In the third round, a blink after the right hand of 32-1 underdog Bert Cooper crashed hard against undefeated heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield's jaw last Saturday night, the ghost of Hometown Disasters Past loomed over the Omni in Atlanta. Holyfield, fighting for the first time as champ in the city where he grew up, reeled backward against the ropes, his senses for the moment disconnected from his body. Another right by Cooper and Holyfield sagged and began to fall. Only the ropes held him up.
Suddenly the heavyweight division was on the brink of an upset that would have been nearly as astonishing as Buster Douglas's knockout of Mike Tyson last year in Tokyo. After a third right, referee Mills Lane stepped between the fighters, correctly ruled that Holyfield had been knocked down and began the mandatory eight count. The knockdown was the first that Holyfield had suffered since a Golden Gloves amateur named Jakey Winter dropped him in 1979 when the future champion was 17.
"I was one punch away from the heavyweight championship," Cooper said later, after Holyfield stopped him with a furious barrage at 2:58 of the seventh round. "I was just starting to throw a right hand when Lane got between us. I was afraid I would hit him."
That might have been the only thing that prevented Cooper from joining Douglas as one of the unlikeliest heavyweight champions of all time. Or maybe it was the white socks that prevented it. Substituting for the injured Francesco Damiani of Italy, who was substituting for the injured Tyson, Cooper, short and thickly muscled, had entered the ring dressed in basic Tyson black. Instead of a robe, he wore a Tyson-style white towel with a hole cut out so the towel would fit over his head and across his wide shoulders. "For a moment I imagined it was Tyson," someone said. "Then I looked at his feet. He's wearing a pair of white socks, for god's sake."
Tyson doesn't wear socks. And Tyson would have thrown that right hand, and if he had hit Lane with it, he would have kept throwing rights until he hit Holyfield. Or Tyson would have thrown a left hook. Or he would have thrown Lane at Holyfield.
But Cooper hesitated. His moment was gone, and he never had another. No doubt the world's best-conditioned athlete, Holyfield recovered quickly and began to fire back. "My mind was fine," said Holyfield later. "My body just wasn't functioning properly. I thought, This is good. He'll think I'm hurt, and he'll get desperate and punch himself out."
Coming off the ropes after Lane's eight count, Holyfield gave Cooper a brief opportunity to burn himself out, and then, all that beautiful machinery once more in sync, he exploded, driving his antagonist across the ring. At the bell Holyfield returned to a frantic corner. "What are you doing?" co-trainer Lou Duva screamed at him. "You're not fighting the way you're supposed to. You've got to move and jab, turn him, look for your spots. You are going to let this guy get lucky."
Maybe it was hometown fever. Champions do not run in front of their neighbors; they stand and fight. As a result they often find themselves in trouble. It happened to John Tate when he lost his WBA heavyweight title in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1980, and to Michael Nunn when he lost his IBF middleweight crown in Davenport, Iowa, in May. Egos replace brains.
"I'm the captain when I'm in the ring," said Holyfield afterward, trying to explain his refusal to follow his cornermen's strategy. "Lou and [trainer] George Benton tell me what they think I should do. I take what they say and I try to use it. This time I just felt that if I did not force the fight, Bert would have fought a safe fight, and it would have gone a lot longer than it did."
Holyfield dropped Cooper with a body shot in the first round and had him reeling in the fifth, when the champion had to pause to change his right glove. He had hit Cooper so hard that the glove burst open—though the champ appeared to need the unscheduled rest more than Cooper did. Near the close of the seventh, Holyfield tore into Cooper with a savage volley of 24 unanswered blows, more than half of which found the challenger's chin or jaw. Two seconds before the bell, Lane mercifully rescued the upright but defenseless Cooper, signaling Holyfield's 22nd knockout in 27 bouts.
Still, that near disaster in the third round should haunt Holyfield. Somewhere Tyson, no doubt holding the injured ribs that forced him out of a scheduled Nov. 8 fight in Las Vegas with Holyfield, must have been laughing. In Italy, Damiani was probably hearing from his wife, who, according to Duva, was angry with him for having pulled out of a $750,000 payday because of a slightly turned right ankle. Doctors had told Damiani he could be ready to fight with one shot of cortisone. As Duva tells it, the following exchange took place:
"No," said Damiani. "Shots make me dizzy. They make me sick."
"Fight, Francesco," said his wife, "$750,000 is a lot of lire."
"Shut up," said Damiani. "I am the one who has to take the punches. Pack your bags."
"Damiani is a quart low," said Benton, who had 80 pro bouts but never fought for more than $10,000. "For that kind of money, I would have gone in the ring with two broken legs."
Enter Cooper, 25, who learned his craft in the hard gyms of Philadelphia. His failing career was recently revived by a win over Joe Hipp, a blimp from Yakima, Wash. Best known for having quit against George Foreman in June 1989 and being knocked out in the second round by Riddick Bowe in October 1990, Cooper was playing with his rottweiler at home in Salem, Va., on Nov. 17 when he got the call saying he would make $750,000 by fighting on HBO against Holyfield, who earned 20% of the $30 million he would have made for facing Tyson.
"The dog got so excited, I had to chain him up," said Cooper, who had won six of eight fights since spending his last $6,000 to put himself through a drug rehabilitation program. "God has given me one more chance. When I leave Atlanta, people will know who Bert Cooper really is."
Holyfield, meanwhile, had come full circle. In August he started training for Tyson. In late October he switched gears to get ready for the 6'4" Damiani, who would have put the folks at the Omni to sleep with his dance-and-grab style. Then, for his last two days of training, he went back to preparing for a hard-punching Tyson clone with 23 knockouts in 33 fights.
Benton, for one, was not pleased with the decision to insert Cooper at the last minute, nor was he surprised that Holyfield came so perilously close to losing the title. "I said this guy was trouble," said Benton. "A fighter can put everything together on the night he fights for the title, just like Douglas did against Tyson. Cooper had that kind of night tonight."
Now Holyfield will rest and wait to see how Tyson fares in his rape trial, which is scheduled to begin on Jan. 27 in Indianapolis. If Tyson is acquitted or if there's a lengthy postponement of the trial, he and Holyfield could fight in March or April. As for Cooper, he has been offered a Feb. I fight on HBO against either Bowe or Michael Moorer. "No more ESPN fights," said Cooper, who earned more respect in his eighth loss than he had in all of his 26 victories combined.
"If Evander beats Tyson and Bert beats Bowe or Moorer, there will be a rematch," said promoter Dan Duva.
Not on ESPN, of course. And certainly not in Atlanta.