Nearly a month ago, Philadelphian heavyweight Bert Cooper passed away at the age of 53. Cooper was most famous for his November 1991 heavyweight title bout with undefeated champion Evander Holyfield, a fight that Cooper took on short notice after Francesco Damiani withdrew due to a foot injury. Damiani had initially replaced Mike Tyson, who was arrested and awaiting trial for the rape of Desiree Washington.
Last Saturday, Andy Ruiz Jr took on undefeated heavyweight world titleholder Anthony Joshua. Ruiz, like Cooper, was not the first choice of opponent for the champion, having replaced Jarrell Miller after Miller failed numerous drug tests in the lead up to the bout. Ruiz, also like Cooper, held a weight advantage in the fight but gave away a significant height advantage. The size advantage, however, was on a much larger scale as Joshua and Ruiz, weighing over 500lb between them, scaled much more than the 425lb combined weight of Holyfield and the late Cooper
Both bouts started similarly. The short notice challengers took the centre of the ring and attempted to work their way to the inside where their height disadvantage would be their advantage. The champions boxed on their toes; using their jabs to set up long right hands. Holyfield found his range much faster than Joshua did, stunning Cooper with a right hand before unloading with both. Cooper fired back, but a left hook to the body had him on the deck for the count of six. When Holyfield tried to follow up on Cooper, he was met with return fire and backed off.
Holyfield continued to target his short notice challenger’s body in the first two rounds. While Cooper took the punches better in the second than in the first round, Holyfield landed at least half a dozen shots to the Philadelphian’s midsection in the second round with the tactic obviously to test his challenger’s conditioning. Joshua, on the other hand, chose to stick with his jab, which he did use to the body on occasion, but otherwise head-hunted; looking to walk Ruiz into a shot that would end matters as he had done to 21 of his previous 22 opponents.
Joshua landed such a shot in the third round and dropped Ruiz heavily with a left hook. Ruiz was up at the count of five, but few gave him a chance to see out the round. As Cooper did 17 years earlier, Ruiz stood his ground and returned fire. Joshua chose not to back up and was stunned with a pair of left hooks to the jaw before being bludgeoned to the canvas. Joshua was on one knee by the count of four, and up at seven.
Cooper had similar success in the third round of his title challenge. After the champion took the fight to him early in the round, Cooper stunned him with a right hand before putting him down against the ropes with a two-handed volley that was punctuated with another right hand. Holyfield was up much quicker than Joshua but was equally as hurt.
Both Ruiz and Cooper poured it on, looking to score the unlikely win in the third round. Both Joshua and Holyfield at first attempted to hold and smother their opponent before returning fire. Holyfield hurt Cooper back with an uppercut and a vicious barrage of punches from both hands and retook control of the fight by the end of the round. Joshua, however, played into the shorter man’s hands and was down a second time before the bell ended the round in eerily similar fashion to the way Cooper put Holyfield down in 1991. From here, the fights took a different turn.
The undefeated champions both opened the fourth round behind their jabs. While Holyfield used his jab to set up his combinations, Joshua used his to keep Ruiz at bay. While Holyfield continued to dig shots into the challenger’s body, the challenger was the one who began to target the midsection of the champion, shooting his jab into Joshua’s chest. Holyfield had Cooper in trouble again in the fifth round before an unscheduled two-minute interval due to a torn glove gave Cooper some respite. When Cooper proved dangerous at the bout’s resumption, Holyfield went back to his jab, using it to set up his body attack and the body attack to set up his uppercut, which violently snapped Cooper’s head back when it landed.
Joshua fought better in the fifth round, controlling the distance with his jab but it lacked the authority that it had before the third round, and he did not attempt any further offence off of the jab. Ruiz continued to stalk and shoot his jab to the body, stealing precious air from the larger man. The sixth round saw Joshua open with more aggression, but he was either too far away from Ruiz to land, or too close and on the receiving end of Ruiz’ counters. A pair of body shots made Joshua wince with a minute to go in the round, and the WBA/IBF/WBO and Ring Magazine belt holder was having trouble keeping his hands up as the bout reached the halfway point.
The end to both bouts came in the seventh round. Evander Holyfield took the fight to the brave, but tiring challenger, biting down on his mouthpiece and outpunching the shorter man on the inside until referee Mills Lane saved him from further punishment.
Joshua had brief success with a left hook before Ruiz countered, bludgeoning him to the canvas for the third knockdown of the fight. Joshua feinted spitting his mouthpiece out as the referee finished off the mandatory eight count before taking the fight to Ruiz. Ruiz once again deposited him on the canvas after a two-handed assault, where Joshua did spit out his mouthpiece. After turning his back on the referee at the end of the second mandatory eight count of the round, he was saved from referee Michael Griffin after Griffin discovered he had spat out his mouthpiece.
Bert Cooper had one more memorable slugfest, losing on a fifth-round stoppage in a shootout to future heavyweight champion Michael Moorer. From there, Cooper slowly slipped to gatekeeper status, amassing 63 professional fights in a career that spanned almost 30 years. Ruiz, however, has placed himself in position for several mega money showdowns, including a rematch with Joshua. Regardless of where his career goes from here, Ruiz, like Cooper, will always be remembered for his short notice bravery against an undefeated champion.