Once upon a time, the Heavyweight division ruled the world of boxing. In any division, when you have a dominant champion and solid contenders, fans become energized as they know anything can happen.
In the mid-to-late 80′s, it was Mike Tyson who ruled that world.
Many fans tuned in as somewhat of a morbid curiosity. Could his opponent survive? How long could he last?
Tyson’s run came to an unlikely end at the hands of one James “Buster” Douglas in February of 1990. Just eight months later, an overweight and out of shape Douglas was knocked down and out by Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield.
For years, the public had clamored for a Tyson versus Holyfield showdown. As Tyson was on the comeback trail knocking out the likes of one time nemesis Henry Tillman and then Alex Stewart, Holyfield had won the title from the man Tyson had lost it to.
Holyfield then went on to fight George Foreman while Tyson tangled twice with Donovan ”Razor” Ruddock.
The stage was finally set.
Both sides had agreed and the contract was signed. Finally, the two men who befriended one another during the 1984 Olympic Trials were set to fight on Friday, November 8, 1991.
The gate was projected to exceed $100 million dollars. But just as quickly as Caesars Palace had sold out, the fight itself fell apart. Tyson was the focal point of a grand jury investigation in which the former champion was accused of rape. Not long thereafter, the Tyson camp announced that Iron Mike had hurt his ribs in training and the fight was officially off.
Training for months, his last fight in April against Foreman, Holyfield wanted to fight. First, Francesco Damiani was to step in. He then pulled out because of a foot injury. Next up, a rugged journeyman named Bert Cooper who was the replacement for the replacement.
“Smokin” Bert Cooper, the number 12 ranked contender who was once trained by Joe Frazier, got the same phone call a fictional character named Rocky Balboa got. Like Rocky, Cooper was an unknown fighter from Philadelphia getting a shot at the undisputed Heavyweight championship of the world.
The bout was moved from the bright lights of the Vegas strip to the back yard of the champion. The Omni, in Atlanta GA, was the site where this drama would unfold. The fight was set for November 23, 1991. HBO aired the live broadcast with Jim Lampley, Larry Merchant, and Gil Clancy calling the action.
After the undercard matchup between a young up and comer named Lennox Lewis and Tyrell Biggs, the packed house at the Omni was primed and ready for the hometown hero Holyfield.
First, with the “Rocky” theme song blaring, Cooper (26-7, 23 KOs) made his way to the ring. Looking like Tyson, he wore black trunks, black shoes, and wore a towel with a hole in the middle of it. The former sparring partner who was often hired to imitate the then champion Tyson was walking towards the ring with an opportunity to become the champion.
Then came Holyfield. The “Real Deal” (26-0, 21KOs) was led by the corner of Lou Duva and George Benton. As the crowd roared, he entered the ring, smiling. Merchant said, “There’s nothing like being a conquering hero and coming home.”
After Michael Buffer announced his trademark, “Let’s get ready to rumble” and introduced the fighters, referee Mills Lane, refereeing his 56th championship fight, brought the fighters together for instructions.
As round one began, Holyfield, wearing light blue trunks with yellow trim, immediately took command, bouncing, moving and jabbing. He looked superior from the outset and Cooper looked confused. As he followed Holyfield, a beautiful left hook to the body dropped Cooper at the midway point of Round 1.
Cooper rose, taking the eight count from Lane, and the action continued. Cooper continued to pursue Holyfield who continued to move laterally and box.
With 30 seconds to go in the round, Cooper was warned for a low blow. His best punch of the round was an illegal one drawing the ire of both the pro Holyfield crowd and “The Judge,” Mills Lane.
As Round 2 began, Cooper came after the champion, bombing away with left and rights to the head and body. Lampley quickly recognized that Holyfield was beginning to stand more flat footed, “We’ve got war early on.”
Holyfield began landing bombs of his own, wobbling Cooper. Cooper immediately came back with what Clancy called the “Tyson combo,” a hook to the body and then an uppercut to the head behind it. As the bell sounded to end Round 2, Cooper had worked his way back into the fight.
Both fighters met at center ring to begin round three. Holyfield immediately shook Cooper with an explosive left hook. Cooper countered with hooks to the body. One minute into the round, lightning struck in form of a Cooper right hand.
Holyfield’s head snapped back and the sound of the impact was like he pounded a drum. Holyfield tried to grab and hold Cooper.
Lampley dispensed with commentating and was screaming, “Holyfield wobbles! In the corner! The champion is in trouble! Evander Holyfield floored in the third round by Bert Cooper!”
The crowd, on its feet, was stunned. Holyfield pulled himself together with the help of the ropes and took Lane’s standing eight count.
Cooper swarmed, it was high drama. Cooper landed three more right hands. Clancy shouted over the roar of the crowd, “Holyfield just doesn’t know where he is right now! He is fighting on heart alone!”
With one minute to go in the round, Holyfield landed a monster right hand of his own. It was Lampley’s turn to shriek over the roaring crowd in attendance. “What a right hand by Holyfield! What a sensational right cross. But Bert Cooper won’t go down!”
The two traded down the stretch of the round and Holyfield again wobbled before the bell sounded. A clearly excited Merchant commented, “It doesn’t get much better than that!”
No one was sitting as the bell initiated Round 4. Lampley began the round saying, “Look at the will of Evander Holyfield!” On cue, Clancy countered, “Look at the will of Bert Cooper!”
The two men stood toe-to-toe. Holyfield was trying to move and box, but Cooper just wouldn’t let him. Was Holyfield over trained with the delays and substitutes? Or was Cooper just rising to the occasion for the fight of his life?
Both men continued to land big flurries throughout Rounds 4 and 5. Holyfield then found the uppercut, landing unbelievable bombs at will. Lane,watching closely, halted the action as he observed the right glove of the champion had torn and completely split open. As Lampley saw this, he pointed out, “The glove is broken. Both fighters are going to get a long rest.”
The delay, which lasted about five minutes, provided the opportunity for Merchant to praise the toughness of Cooper. “You can take the fighter out of Philadelphia, but you can’t take the Philadelphia out of the fighter.”
As an extra pair of gloves is required at ringside, the delay was resolved by replacing the broken glove and the round came to a close.
Round 6 began with Holyfield bouncing and jabbing. Cooper went back to banging to the body. Smartly, Holyfield countered by going back to launching the right uppercuts. When he threw it he landed it, snapping Cooper’s head back time and time again. The pace slowed as both warriors looked to regain their senses and get a second wind.
As the combatants entered the seventh, the action resumed in the center of the ring, toe-to-toe, one and two punches at a time. Every punch was a bomb. Neither man jabbed, seeming as if they forget how to.
Holyfield picked up the pace halfway through the seventh, throwing more combinations. As Cooper went to the body to counter the assault, Lampley exclaimed, “Holyfield rips an uppercut! Cooper standing still! Target practice! Mills Lane has seen enough! Mills Lane stops the fight!”
With five seconds remaining and a packed house on its feet, the war ended.
In the post fight, Merchant correctly pointed out that Holyfield landed some 22 unanswered punches. Lane, one of the very best, was right on top of the action and mercifully hugged Cooper, saving him from further punishment.
Holyfield went on to remain in the public eye for years to come. He fought countless wars and continued to demonstrate his ring greatness against fighters like Riddick Bowe, Ray Mercer, and Michael Moorer. He finally got his opportunity against Tyson in 1996, pummeling him into submission via TKO.
Cooper continued his career as well, playing more the role of spoiler. He went on to face the likes of Chris Byrd, Larry Donald, and fought an exciting slugfest with Moorer. He last fought in 2012.
On this night, Cooper was the third choice of opponents for the champion as injuries first forced Tyson and then Damiani to the sideline.
The memorable excitement, action and drama on this night proved that the third choice was a charm.