Ray Mercer Vs. Bert Cooper – “The Thrilla In Manila Of The 1990s”

This August sees the 30th anniversary of one of the most unexpectedly thrilling, tough and punishing heavyweight fights of the 1990s. Looking back now, the decade was a special time for the heavyweights, with the likes of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman, Riddick Bowe, Razor Ruddock and others entertaining us all with some great action fights.

Two other guys who also rumbled memorably, Ray Mercer and the recently deceased Bert Cooper, met each other on August 5th in 1990. “Merciless” was an unbeaten contender/Olympic gold medal winner and he was thought to have too much for the hot and cold “Smokin’” Bert. Mercer and Cooper met at Convention Hall in Atlantic City and a modern day heavyweight classic was witnessed.

After a bright start by Mercer, who decked Cooper early in the opening round, the slugfest, the torrid two-way action began. The pace was red-hot, both men pumping out a ton of leather. There were no further knockdowns and Mercer was winning almost all of the rounds, yet Cooper hit Mercer with some hard shots; as proven by the swollen jaw of the former army sergeant. Finally, with promoter Bob Arum frantically urging him on from ringside, Mercer won the 12 round UD – 119-108, 117-110 and 117-106.

As was the case with Arturo Gatti and Mickey Ward, a bond had been forged between the two warriors. No rematch took place but, also like Ward and Gatti, the two bruised and exhausted sluggers found themselves being attended to in the same hospital after the fight.

Mercer kindly recalled the fight and its aftermath for this writer a while back.

“I wanted to get him out early. I knew how tough he was,” Mercer said of Cooper. “In sparring, I hit him hard, man, and he always took it. I honestly did think I’d get a quick night after [scoring the knockdown] but he got up. I was looking to land three punches to his one, and I never threw that many punches in any fight. Man, I was tired. I was dehydrated and I was swallowing blood. He bust my lip in the first-round and later I needed 18 stitches and he also busted a blood vessel in my jaw. They said later that I looked like Dizzy Gillespie, blowing his horn.”

Cooper, once trained by the great Joe Frazier, had a mean left hook – as Mercer can attest:

“He had power, no doubt. He never hurt me but I felt his punches. I knew I’d been hit,” Ray said. “Yeah, Smokin Bert Cooper, he brought the smoke with those hooks he threw. I tell you, I had the toughest sparring partners ever, with him and Oliver McCall. The fight with Bert Cooper, it was the fight of the year that year and after it we shared the same emergency room in the hospital as we got stitched up. We were too spent to be able to talk too much. We were just trying to live at that point. But afterwards, when I went home, I had to go see the doctor again. I was so tired, I was dehydrated and I had to spend another two days in the hospital. They had to put me on fluids. I tell you, I didn’t want no rematch. I don’t think he did either. That one fight, it was enough. We went through hell and I just thank the lord that I won. That one was something else. It was, as you say, The Thrilla in Manila of the 1990s. It was 12 rounds of sheer hell.”

It was, perhaps, the most entertaining heavyweight war of the 1990s.