Recalling The Bert Cooper Vs. Joe Savage Fight

When The Pro Boxer Met The Bare-Knuckle Tough Guy

What happens when a bare-knuckle fighter steps into the ring with a pro boxer? One day in April, back in 1994, we got an answer. All fighters are different, of course, and just because the bare-knuckle brawling tough guy who is the co-feature subject of this article found out how totally different the two combat sports really are, this fight alone does not mean a boxer is tougher or better than a bare-knuckle operator.

But fans who tuned in to see who would win, a faded former world heavyweight title challenger in Bert Cooper, or an undefeated bare-knuckle fighter in Joe Savage, went home with one definitive and conclusive answer.

Rewind to late 1993, and Savage, a bald-headed bare-knuckle slugger from the UK, was to have featured in something called “The People’s Choice World Heavyweight Superfights” tournament in Bay St. Louis. The winner was to have bagged a cool $1 million (Tony Tubbs won, yet he pocketed far less dough, the promoter far less wealthy than he had made out). Savage, an interesting figure who was helping sales and fan interest in the tournament, pulled out with an injury.

Word got out that Savage, having seen up close and personal how rough and tough the participants – including Tyrell Biggs, Dereck Williams Bonecrusher Smith, and Bert Cooper – went at it in sparring, got cold feet. Who knows for sure. But Savage, who was supposed to have a 41-0(40) record in street fights at the time, decided he really did want a piece of pro heavyweight boxing. Savage and Cooper agreed to a fight that took place in Canada on April 22, 1994.

Cooper, then sporting a 31-12 record and being at least a couple of years from his last meaningful win, got himself into reasonable shape for the curiosity bout. Savage looked a whole lot older than his listed 31 years. The bare-knuckle Brit also cut a quite rotund figure. It didn’t turn out to be much of a fight, but it was quite savage.

38-year-old “Smokin’ Bert” came out fast, looking to put it on Savage in a bid to welcome him to the pro ranks. Savage, ungainly and with his hands held low, did resemble one of the old turn of the century pugilists. But he couldn’t fight like them. Cooper easily countered Savage’s wild swings, soon decking him heavily. Savage got back up but was soon put out of his misery, and flat on his face. Again Savage rose, or tried to, falling in another heap as he did so. It was over in far less than three minutes.

Savage disappeared, never having another sanctioned bout. Again, does the fact that Cooper, a faded version, ruined Savage so quickly and ruthlessly prove that pro boxers are tougher than bare-knuckle fighters? No. But has any bare-knuckle fighter ever proven otherwise?

Joe Savage certainly failed in his bid.

Bert Cooper’s boxing record is 38-25 with 31 knockouts.