November 23, 1991


The Night Bert Cooper Almost Beat
Evander Holyfield for the Heavyweight Title

BY Carlos Acevedo |  illustrations: Adam Stafford

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.”