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R.I.P. Former Heavyweight Contender “Smokin’” Bert Cooper, Dead at 53

Bernard Fernandez

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Bert Cooper

“Smokin’” Bert Cooper, the Joe Frazier lookalike who patterned his own boxing style after that of his idol, mentor and former manager, was 53 when he lost his battle with pancreatic cancer on Friday. Best-known for his knockdown of IBF/WBA heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield in their title bout in Holyfield’s hometown of Atlanta, Cooper, a 32-to-1 underdog from the Philadelphia suburb of Sharon Hill, Pa., might have pulled off the biggest upset since Buster Douglas’ shocker over Mike Tyson when, in the third round of the Nov. 23, 1991, bout at The Omni, he landed an explosive overhand right to the titlist’s jaw.

Holyfield stumbled backward into the ropes as Cooper rushed forward to follow up with a barrage of punches. A clearly buzzed Holyfield was sent sagging, his right knee brushing the canvas. Referee Mills Lane, having decided that Holyfield was being held up by the ropes, immediately jumped in, signaled a knockdown and gave him a standing-eight count.

“The Real Deal’s” undefeated record (he had come in 26-0 with 21 KOs) and championship reign might well have gone up in, well, smoke were it not for those few seconds of rest. When an overanxious Cooper rushed in again to seal the deal, Holyfield – whose recuperative powers were well-documented – answered with a barrage of his own that carried him to the end of the shakiest round of his professional career to that point.

“My heart started to go boom, boom, boom,” Cooper said when asked for his reaction to the sight of Holyfield in trouble. “I thought I was the heavyweight champion of the world. I said to myself, `Oh, boy, this is it.’”

Except that it wasn’t. With the bell ending the round, the window of opportunity closed for Cooper. Holyfield began to reassert control in the fourth round and, as the seventh round was nearing a close, he landed 25 unanswered punches. Lane wrapped his arms around the bloodied Cooper and waved the fight to a halt after an elapsed time of 2 minutes, 58 seconds. Former heavyweight champion George Foreman, a color analyst for HBO’s telecast, said the fight was “the best I’ve seen,” but he criticized Lane’s actions in both the third and seventh rounds.

“He saved Evander Holyfield (in the third round), yet, when he stopped the fight, he didn’t give the other guy a standing eight-count,” Foreman said. Lane said he couldn’t have given Cooper a standing eight-count in any case; IBF rules, under which the fight was held, did not allow for such. Holyfield was given an eight-count since he had been knocked down.

So, just how close had Holyfield come to relinquishing his titles to a man who was a substitute for a substitute, called off the scrap heap to replace the injured Francesco Damiani just a week before the bout? Damiani, for his part, was a substitute for Mike Tyson, who also had to withdraw with an injury that, coupled with his subsequent conviction for rape, would put him on ice for nearly four years.

It would be easy now for those who never saw Bert Cooper at his grittiest to dismiss him as just another journeyman who got a dream shot he didn’t really deserve, someone who should have counted himself fortunate to simply not to be embarrassed by a vastly superior champion. Cooper’s record would seem to support such an allegation: he retired after a sixth-round stoppage loss to Carl Davis on Sept. 8, 2012, with a 38-25 record, 31 of the victories coming inside the distance. He also lost by KO or TKO 16 times.

But even in his declining phase as a steppingstone, a guy with some residual name value to be added to the resume of champions or near-champions on their way down or young guns on the way up, Cooper always posed a threat to upset the applecart. Although he was just 11-17 in his final 28 fights, the first of which was another near-miss bid for a heavyweight title, in this instance the vacant WBO belt won by Michael Moorer in an Atlantic City slugfest in which each man went down twice, his setbacks at least came against some of the division’s brighter lights. In addition to Moorer, Cooper’s list of conquerors included Mike Weaver, Corrie Sanders, Larry Donald, Jeremy Williams, Alexander Zolkin, Chris Byrd, Samson Po’uha, Derrick Jefferson, Fres Oquendo, Joe Mesi and Luis Ortiz.

That he fought as long as he did, and as reasonably well, while struggling with the dual demons of drug and alcohol addictions makes his journey to the outer fringes of stardom as remarkable as it is sad. It was Cooper’s inability to hide his out-of-the-ring struggles from Joe Frazier that led to their breakup.

“Pop looked upon Bert almost as a member of the family,” Joe’s son, former heavyweight contender Marvis Frazier, recalled in November 1991. “He treated him better than he did me. Well, almost.”

It was the realization of Cooper’s drug use that was partly responsible for Joe Frazier quitting as his protégé’s manager after Cooper was stopped in seven rounds by Carl “The Truth” Williams for the vacant USBA heavyweight title on June 21, 1987, in Atlantic City. The 5-foot-11 Cooper, who previously had competed as a cruiserweight, claimed he had been forced to move up to heavyweight by Frazier, who had mandated the change because he wanted to relive his championship glory through Cooper.

“I realized (after the Williams fight) I’m not a heavyweight,” Cooper said. “I put on a lot of phony weight just eating sloppy stuff, junk food. Joe wanted me to be a heavyweight, just like he did with Marvis. Joe wants someone with a world title belt just like he had.”

To go public with a statement like that, Marvis said, committed a betrayal of trust in Joe’s eyes. Those in the inner circle knew better than to air dirty laundry in the media. And so, days after Cooper’s loss to Williams, Joe informed him that he no longer could serve as his manager. Joe’s daughter, Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, said the best thing Cooper could do for her father would be to drop the “Smokin’” nickname.

What might Cooper have become had he not fallen under the sway of drugs and booze? Or alienated himself from the man he so deeply admired and whose life story he so desperately wanted to replicate? Cooper was just 12 years old when he decided what he was going to be when he grew up: he would become a boxer, a world champion, the toughest of the tough.

So Cooper started making daily trips from his Sharon Hill home to North Philadelphia, where his hero and role model, Joe Frazier, was operating a gym.  It was there that he would learn – about life, about the fight game – at the foot of the master. But Joe Frazier, who lived clean and fought hard, was a proponent of tough love. Those who accepted his affection would also have to accept his discipline, and there were rules Joe had set down that could never be broached. Cross the line and violators ran the risk of alienation.

When Damiani fell out shortly after Tyson, promoter Dan Duva did not have to go rummaging at the bottom of the proverbial barrel for someone to fight Holyfield. At 5-11 and a taut 211 pounds, Cooper not only was a physical prototype of Joe Frazier, but of Tyson, whom Holyfield had trained for in the first place.

“I guess all the work Evander put in getting ready for Tyson won’t go to waste now,” said George Benton, Holyfield’s trainer. “Fighting Cooper is a lot like fighting Tyson. They’re both short, strong guys who come straight at you and try to rough you up. They both have that kill-or-be-killed attitude.

“I don’t know if Cooper is the closest thing to Tyson, although he’s pretty damn close in some ways. But let’s be honest. In other ways they don’t really compare at all. Cooper doesn’t punch as fast or as hard as Tyson, and he doesn’t take a shot nearly as well. Tyson does a lot of smart things for a slugger. Cooper basically is a brawler. Tyson is the real thing. Cooper is not on the same level.”

But Cooper came ever so close to doing to Holyfield what Tyson – who, to be fair, was not at his snarling best following his incarceration – could not do in their two fights. It’s possible that Bert Cooper might have found the inner conviction he needed to pull himself together, had he won beaten Holyfield, and gone on to a Hall of Fame career more prestigious than his 2017 induction into the Pennsylvania Boxing HOF. It is also possible he would have flamed out in exactly the same manner than he eventually did. It is one of those questions that will always be left open to speculation.

Cooper entered the ring against Holyfield wearing a satin jacket with “The Smoke is No Joke” stitched across the back. At least that much is true. For all the intrigue and insults he so readily attracted, for a precious moment in time there was absolutely no one that was laughing at the supposedly no-chance challenger from just outside of Philadelphia.

Bernard Fernandez is the retired boxing writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. He is a five-term former president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, an inductee into the Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Atlantic City Boxing Halls of Fame and the recipient of the Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism and the Barney Nagler Award for Long and Meritorious Service to Boxing.

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Looking at the Heavyweight Calendar (Odds Review)

Miguel Iturrate

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Joshua vs Ruiz

This past Saturday night saw Deontay Wilder’s WBC world heavyweight title defense against Dominic Breazeale go down on Showtime. The fight lasted just 137 seconds as Wilder floored Breazeale with a cannonball of a right hand to end the night early.

With Wilder out of the way, Anthony Joshua vs Andy Ruiz Jr is up next. They meet June 1st at Madison Square Garden. Two weeks later, on the 15th of June, ESPN+ will deliver Tyson Fury vs Tom Schwarz, so fight fans will get a look at all three members of the “Big Three” all in a month’s time.

Wilder’s erasure of Breazeale this past weekend sent a message to the rest of the division as well as giving him a highlight reel to show during upcoming negotiations. Wilder entered a strong -1000 favorite at the sportsbooks for this fight.

Check out our pre-fight review of the Wilder vs Breazeale odds right here at TSS –

http://tss.ib.tv/boxing/featured-articles/57588-wilder-vs-breazeale-odds-review

Looking forward, the odds posted for Joshua and Fury’s upcoming tussles are even less competitive. Let’s take a look at what the books are giving us as we await the two big Brits fighting in the USA.

Madison Square Garden – New York City – Saturday, June 1, 2019

Heavyweight 12 rounds –

Andy Ruiz Jr +1500 Over 6½ +100

Anthony Joshua -3000 Under 6½ -130

Ruiz Jr is 32-1 overall with his lone loss coming at the hands of Joseph Parker in a failed WBO world title bid. That same WBO belt is now in the hands of Joshua as are the WBA and IBF belts.

Joshua was a big favorite over Jarrell Miller, his original opponent, who was denied a license in New York after testing positive for a buffet of steroids. Ruiz Jr took the fight with less than a full training camp, but you have to believe that he is going to come in highly motivated. Ruiz Jr has been caught at a different type of buffet, the all-you-can-eat kind, but even when in the best of shape his body type isn’t “poster boy material.” Miller was big and bulky as well, but he was a near 300 pounder whereas Ruiz Jr will come in between 250 and 260 pounds, which is right around Joshua’s size. Rather than slaying a 300-pound giant, he is facing a guy who is shorter and fatter than him, making it very hard for Joshua to look great on paper.

At +1500 will people bite on Ruiz Jr? He is more experienced than Miller and he is probably a better fighter overall and though he is facing a formidable champion, Joshua is not a finished product. Perhaps Joshua will be chasing an early finish, feeling the pressure of Wilder’s performance, and if so will he make a mistake that Ruiz can exploit? We are roughly 10 days from finding out.

MGM Grand Garden – Las Vegas, Nevada – Saturday, June 15, 2019

Heavyweight 12 rounds –

Tom Schwarz +1800 Over 9½ -105

Tyson Fury -3600 Under 9½ -125

Tyson Fury closes out the run of top heavyweights with a very deliberately chosen showcase fight against Tom Schwarz. Schwarz is 24 years old and 24-0 but he is a fighter who has come up on the regional German scene and as the old boxing cliche goes, there are levels to this game.

Former contender David Haye mounted a 2016 comeback, booking fights against Mark De Mori (30-1-2) and Arnold Gjergjaj (29-0). It took Haye precisely 6:42 to dispose of both of them, and though Fury is a completely different beast than Haye, the level difference between he and Schwarz may be even as striking.

Wilder has gotten through his “challenge” and if Fury and Joshua also emerge as winners as expected, it will leave several open questions –

– Will Fury vs Wilder 2 happen first, or will Wilder vs Joshua go down first? Could Joshua and Fury meet and freeze Wilder out?

And….

– Will we see any of these fights take place in 2019?

If Joshua or Fury stumble, it will only add to the chaos in the heavyweight division. But if the professional oddsmakers know anything, it isn’t likely to happen.

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Three Punch Combo: An Early Look at Inoue-Donaire and Under the Radar Fights

Matt Andrzejewski

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Inoue vs Donaire

THREE PUNCH COMBO — This past Saturday, Naoya Inoue (18-0, 16 KO’s) punched his ticket to the bantamweight final in the World Boxing Super Series when he impressively knocked out Emmanuel Rodriguez in the second round of their scheduled 12-round fight. The win sets up a showdown with veteran Nonito Donaire (40-5, 26 KO’s) who punched his ticket to the final with an impressive knockout of Stephon Young last month.

As expected, Inoue has opened as a monstrous favorite in the betting markets. While this suggests a one-sided wipeout, I have some other thoughts.

Inoue is pound for pound one of, if not the, hardest puncher in the sport today and put that power on full display in his destruction of Rodriguez in the semi-finals. But having enormous power does not make him indestructible.

In watching that fight against Rodriguez, there were clearly flaws on display on the defensive side of Inoue’s game. For one, Inoue does not move his head at all and as such can be hit. Rodriguez landed several clean punches on Inoue in the first round. And Inoue frequently keeps his hands low looking to bait opponents into throwing to set up counter opportunities. It has worked so far but could be something he pays for down the road.

Donaire is a smart and skilled fighter and though he is 36, his last few fights have shown that he still has plenty left in the tank. Moreover, he possesses one thunderous left hook and has always been at his best when fighting below 122. He has all the capabilities to expose Inoue’s flaws and a left hook that can alter the course of a fight as we have seen him doing plenty of times in the past.

Unlike a lot of people, I do not consider Donaire to be another layup for Inoue. There is real danger in this fight for Inoue if he does not make changes to his game. Donaire has starched big punching rising stars before and I would not discount his chances to expose the significant defensive flaws in Inoue’s game.

 Under The Radar Fight

Boxing returns to ESPN on Saturday with a card from Kissimmee, FL headlined by 130- pound champion Masayuki Ito (25-1-1, 13 KO’s) who is making the second defense of his title against former US Olympian Jamel Herring (19-2, 10 KO’s). While I think this should be an excellent fight, the co-feature, which is flying deep under the radar, should be even better.

In this fight, former two division world champion Jose Pedraza (25-2, 12 KO’s) makes his return to the ring after losing his lightweight title to Vasiliy Lomachenko in December to face Antonio Lozada (40-2-1, 34 KO’s). Given their respective styles, this fight at the very least will provide plenty of sustained action.

Appropriately nicknamed “The Sniper,” Pedraza at his best is a precision puncher. A boxer-puncher by trade, he uses subtle movement inside the ring to create angles that are used to land sharp power shots on his opposition. He is also a very good inside fighter and will shift around on the inside to once again set up just the right angle to land his power shots with maximum efficiency. But despite being a good inside fighter, Pedraza has a tendency to stay in the pocket a bit too long which leaves him open to getting hit.

Lozada is best known for his upset TKO win against one-time blue-chip prospect Felix Verdejo in March of 2018. However, he failed to build momentum off that win and is coming off a lackluster split draw his last time out to 12-7-1 journeyman Hector Ruben Ambriz Suarez.

Lozada certainly does not have the technical proficiency of Pedraza. He is slow and plodding. But what he does bring to the table is relentless pressure combined with a high volume of punches. He will press forward, recklessly at times, winging punches consistently hoping to wear down his opposition through attrition.  As such, he tends to get hit a lot and can be involved in shootouts.

Cleary, Pedraza is the more skilled fighter, but given Lozada’s all-offensive mindset as well as Pedraza’s willingness to stay in the pocket, the leather is all but guaranteed to be flying from the opening bell. Neither are big punchers either so I suspect we see a fight that goes rounds providing many exciting exchanges and one that could certainly steal the show on Saturday.

Another Under The Radar Fight

Also on Saturday, Fox Sports 1 will televise a card from Biloxi, MS featuring a crossroads fight between former 154-pound champion Austin Trout (31-5, 17 KO’s) and former US Olympian Terrell Gausha (21-1, 10 KO’s). But it is another 154-pound fight on the undercard that is receiving almost no coverage that I want to highlight. It pits Chordale Booker (14-0, 7 KO’s) against Wale Omotoso (27-3, 21 KO’s).

Booker turned pro in 2016 after a successful amateur career and has kept up a fairly busy schedule. He is coming off a dominating 8-round unanimous decision over veteran Juan De Angel in January and now is taking a big jump up in his caliber of opposition in facing Omotoso.

Booker, a southpaw, likes to press forward behind a stinging right jab. He possesses elite level hand speed and likes to use that jab to set up quick power punching combinations. Booker is also an excellent counter puncher and possesses a very potent right hook coming from that southpaw stance. He will often hold his left low to bait his opponents into opening up to set up counter opportunities. However, he has also been clipped by his share of left hooks fighting in this manner and this is something he will need to tighten up against Omotoso. So just how will Booker respond to Omotoso’s pressure and heavy handed body attack? Depending on the answer, we will either see Booker step up to the next level or get exposed. And that’s what makes this fight so intriguing to me

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Serhii Bohachuk KOs Mexico’s Freddy Hernandez in Hollywood

David A. Avila

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in Hollywood

HOLLYWOOD, Calif.-Super welterweight prospect Serhii Bohachuk got his first taste of upper tier boxing from Mexico’s Freddy Hernandez and gave him his best Sunday punch to win by knockout.

Bohachuk (14-0, 14 KOs) showed the excited Hollywood crowd he’s more than ready for former world title challengers like Hernandez (34-11, 22 KOs) or maybe even the current contenders with an exuberant display of pressure fighting at the Avalon Theater.

The smiling Ukrainian fighter has been steadily attracting fans to the 360 Promotions fight cards.

Trained by Abel Sanchez, the lanky and pale Bohachuk – whose nickname “El Flaco” fits perfectly – always moved forward against Mexico City’s Hernandez who has made a reputation of being crafty despite the strength of competition. With Bohachuk constantly applying pressure the Mexican fighter used the first round to touch and feel his way around the Ukrainian bomber.

In the second round a sharp counter right floored Hernandez who quickly got up and resumed the contest. It looked like the end was near until Hernandez caught Bohachuk with a solid right cross. It was a warning shot well heeded by Bohachuk.

Both fighters exchanged vigorously in the third round with the Ukrainian fighter’s youth a definite advantage. Hernandez was able to display his fighting tools more effectively in the third round but could it be enough?

Bohachuk was clearly the heavier-handed fighter but was finding it difficult to connect solidly against the Mexican veteran. But in the fifth round Bohachuk lowered his gun sights and targeted the body with a left hook that dropped Hernandez.  The fight was stopped by referee Wayne Hedgepeth at 1:40 of the fifth round.

Other Bouts

A battle of super featherweights saw Rialto, California’s Adrian Corona (5-0) rally from behind to defeat Florida’s Canton Miller (3-3-1) by split decision after six rounds.

Corona had problems with Miller’s speed in the first two rounds and was unable to track the moving fighter’s direction. But in the third round Corona began to apply more aggressive measures against Miller and was especially effective with lead rights. The momentum changed quickly.

Miller switched from orthodox to southpaw and it served to pause Corona’s momentum, but he seldom scored with solid blows. Though Miller landed quick soft blows, Corona was landing with strong shots and convinced two of the three judges that he was the winner by 58-56 twice. A third judge saw Miller the victor by the same score 58-56.

“It’s not my job to judge the judges,” said Miller. “It’s my job to just fight.”

Corona was happy with the victory.

“I could have put the pressure on him a little more,” said Corona. “It was a very technical fight and he put on a great fight.”

Other Bouts

George Navarro (6-0-1, 2 KOs) knocked out Cesar Sustaita (3-5) with a perfect overhand right that disabled the senses and forced referee Raul Caiz Jr. to halt the fight at 1:37 of the first round.

“I worked hard to prepare for this fight,” said Navarro.

A super bantamweight clash saw Humberto Rubalcava (10-1, 7 KOs) knock out Daniel Constantino (3-3-2) and win by knockout after a flurry of a dozen blows went unanswered. Referee Angel Mendez stopped the battering at 1:39 of the first round.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

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