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

Bernard Fernandez



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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Maxim Dadashev Dead at Age 28

Arne K. Lang




Junior welterweight boxer Maxim Dadashev passed away this morning (Tuesday, July 23) at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Prince George County, Maryland.  The news was confirmed by Dadashev’s trainer Buddy McGirt and his strength and conditioning coach Donatas Janusevicious.

Dadashev’s death was a result of injuries suffered in a fight four days earlier at the MGM casino-resort in Oxon Hill, Maryland. Dadashev’s match with Subriel Matias, scheduled for 12 rounds, was billed as a title eliminator with the victor first in line to face the winner of the upcoming match between Josh Taylor and Regis Prograis. It was the chief undercard bout on a show headlined by fast rising lightweight contender Teofimo Lopez.

Dadashev, who entered the contest undefeated (13-0) was facing another undefeated fighter in Puerto Rico’s Matias, also 13-0 but against suspect opposition. As the fight wore on, it became increasingly more one-sided with Dadashev absorbing heavy punches to the body and head. After the 11th round, Dadashev was pulled from the fight by McGirt.

Dadashev protested McGirt’s decision. He wanted to continue the fight although it was evident that he had no chance of winning without a knockout. But he had trouble walking as he repaired to his dressing room and began vomiting violently once there. Placed on a stretcher, he was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance where he underwent a two-hour operation for a subdural hematoma. A portion of his skull was reportedly removed in an effort to reduce the swelling.

Federal privacy laws prevented the hospital from releasing any details without the consent of his next of kin. As Dadashev lay in the hospital in an induced coma, his wife flew to be by his side from their home in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Reportedly 281-20 as an amateur, Dadashev had fought exclusively in the United States since turning pro. Managed by Egis Klimas and promoted by Top Rank, he trained in Oxnard, California, along with stablemates Vasiliy Lomachenko and Oleksandr Gvozdyk.

As expected, Buddy McGirt, who entered the International Hall of Fame this year, was devastated by the news. “He did everything right in training,” said McGirt, “no problems, no nothing….great, great guy. He was a trainer’s dream. If I had two more guys like him, I would need nobody else because he was truly dedicated to the sport.”

We here at TSS send our condolences to Dadashev’s family and loved ones.

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Good Night, Sweet Pea

Springs Toledo




Good Night, Sweet Pea

Bishop James E. Jones Jr.’s booming baritone was rising up through the rafters at the Scope Arena in Norfolk, Virginia. He was preaching about hands—your neighbor’s hands, the hand in yours now, the Father’s hands into which Jesus commended his spirit from the cross. “Sweet Pea’s HANDS,” he shouted, “took him to places HIS EYES NEVER IMAGINED!”

Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, the greatest pure boxer since Willie Pep, lay in repose at the foot of the stage, his hands crossed at his belt. His coffin was black. An Olympic flag was draped over it and boxing gloves carefully arranged on top. The few thousand who attended his Saturday morning memorial service came to mourn and to celebrate a perfect fighter, an imperfect man, and a community that has long-since learned to look up no matter what.

Mark Breland was there. He came down from New York to honor the captain of an Olympic boxing team that won nine gold medals in 1984. Long gone is the fresh-faced amateur smiling under a laurel wreath, but Breland remains reed thin. He stood at the podium in a gray suit with a powder blue shirt and was too overwhelmed with grief to say much. “We knew him differently,” he said.

Kathy Duva, now a promoter, then his publicist, was there too. “Pound-for-pound,” she said. “That’s how he signed his autographs.” And that’s exactly what he was: the pound-for-pound best boxer in the world from September 1993 through March 1996, despite performances that struck the unsophisticated as pusillanimous. “He simply chose not to engage in outright brutality,” Duva said. “It was so much more fun to tease and toy with his opponents.” Whitaker teased and toyed with everyone, including a young Floyd Mayweather Jr. who, she said, “could not lay a glove on him” even as he sparred with those hands of his behind his back in 1996. Whitaker brought laughter into the midst of danger because of his cosmic level of skill, and because it kept boredom at bay. Merely making world-class fighters miss wasn’t enough; so he’d dart behind them and as they looked around to see where he went, he’d tap them on the rear end. When Roger Mayweather was known as “Black Mamba” and feared for his right hand, Whitaker—fighting here at the Norfolk Scope—yanked his trunks down in the middle of the sixth round.

“An imp with gold teeth,” said one wit during his glory days, “floating around that blue canvas like a cloud,” added Duva.

No one could outbox him. It isn’t easy to settle firmly on a lightweight in history who could. But the product of Young Park, a housing project just east of the Scope, wasn’t raised to shrink from violence. As a child, his father wouldn’t tolerate tears when he was hurt by neighborhood bullies. He’d turn him around. “Go back,” he’d say. “Give them everything you got.” When he was eight, he and nine-year-old Mario Cuffee got into a street fight and Clyde Taylor, a mailman who moonlighted as the neighborhood’s recreation director, hustled over and grabbed both by the scruff of the neck. “Do your fighting in the gym,” he said, and with permission from the boys’ parents, restaged the fight in the ring, with boxing gloves that looked like balloons. Whitaker lost that one, but found a mentor who began the process of transforming an undersized project kid into a giant of boxing and boxing history. Whitaker credited Cuffee almost as much. “Come to think of it,” Cuffee told me Monday, “I beat him that first fight, though I gotta come clean, he got me back a few years later.” When Whitaker fought Greg Haugen at the Coliseum in 1989, Cuffee bought a ticket and made his way across the Hampton Roads Beltway through a blizzard to see Haugen lose every round. At the post-fight press conference, Cuffee was standing in the back, “in cognito.” Whitaker spotted him and told the story of their fateful childhood fight. “Thanks Mario,” he said. Haugen, his face scuffed and swollen, looked up. “Yeah,” he said. “Thanks Mario.”

In Detroit, while still an amateur, he was invited to spar with Hector Camacho just as Floyd Mayweather was later invited to spar with him. Camacho couldn’t land a glove on him either. “He got mad and started fighting dirty,” Whitaker told the Newport News. “He grabbed me behind the head, pulled it down, and hit me with an uppercut. Then I grabbed him and threw him to the canvas and we started wrestling and fell out of the ring.” Whitaker offered to take it outside. Camacho talked a lot but never went near him again.

In 1984, after the Duvas had convinced Whitaker to throw in with Main Events, they introduced him to trainer George Benton. Benton, who understood the science of belligerent invisibility like no one else, took what Taylor had begun and finished it. He taught him to stop running around the ring, to stand on a dime; to see the difference between wasting energy and ducking and slipping just enough to let punches graze your hair or flick your ear. Benton made sure he became, in his words, “harder to hit than the numbers,” and a master at punching around, between, over, and under what’s coming in. “When I talk he stands and listens like a private would a general,” he said in 1986. “Sweet Pea’s going to be one of the best fighters ever.”

Seven years later, Whitaker swaggered into the ring against Julio Cesar Chavez, then 87-0 and rated by The Ring as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Whitaker fought him on a dime—twisting, rolling, fast-stepping outside his lead foot, and punching around, between, over, and under whatever came in. He had a trick that kept working. He’d turn his right shoulder in to narrow himself and hide his left until the moment it clubbed Chavez on the side of the head. You could hear it land—“whump!”—and it landed all night. In the ninth round, he was outfighting Chavez on the inside—“whump, whump!”—which no one had ever done. Chavez was befuddled and —“whump!”—puffing up. And then, at the end, 59,000 witnessed one of boxing history’s most egregious heists. Two of the three judges called the fight a draw. That’s what we were told anyway. Josè Sulaimàn, WBC president, countryman of Chavez, and favorite stooge of Don King, was seen collecting the scorecards after every round that night.

It is a grandiose irony. Whitaker put an exclamation point on Benton’s prediction in two fights he didn’t win. The second one was nearly as bad as the first.

At 33, he faced a 24-year-old Oscar De La Hoya, then 23-0 and rated by The Ring as the second best pound-for-pound fighter behind Roy Jones Jr. Whitaker made him look like a golem and won that fight too despite an official loss that stinks to this day. “The world saw it,” he said afterward, and smiled anyway, gold teeth gleaming. “The people saw it.”

Bishop Jones saw it. He remembered him standing triumphantly on the ropes before the decision against him was announced. He remembered it well.

“What I loved most about Sweet Pea Whitaker,” he told the mourners at the Norfolk Scope,

“.…was when he KNEW he had won the fight he DIDN’T WAIT on the referee to hold up his hands. He didn’t WAIT on the THE JUDGES to tell him whether or not he had won the fight, but if you look on the back of your programs, there’s a SIGNATURE MOVE that the champ would always do when he knew he had WON THE FIGHT. Family! HE WOULD THROW UP BOTH HIS HANDS!”

With that, Jones stepped back from the podium and thrust both hands in the air. When the people saw that, they roared as one. But Jones was just getting started, the crescendo wasn’t reached, not yet. He stopped them short. “EXODUS CHAPTER SEVENTEEN, VERSE ELEVEN! Whenever Moses held up…” and stepping back again, struck the same pose, “…HIS HANDS the people always had the victory…if the champ could hold up his hands in the middle of his fight, then SURELY you and I ought to HOLD UP OUR HANDS!”

Mario Cuffee jumped to his feet and thrust both hands in the air. Thousands, dressed in their best on the hottest day yet this year, rose as one and thrust both hands in the air. Whitaker’s signature move, multiplied. It was a transcendent moment; the spirit of a man—a father, a brother, a friend, a neighbor—merging with the spirit of the city he loved.

Bishop Jones lowered his gaze to the black coffin at the center of it all. “SWEET PEA!” he thundered as if to wake him up, “That one is for you! You got the victory! CHAMP!”

I closed my eyes and somewhere, I know, Whitaker opened his.





Special thanks to Dr. James E. Jones Jr. senior pastor and founder of Greater Grace Church in Portsmouth, VA.

 Springs Toledo is the author of Smokestack Lightning: Harry Greb, 1919, now available in paperback.

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Mad Max and Manny

Ted Sares




The crowd chants “Manny, Manny, Manny” at the weigh-in at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas and Pacquaio’s beloved Pinoy fans are going wild. It’s a BIG event, bigger even than many heavyweight title fights.


Meanwhile, Maxim “Mad Max” Dadashev’s wife Elizabeth is flying from her home in St. Petersburg, Russia, to be with her husband at a hospital in Maryland. Dadashev was critically injured on Friday night while suffering an upset loss to heavy-handed Puerto Rican bomber Subriel Matias at another MGM property, the MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland.

Dadashev, 28, was 281-20 as an amateur, undefeated in 13 professional fights, and the IBF’s third-ranked junior welterweight, but Matias had his number and dominated throughout in a tough and grinding affair.

Capture 9

Maxim Dadashev

At the end of the 11th round, Buddy McGirt told his fighter, “I’m going to stop it, Max.” Dadashev protested. Maybe Max’s brain signaled no, maybe not. But his heart surely said “I’m not done.”

McGirt overruled him, a sage move, but unbeknownst to anyone the damage had been done and it was severe.

“He had one hell of a fight,” McGirt told the Washington Post. “Tough fight, tough fight; took a lot of tough body shots. I just think it was time to stop it. He was getting hit with too many shots. I said to him, ‘I’m stopping it.’ He said, ‘No, don’t.’”

The scores at the time of the stoppage were 109-100, 108-101 and 107-102 in favor of Matias. According to CompuBox, Matias out-landed Dadashev 319-157; 112 of Matias’ punches were body shots.

Max was stretchered out of the arena and rushed to UM Prince George’s Hospital where his skull was opened up to relieve the pressure caused by bleeding. The cavity reveals brain damage, and memories of Mago surface. The dreaded and familiar scenario then begins as he is put into an induced coma. Hopefully, the swelling goes down, the bleeding stops, and no blood clot appears as the later would make a terrible situation grave. In any event, Max will never box again. His well-publicized dream to win a world title will not be fulfilled.

In a post-fight interview, ESPN’s ringside analyst Tim Bradley said, “That’s a scary situation and every time you step foot in the ring you know that was always the talk that I would have with my wife. You know before I would step foot in the ring, I would sit her down, I would look at her and I would say, ‘Look at me, honey. Take a good look at me, open your eyes wide open because I might not come out the ring, for one, and I know I’m not coming out of the ring the same way that I came in.’”


Back to the big fight the following evening:

The crowd chants “Manny, Manny, Manny” as he enters the ring to battle Keith Thurman for still another championship as his worshipers are now virtually in a state of mass hysteria and begin singing and cheering loudly. The scene borders on the surreal.

Across the Pond

Earlier on Saturday, across the pond in London, heavyweight David Allen took a bad beating from 6’9” David Price and required oxygen. He also was stretchered out and sent to a hospital, adding to the angst. But he will be okay. According to his promoter, Eddie Hearn, Allen had a broken orbital bone and a damaged tongue, but brain scans suggested he was okay.

David Allen — “Very happy and proud of David Price. I will be okay, but the last 12 months or so my health has been deteriorating and I’m glad I hung on, took the chance, and made money. [I’m] now probably done.”

“Manny, Manny, Manny”

In Las Vegas, Manny has decked Thurman in the first round and the place is delirious. The crowd senses that this is his night although Thurman is not backing up. In the tenth, Pac almost puts “One Time” away after landing a devastating body punch.

Finally, the fight is over and Manny is declared the winner. The decibel count goes off the chart as the Pinoys sing “We Are The Champions.” Viewers hit the mute button. These are not fans as much as they are cultists. One wonders if those who are chanting even know that this has been a week where boxing exposed its grim side.

Photo credit: Al Applerose

Ted Sares is a member of Ring 8, a lifetime member of Ring 10, and a member of Ring 4 and its Boxing Hall of Fame. He also is an Auxiliary Member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA). He is an active power lifter and Strongman competitor in the Master Class.

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