ATLANTA -- On the back of the black satin jackets that Bert Cooper's handlers wore into the ring Saturday night were these words: "The Smoke Is No Joke."
Talk about truth in advertising.
Cooper, known as Smokin' Bert, turned logic and the odds upside down and for a fleeting moment appeared to have the heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield, within his gunsights.
Having survived a first-round knockdown, the 25-year-old Cooper, a 22-1 underdog, came within a heartbeat of being heavyweight champion in the third round of a scheduled 12-round bout. That was when he made Holyfield go limp because of a right to the head, then sent the champion reeling backward into the ropes with another right and a helpful shove.
"Whatever he hit me with was a good shot," Holyfield, 29, said afterward.
Referee Mills Lane ruled that since only the ropes were keeping the dazed Holyfield upright, the champion had suffered a knockdown, the first of Holyfield's professional career.
Lane gave Holyfield the mandatory eight-count, Cooper rushed forward to swat Holyfield two more rights to the head, then drew a deep breath so that he could finish the job.
He never did polish off the other man, though. Seemingly from the point of no return, Holyfield revived and began bouncing thudding rights off Cooper's head.
Ordinarily a knockdown as damaging as Cooper's in the third merits a 10-8 round. But the volume and impact of Holyfield's punches made a strong enough impression that two of the three judges scored the round at only 10-9 for Cooper.
Although Holyfield would go on to stop Cooper at 2 minutes, 58 seconds of the seventh round before a hometown crowd at The Omni, the night was no laugher for the champion. The Smoke was no joke.
Even though, six rounds into the fight, Cooper was bleeding from the lower lip, was taking better than two punches for every one he landed and was behind on all three judges' scorecards, the threat of calamity for Holyfield was ever present. Cooper's right hand did damage -- and not just in the third round.
But his resilience against Holyfield's punches was even more striking. Holyfield landed vicious right uppercuts time and again that snapped Cooper's head back but could not discourage the challenger. Cooper kept fighting back, forcing Holyfield to retool a fight plan based on his out-boxing Cooper.
"He didn't give up," Holyfield said. "He didn't take anything for granted. He was aggressive enough to put me in a fight I didn't want to be in."
That fight was a brawl that scared the daylights out of the Holyfield camp, which saw a possible $100 million fight with Mike Tyson going up in smoke. But Holyfield kept hammering away at Cooper until he broke him in the seventh round.
That's when Cooper's assault arsenal diminished. Holyfield's promoter, Dan Duva, afterward claimed that a tape of the seventh round showed Cooper taking 25 punches from Holyfield without responding, just before Lane stopped the fight.
"Bert Cooper is a tough guy," Lane said, "but he took a lot of punches. He seemed to have lost the ability to fight back."
Lane's stoppage drew criticism from Cooper's promoter, Rick Parker.
"The fight was stopped prematurely," Parker said. "Why didn't they stop it when Bert was beating him? It was a $100 million conspiracy. They won't give the little guy a chance."
With his victory, Holyfield is undefeated in 27 fights, 22 of which he has won by knockout. Cooper, who took Saturday's bout on a week's notice after injury forced Francesco Damiani to withdraw, dropped to 26-8, with 21 knockouts.
Holyfield was said to have received $6 million to $7 million for fighting Cooper. Cooper, a Philadelphian who lives in Virginia, reportedly received $750,000.
Whether the big-money fight against Tyson will materialize remains to be seen. Tyson is scheduled to go on trial Jan. 27 in Indianapolis, where he is charged with raping an 18-year-old woman.
Duva has targeted March 6 and March 20 as possible dates for a rescheduled Holyfield-Tyson match, but that is contingent on Tyson's lawyers getting a new trial date.
Originally, Holyfield and Tyson were to have fought Nov. 8 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nev., but a Tyson injury caused that fight to be postponed.
Cooper has been offered a rematch against Riddick Bowe, who knocked out Cooper in two rounds in October 1990.