SLUGGER Bert Cooper sadly passed away on Friday, at the young age of just 53. One man who, as he puts it today, “went through 12 rounds of hell” with Cooper, Ray Mercer pays tribute to Bert here.

Merer won a wide (on the cards) but tough, tough decision over Cooper in August of 1990, and all these years later, Mercer remembers the battle vividly.

Q: When did you last see Bert and did you run across each other a few times since your amazing fight of 1990?

Ray Mercer: “Yeah, it’s sad news about Bert. A friend of mine, he let me know [that he’d died]. I last saw Bert last year, I forget where. We actually never spoke about the fight. We knew each other so well, him being my sparring partner for years – matter of fact, that’s what made the fight so tough; he knew me so well and I knew him – but we were always friendly. I just want to pay my respects to Bert. If I can, I’ll go to his funeral.”

Q: Going into the fight you two had, in August of 1990, can you remember what you were thinking? From your fast start, and with you scoring a first-round knockdown, it looked like you wanted an early night?

R.M: “Yeah, I wanted to get him out early. I knew how tough he was. 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. The man was a tough dude [laughs]. 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.”

Q: Of all the big punchers your fought, how did Bert’s power rate?

R.M: “He had power, no doubt. He never hurt me but I felt his punches. I knew I’d been hit [laughs]. 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 hospital as we got stitched up.”

Q: Did you two speak whilst being sat there, being stitched up after such a war?

R.M: We did, a little. 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.”

Q: Were your surprised Cooper fought again so soon afterwards, just over two months later, being stopped by Riddick Bowe?

R.M: “I don’t think he was truly motivated to fight Bowe. You know, some fights he [Cooper] was ready and on top of his game, and others he wasn’t. I made sure I had a good rest before fighting again [five months, with Ray’s next fight seeing him win the WBO belt with a KO over Francesco Damiani in January of 1991]. But Bert got into alcohol and drugs. That took a lot out of him. Still, even then, Bert, when he was a determined fighter, he could raise hell in any fight. Just imagine a drug-free Bert Cooper! He’d have beaten most of us, no doubt. He’d have been world champion, I’m sure of that.”

Q: You always wanted to fight Mike Tyson, and Bert was close (if he had beaten Carl Williams in 1987 he would have got a shot at Tyson). How would the Cooper who faced you have done with Tyson?

R.M: “Oh, I really don’t know. If he [Bert] had his mind right, yeah, he would have given Tyson a real slugfest. Bert Cooper wouldn’t lay down for anyone – when he was right, as he was when I fought him. Who knows, man, that might have been another fight of the year.”

Q: Can you rank your top three fights in order – the three that mean the most to you?

R.M: “Yeah. Number one is winning the title, against the guy from Italy [Damiani], number two is the Lennox Lewis fight, which I won. And three, Tommy [Morrison] and Bert rank [equal]. But I tell you for real, nobody ever gave me as tough a fight as Bert did. That one was something else. It was, as you say, The Thrilla in Manila of the 1990s. It was 12 rounds of sheer hell. God bless him.”