THE MOORER–COOPER BARNBURNER: They often are called “closet classics,” a term employed to describe thrilling, two-way action fights that, for whatever reason, somehow have managed to escape widespread public attention both in the then-and-now and in a broader historical sense.
By that definition, the incredible slugfest waged by Michael Moorer and “Smokin’” Bert Cooper on May 15, 1992, at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J., was way, way out of the closet. The knockdown-filled brawl – the principals went down a combined four times, twice by Moorer (pictured with his trainer/manager Emanuel Steward), who won on a fifth-round knockout – was for the vacant WBO heavyweight championship, a not-insignificant bauble even if the WBO was not yet widely recognized as a major sanctioning body. The fight was televised nationally by TVKO, as the pay-per-view arm of HBO Boxing was then called. Moorer, a former WBO light heavyweight ruler, went in as the undefeated (28-0 with 26 KOs), No. 1-ranked WBO contender while Cooper (27-8, 24 KOs) was ranked No. 2 and coming off a challenge of heavily favored WBA/IBF titlist Evander Holyfield, whom he put down and almost out in the third round six months earlier, to the disbelief of Holyfield’s hometown fans in Atlanta’s Omni. “My heart started to go boom, boom, boom,” Cooper said at the postfight press conference after that near-miss, in which the “Real Deal” recovered to win by seventh-round TKO. “I thought I was the heavyweight champion of the world. I said to myself, `Oh, boy, this is it.’”
John Stewart, one of the three judges assigned to work Moorer-Cooper, probably figured he didn’t really need a pencil to score a fight that almost everyone expected would not go the distance. (Stewart had Cooper up, 38-37, through four rounds). But Stewart, now 75 and the veteran of 140-plus world title bouts, remembers what happened that night as if it happened yesterday instead of 25 years ago.
“I don’t remember the details of every fight I ever worked, or even most of them, but I remember that one,” Stewart said when contacted for this story. “I remember that first round (when both fighters went down and were in serious trouble). Cooper put Moorer down and it looked like the fight was over. But Moorer gets up, he puts Cooper down and it looked like it was over again, only with the other guy winning. Amazing stuff. The whole fight was like that, for as long as it lasted.”
So why isn’t Moorer-Cooper frequently mentioned as one of the most compelling and entertaining heavyweight scraps of all time? Maybe it was because it was overshadowed by Riddick Bowe’s unanimous-decision over Holyfield in the epic first fight in their trilogy, on Nov. 13, 1992, which was deservedly selected as the Fight of the Year by The Ring magazine. Maybe it’s because Moorer and Cooper carried reputation-smudging, out-of-the-ring baggage (Moorer for assaulting a police officer in his hometown of Monessen, Pa., Cooper for his admission of drug and alcohol abuse). Maybe it’s because Cooper’s promoter at the time of the Moorer fight was the semi-notorious Rick “Elvis” Parker, who became fully notorious when he was shot dead on April 28, 1995, by one of his boxers, Tim “Doc” Anderson, who said he committed the murder, for which he is serving a life sentence, because Parker had had him drugged for his losing rematch with football player-turned-fighter Mark Gastineau and had threatened to have Anderson’s quadriplegic sister and her two daughters killed if he did not take agree to take a dive, which he refused to do.
Although neither Moorer nor Cooper has been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., there is a reasonable likelihood that Moorer will eventually enter that exclusive inner circle. Now 49, he was one of the most devastating punchers ever as a light heavyweight, winning the WBO title and defending it nine times, all by knockout, before going on to twice win versions of the heavyweight belt, once by upsetting Holyfield. He also was the first southpaw to win a world heavyweight title and finished his career with an impressive 52-4-1 (40) record.
Cooper, 51, a stumpy 5-foot-11½ pressure fighter who physically and stylistically bore a close resemblance to his onetime mentor and role model, Joe Frazier, as well as to Mike Tyson and Dwight Muhammad Qawi, can only make it to Canastota as a visitor, or at best as an invited guest. As Hall of Fame memberships goes, he’ll have to be satisfied with his impending induction into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame, which takes place on May 21 in the Juniata Park section of Philadelphia. His final record of 38-25 (31), with 16 KO losses, looks almost shabby in comparison to that of Moorer, but, like a lot of fighters, he stayed too long at the fair, losing 16 of his final 25 ring appearances.
But, on any given night, Cooper could demonstrate, as he often stated, that “the Smoke is no joke.” That might never have been more true than the night he stood toe-to-toe with Moorer, which he had to realize was probably his last, best chance to become something akin to the world-class fighter he, and more than a few others, believed was his destiny. Constantly coming forward, ripping hard shots with bad intentions, Cooper began his pro career in 1984 and before long he was 10-0, with nine KOs. Even then, however, the dark lure of some of Philadelphia’s more dangerous streets beckoned him toward perdition.
“I fell from grace in my prime,” he told me in June 1994. “When I started making good money, I started drinking and doing drugs. Well, even more than I had been, let’s put it that way. It was, like, `Whee!’ A big party, you know?”
Cooper appeared to hit rock-bottom on June 1, 1989, when he quit on his stool after two rounds against George Foreman in Phoenix. Worse, the Arizona State Athletic Commission withheld Cooper’s purse for what it deemed to be non-effort on his part. In explaining that dreadful performance, Cooper said he had spent the three nights leading up to the bout snorting cocaine and cavorting with hookers whom he insisted were sent to his hotel room by Big George or his representatives. It seems far-fetched – at least the part about any involvement by Foreman, an ordained minister — so make of that charge what you will.
The comeback trail after the Foreman debacle proved rutted and rocky as Cooper was cast as a steppingstone for more upward-trending contenders like Ray Mercer and Bowe, both of whom defeated him. Cooper was on a four-fight winning streak, albeit against a lesser grade of opponents, when he was asked to be a late replacement for Italy’s injured (sprained ankle) Francesco Damiani in what seemed certain to be Holyfield’s triumphant return to his hometown. Most sports books that even accepted wagers on the bout had Cooper as at least a 30-to-1 no-hoper.
Holyfield was dominating, too, until Cooper landed an explosive right to the jaw in the third round. Evander careened backward, and a charging Cooper unleashed a barrage of punches that had the champion 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. It was all Holyfield thereafter, and he closed the show in the seventh with a series of right uppercuts that turned Cooper’s skull into that of a bobbing-head doll.
Those few additional seconds of rest might have given Holyfield, whose recuperative powers are well-documented, the reprieve he needed to make it to the bell ending the round. It has always been Cooper’s assertion that he would have finished off Holyfield had it not been for Lane’s intervention, a position seconded by Foreman, who was at ringside as a color commentator for the HBO telecast.
“(Lane) 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.
His near-starching of Holyfield was still imprinted in the minds of many when Mercer was stripped of the WBO title for choosing to take a good-paying, non-title bout with Larry Holmes, again putting Cooper in position to become a champion and, perhaps, atone for previous opportunities squandered. Nor was the favored Moorer taking anything for granted.
“It all depends on what guy has the bigger heart,” Moorer said. “I think I have a tremendous heart. I want to live a different life. This is my life right here.”
Cooper, the alleged quitter and frequent miscreant, also showed up determined to demonstrate that his ticker was in fine working order. Their first round was three minutes of time-capsule splendor, worthy of being preserved for future generations to admire. Cooper quickly put Moorer down with an onslaught along the ropes, but, in a virtual replay of the third round of Cooper’s flooring of Holyfield, referee Joe O’Neil delayed his count in order to send Cooper back to a neutral corner, from which he had excitedly wandered. As was the case with Holyfield, Moorer seemed to benefit from those precious additional seconds, and he launched a ferocious counter-attack that sent Cooper sprawling with under a half-minute remaining. “What a wild first round!” exclaimed blow-by-blow announcer Len Berman.
The wildness never really abated as Moorer, an accurate and powerful counterpuncher, chose to fight with his back to the ropes, the better to draw Cooper to him, which Smoke did with no hesitation. Their exchanges were frequent and ferocious. Moorer went down again in the third round, but the bell rang with Cooper bleeding from a nasty cut over his right eye as he again got as good as he gave, or nearly so.
It came down to the fighter who could summon the best finishing kick and, early on in the decisive fifth round, that appeared to be Cooper, who again was hammering away with loaded-up body shots. But the gritty Moorer connected with a three-punch combination upstairs to deck Cooper, who was counted out by O’Neill before he could haul himself upright.
For the victorious Moorer, there would be more good days inside the ropes. For Cooper … not so much so. As his fortunes and reputation once more began to fray, Top Rank honcho Bob Arum said the mere act of putting the dissipated Smoke on a card was a gamble that increasingly was apt to not pay off.
“It used to be that you didn’t know which Bert Cooper would show up,” Arum said in 1994. “Sometimes you got the in-shape, tough-as-nails Cooper. Other times you got the fat, lazy Cooper. Now, the only Cooper there is seems to be the second one. I don’t know what happened to the guy who almost beat Evander Holyfield.”
Repeated efforts on my part to get in touch with Cooper for this story proved fruitless, but I hope one of the last interviews I had with him, more than a dozen years ago, revealed who he is today. “When you fall, you have to get up, dust yourself off and work for the Lord,” he said then. “I’m working for the Lord now. My life is beautiful now. I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior.”
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