order to sabotage his chances against the aging ex-heavyweight champion of the world. Two sultry women—identical twins, for the love of God—had buttonholed Cooper in the lobby of the Macha Hotel and led him on a 72-hour ménage-a-trois binge that left him spent on fight night.
Not exactly Warren Commission material, to be sure, but the lurid details are pure Bert Cooper: “I didn’t sleep for three days,” Cooper told Ken Rodriguez of the Miami Herald years after the fight had taken place. "They set me up. I drank about a keg and had some mixed drinks and Long Island iced teas. I did about a quarter ounce of cocaine." Indeed, Cooper tested positive for cocaine after the fight and was docked his entire $25,000 purse. To make matters worse, the Arizona State Athletic Commission suspended Cooper in absentia. Bert Cooper, you see, was on a bender across the Grand Canyon State that would last nearly three months, or far longer than any of his training camps.
Bertram Blair Cooper was only a teenager when he begged his father to take him down to Philadelphia from Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, where he was born and raised, to train with Joe Frazier, the heavyweight legend still toiling in his gym on North Broad Street. “I was 15,” Cooper told The Roanoke Times about meeting Joe Frazier. “I used the money I earned working at a Hess gas station to pay the fee to work out. His gym was a slaughterhouse. After I started beating up some older guys, Joe started watching me, and then I stopped having to pay.”
A sturdy cruiserweight with a muscle-packed frame and bulging biceps, Cooper was billed as the nephew of Frazier, whose true bloodline (Marvis, Rodney, Tyrone, and Joe, Jr.) had washed out as pros over the years. Cooper quickly made a name for himself with explosive wins over two former Olympians, Henry Tillman in 1986 and, at heavyweight, Willie De Wit in 1987.
No sooner had Cooper begun to establish himself, however, than his libertine outlook began to undercut his career. And Frazier, whose disciplinarian attitude was as legendary as his feats in the ring, soon began to sour on his protégé. Frazier cut Cooper loose after the debacle against Foreman. Cooper remained bitter at his childhood idol for years. “When I was a kid,” Cooper told Bernard Fernandez in 1991, “he used to open up his coat and say, 'Here, kid, take your best shot.' I'd like to take that shot now.”
When the partying after the Foreman fight wound down, Cooper entered a rehab center and geared up for an uncertain future. Returning to boxing a few months later, he renewed his commitment to discipline—in his own fashion, of course—but eventually surrounded himself with a fairground aura that held out little promise of success. His new team included former WWF star Big John Stud, an ex-bodyguard to wrestlers named Jimmy Lee Adams, and a young wild-eyed promoter who nicknamed himself “Elvis.”
Even for the fight racket, Rick “Elvis” Parker was beyond the pale. In a pursuit as morally cloudy as boxing, Parker seemed to be the symbolic apex of all its ills. Obese, crooked, obnoxious, drug-addled, erratic, and unscrupulous, Parker personified the subterranean nature of outpost boxing. Away from the neon dreams of Las Vegas and New York City, far from the klieg lights of national television, prizefighting was a barely regulated netherworld from the Rust Belt to the Bible Belt to the Sun Belt. In high school gymnasiums, bingo halls, VFWs, ballrooms, and armories; in Sheratons, Hyatts, and Desert Inns, the seedy side of a sport that had once been an outlaw pursuit in America flourished. To think of Rick Parker today is to recall some of the lunatic fringe moments of the late 80s and early 90s: apartment wrestling, Lobster Boy, Jack Kevorkian, Branch Davidians, Moonie weddings, G.G. Allin, weeping televangelists.
Born in Missouri in 1955, Parker grew up in a broken home and dropped out of high school when he was 16 years old. But Parker, street-smart and, in his own devious way, ambitious, would not need a formal education to get where he wanted to go. In 1968, he moved to Lakeland, Florida, where he eventually began his career in flimflam as a pool hustler. After bamboozling the denizens of the Gulf Coast with his Sneaky Pete cue, Parker discovered the joys of door-to-door scamming when he stumbled across a cleaning agent he dubbed “Sun-Station.” He founded a company with the generic name American Safety Industries and began making serious money by expanding his territory across the country. Parker recruited his sales force from a seemingly endless population of teen runaways and hotheaded ex-cons. In fact, his goon squads—which, in some ways, resembled cults—were modeled on magazine crews, a coast-to-coast phenomenon that eventually sparked a congressional hearing in 1988.
In the early 80s Parker branched out to promoting rock concerts, and the nighthawk glamour of hair-metal acts like Ratt and Bon Jovi seemed to stir a desire for a flamboyant lifestyle to go along with his nouveau riche status.
Throughout his short career as a boxing promoter on the very fringes of the fringe, Parker claimed that it was a chance meeting in 1985 with one of his idols—Don King—that led him into the Red Light District of sports. King and Parker sat next to each other on an airplane, where, supposedly, the electro-haired humbug encouraged Parker to enter the twisted world of boxing promotion. According to Parker, it was King who kick-started his overriding obsession—winning the heavyweight championship of the world. Parker called his goal “The Windfall Factor.” In 1994 Parker explained its meaning to 60 Minutes: “Oh yes. The windfall factor. All of your dreams coming true. Millions and millions of dollars, all at one time.”
In 1987, Parker, who wore outrageous sunglasses and an even more outrageous red hairpiece as part of his Mid-South Championship Wrestling style, staged some of the earliest George Foreman comeback fights, but he was elbowed out by Bob Arum before the real money started pouring in. Underwritten by sales of his Sun-Station solution, the Rick Parker carnival was on the slow trail to nowhere, with only journeyman Tim “Doc” Anderson gaining some notoriety in a losing performance against Foreman in Orlando, Florida. But Parker had one legitimate if war-torn fighter in a reclamation project named Bert Cooper. Although Cooper was a basket case with a spotty record, he had a left hook that could make or break dreams in a nanosecond.
In 1990, Bert Cooper seemed on the verge of reversing his misfortunes. He knocked out Orlin Norris in February to win the NABF heavyweight title and dropped a spirited decision to hard-hitting Ray Mercer six months later on CBS. Over 12 explosive rounds, Cooper showed the heart and determination against Mercer that had been lacking so often since his downward spiral began in 1987. But a few months later Cooper was demolished by a young Riddick Bowe in two rounds. Even against a rising powerhouse like Bowe, then less than two years away from winning the heavyweight championship of the world, Cooper could not keep his impulses in check: cocaine had been one of the most popular items on his training camp menu. This time, Cooper tried to patch himself up in Salem, Virginia, where, presumably, the lure of wild nights would be far from his reach.
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.
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.
In early 1992 Parker had a new con going: ex-NFL linebacker Mark Gastineau, formerly an All-Pro with the New York Jets in the mid-80s, now a fledgling prizefighter. Acting on a verbal agreement with a representative of George Foreman, still wildly popular despite losing to Evander Holyfield in April 1991, Parker chose Gastineau as the surest route to The Windfall Factor. If Gastineau could build a record of at least 12-0, Parker was told, he would receive a shot at Foreman in a sideshow bonanza for all involved.
But the star of the Sack Exchange was finding it harder to corner the Sock Exchange—even in the gym. So his bouts were fixed. (It should be noted that there is no evidence Gastineau was aware Parker was fixing his fights.) In his pro debut, Gastineau drygulched an acrobatic professional wrestler in eighteen seconds and then went on to face civilians and professional dive artists until Parker fatefully matched him with Tim “Doc” Anderson. Although the two men had been estranged for nearly two years—Parker had cheated Anderson out of thousands of dollars—Parker ludicrously promised his former fighter $500,000 to play stuntman against Gastineau. Anderson, however, had other things in mind—namely revenge via double-cross. When Parker showed up at his hotel room just hours before the fight to rehearse the dive routine, Anderson shocked him by refusing to comply. On June 9, 1992, Anderson smacked the hapless, hopeless, and helpless Gastineau around the ring en route to a lopsided decision win aired live on the USA Network. Parker, whose cocaine addiction had worsened over the years, now saw another dream—or delusion—slip out of his meaty grasp.
By refusing to follow the script, Anderson put himself in the crosshairs of a vindictive sociopath. Six months later, Parker offered Anderson a rematch against Gastineau under the pretext that Gastineau had become a liability: Parker wanted Gastineau knocked off in order to trigger a contractual clause that would prove beneficial to “Elvis.” Incredibly, Anderson agreed, and the fight was scheduled to take place on December 3, 1992, in Oklahoma, a state without an athletic commission. Gastineau-Anderson II marked one of the lowest points in the sport's history and set off a chain of events outrageous even for the anarchic world of boxing.
Improbably, the nearly talentless Gastineau stopped Anderson in the sixth round in front of a few hundred spectators on a non-televised card. Later, the sickening truth would be revealed: Anderson, whose cornermen never showed up and were replaced by strangers, had been poisoned. After the fight, Anderson collapsed in the dressing room, unconscious. He was discovered hours later by a janitor and taken to a hospital, where doctors suspected that Anderson had been drugged.
Whatever he had been poisoned with left Anderson suffering from vertigo and largely bedridden for the better part of three years. Desperate for a cure for his undiagnosed illness, Anderson eventually decided to confront Parker. Without knowing exactly what chemicals had been used to spike his water, Anderson faced a lifetime of suffering. It was Parker who had the answers, and Anderson would get them. They met at an Embassy Suites in Lake Buena Vista on April 28, 1995, and their showdown ended with Parker, who had no idea what kind of toxin had been slipped to Anderson, laid out on the floor, shot eight times, DOA. Anderson was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But Parker was not a man whose death triggered much mourning. His own sister, Diane McVey, probably put it best when she spoke to writer Robert Mladinich in 2005: “Over the years, there were so many people who might have wanted Rick dead. He wasn’t a very nice person, and took advantage of a lot of people. I’m not surprised someone killed him.”
Parker was only 39 years old when he died. By that time his old friend Bert Cooper was already hitting the skids hard. Over the next 20 years, Cooper fell out of contention and became nothing more than a palooka, but he also lived a life like a loaded gun. Drugs, prison, religious awakening, and all the madness boxing could offer, which included a slot on one of the first professional boxing cards to take place on mainland China, a KO victory over a bare-knuckle brawler making his pro debut, an early loss in a bizarre one-night heavyweight tournament in Mississippi, and a first-round demolition job of undefeated fugazi Richie Melito. Before that fight, representatives from the New York State Athletic Commission had visited Cooper in the dressing room to encourage Cooper to perform his best despite rumors of skullduggery surrounding the fight. Cooper obliged. As recently as 2012 Cooper was toiling under the hot lights in boxing hinterlands such as Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Jefferson City, Missouri; and Hammond, Indiana.
Years after his unlikely role as überspoiler, Cooper recalled his downward spiral. “I burnt bridges. I spent most of my money, not so much on drugs and alcohol, but just on parties,” he said. People I thought were my friends weren’t my friends. I gave them money for cars and things like that and when I needed them, they were gone—zoom—just like that.” Gone in the same way, perhaps, that The Windfall Factor disappeared from the tumultuous lives of two men forever on the edge: zoom, just like that, yes, just like that. ♦
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