To a professional athlete, the word "quitter" carries the worst stigma in the dictionary.
But it is a word that boxing critics use consistently in judging the erratic ring career of Bert Cooper, who will challenge undisputed heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield at the Omni in Atlanta (HBO) tomorrow night.
Cooper, a Philadelphia native who copied his aggressive style from his boxing idol and early mentor, Joe Frazier, is 26-7 with 23 knockouts. He also held the North American Boxing Federation cruiserweight title for four years.
But it is the way he lost several of his fights that lingers in the minds of boxing observers.
Cooper, who weighed in yesterday at 215 pounds, 5 heavier than the champion, used a big punch but little dedication to win his first 11 fights. Then he stumbled over Reggie Gross, the in-and-out Baltimore heavyweight with a big punch but little dedication.
Mack Lewis, who managed and trained Gross, now serving three consecutive life terms for involvement in a drug war, remembers that 1986 fight in Atlantic City.
"Reggie wasn't doing any fighting and Cooper had won the first seven rounds easy," Lewis said. "Then Reggie landed a hard right in the eighth round, and Cooper just turned his back and quit, leaning over the ropes. I couldn't believe it."
It was not the last time Cooper's heart was questioned.
"Cooper quits whenever he gets hurt," fight promoter Murad Muhammad, who handles title contender Razor Ruddock, told the New York Post. "He not only quit against Gross, he also quit against George Foreman [third-round TKO in 1989] and Riddick Bowe [second-round TKO in 1990]."
In his defense, Cooper said that a cocaine habit and womanizing robbed him of his strength against Foreman. That led to his split with Frazier, who no longer acknowledges his former protege's existence.
"I want to prove something to Joe," Cooper said. "There's real bad blood between us now. He won't even talk to me. I've got to show him I can still fight to win him back."
Cooper, 25, vowing new resolve since moving to Salem, Va., has scored four consecutive knockouts this year over nondescript fighters, the latest victim being Indian Joe Hipp in Atlantic City last month.
Apparently that was enough to earn Cooper a $750,000 pay day against the unbeaten Holyfield.
Cooper is an 11th-hour substitute for a substitute. Holyfield (26-0, 21 knockouts) was scheduled for a showdown with former champion Mike Tyson in Las Vegas, but Tyson injured his ribs in training. Next came Italian heavyweight Francesco Damiani, who pulled out last week with an ankle injury.
Cooper was quickly signed to salvage the pay-per-view fight in Holyfield's hometown. The World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation gave their blessing to the title match, but the World Boxing Council, aligned with promoter Don King and Tyson, refused to sanction it.
In any case, Holyfield's hometown appeal has kept his supporters from requesting refunds because of the change in opponents.
"The people are coming to see Evander," said the champion's business manager, Shelly Finkel. "But fight fans actually know more about Cooper than Damiani."
One man who knows all about Cooper is George Benton, Holyfield's veteran trainer who watched Cooper develop as a fighter in Frazier's gym in North Philadelphia.
"Cooper is no Rembrandt as a boxer," said Benton. "He tries to imitate Joe, but he ain't no Joe Frazier. His gas tank is low. If you hit him in the belly a few times, he runs out of steam."
But a cautious Benton has prepared Holyfield for a tough fight.
"Evander has been in the gym for months training hard for Tyson, and we don't want him to lose the edge," Benton said.
"We'll try fighting Cooper the same way we would have fought a big guy like Damiani, stepping around him, not trying to bang with him inside. But you can't take Cooper for granted. Some fighters surprise you. Evander had a real war with Alex Stewart a couple of years ago before he stopped him in the eighth."
Holyfield, who will pocket $6 million tomorrow, still has Tyson on his mind. But their heralded championship match remains on hold, pending the outcome of Tyson's January trial in Indianapolis for the alleged rape of a beauty pageant contestant last July.
"We hope to have another fight for Evander by spring, with or without Tyson," said Finkel. "But Bowe won't be next. We'll wait and see what happens."