One punch away: the miracle of Bert Cooper

Luke G. Williams
11/05/2019 11:59pm

Photos: Holly Stein/Allsport

GettyImages 1785013With the news that cult heavyweight Bert Cooper has died, Luke G. Williams examines the night the Pennsylvania pugilist came within "one punch" of dethroning Evander Holyfield and winning the world heavyweight championship...

The capacity of boxing to offer hope to the hopeless, fortune to the cash strapped and eternal glory to those previously swathed in anonymity is unmatched and easily summarised by three words:

'One punch away'.

Three words which pretty much defined the life and career of Smokin' Bert Cooper, the all-action cult heavyweight who died on Friday after a battle against pancreatic cancer.

As well as his riotously disordered personal life - characterised by a devotion to partying and an astonishing capacity for the consumption of a wide range of alcohol and drugs - Cooper will also be remembered for a series of memorable heavyweight wars, chief among them his 1992 slugfest against Michael Moorer for the WBO title, as well as his battles with Ray Mercer and Joe Hipp.

However, the moment that defined his life and career came on 23 November 1991 at the Omni Coliseum in Atlanta, Georgia, when Bert Cooper was just one punch away from heavyweight nirvana.

In round three of his showdown with Evander Holyfield - a fight he took at just six days' notice after the withdrawal of Francesco Damiani - Cooper caught the world heavyweight champion with a murderous right that staggered him and then followed up with a vicious barrage of blows which saw Holyfield stumble, face-first, into the ropes.

"I said to myself, ‘Oh, boy, this is it!'", Cooper later recalled.

As Holyfield tottered on the fringes of consciousness, in front of an astonished, disbelieving crowd of 12,000-plus of his hometown fans, it really did seem as though the heavyweight championship of the world - the most prestigious prize in pugilism - was about to be seized by Cooper, a 26-7 bruiser who once entered a bout against George Foreman after a three-day sex, drugs and alcohol binge with a pair of identical twins.

As Cooper scented glory, referee Mills Lane made a key intervention, ruling the fall into the ropes as a knockdown and enforcing an eight count which gave Holyfield some precious respite - a decision which Bert later maintained denied him the championship.

"I was one punch away from the heavyweight championship,” he said a few weeks later. “They robbed me, but what can you do? What can you say?"

It was a mirage, of course, as the credo of “one punch away” so often is.

Great athletes - such as Holyfield - are able to weather storms - inside and outside the ring - the likes of which regularly subsume the fatally flawed among us, such as Bertram Blair Cooper.

If Holyfield could withstand mighty blows from a prime Riddick Bowe and come back swinging - as he did most famously in the tenth round of their first showdown - then it seems unlikely, even if Lane had not intervened, that Cooper would have finished him.

For Cooper - whose rollercoaster life and career were characterised by substance abuse, all-action brawls, missed opportunities, spectacular knockdowns and spectacular collapses - the dream of ultimate fistic glory may have felt close, but in reality it was as remote and unachievable as George and Lennie's dream in John Steinbeck's 'Of Mice and Men'.

As tantalisingly elusive as the green light that torments F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby.

Given the demons that haunted him and the chaos that so often overwhelmed him, it's remarkable that Cooper got so close to his dream in the first place.

Perhaps in that sense the life of Bert Cooper wasn’t a tragedy after all, but something of a miracle.