Evander Holyfield (right) and 1984 Olympic teammate and roommate Henry Tillman (left) put their friendship aside for their cruiserweight title fight on Valentine’s Day in 1987. Photo / THE RING.
In many corners of the globe Thursday will mark this year’s observance of Valentine’s Day. For those who cherish its religious significance it’s a day to honor the martyr slain on February 14 for marrying and aiding Christians persecuted in Rome during Claudius II’s tenure. For many others this day carries profound secular impact; it affords couples the opportunity to express their love through gifts and gestures that range from quaint simplicity to outrageously imaginative.
So how does this subject relate to boxing? The answer is threefold. First, the name “Valentine” is derived from the word “valens,” which translates to “strong,” “worthy” and “powerful” – three assets crucial to success in boxing as well as in life. Second, many boxing events have been staged on February 14 and the 10 matches that will be profiled here boast a mixture of historic importance, vengeance, athletic excellence, unimaginable bravery, ambition and vindication.
Finally, those who choose to love boxing do so with an intensity that defies explanation and transcends time. Once the boxing bug bites the recipient stays bitten – often joyfully so – for life. And isn’t that what true love is supposed to be?
So with that in mind, here is one man’s list of the 10 most notable fights to take place on St. Valentine’s Day:
10. 1987 – Bert Cooper KO 2 Willie de Wit, Regina Agridome, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada
After capturing the silver medal for Canada at the 1984 Olympics, de Wit was placed on the fast track toward heavyweight success. A six-round draw against Alex Williamson on the Hagler-Hearns undercard did little to deter his rise and over the next two years he won his next 12 fights, captured the Canadian heavyweight title by beating Ken Lakusta over 12 rounds and was poised to make another run at the American market. The 6-2½ de Wit was ruggedly telegenic, boasted good power with 11 knockouts in 15 wins and, for some, he was appealing because he was – to borrow a phrase used to describe Bobby Czyz – “white, bright and polite.”
Nearly 7,000 filled the Regina Agridome to witness de Wit’s crossroads match with “Smokin'” Bert Cooper, the reigning NABF cruiserweight champion who had eyes on making his own mark at heavyweight. The 20-year-old Cooper bore a physical and stylistic resemblance to his mentor and chief second, “Smokin'” Joe Frazier. Like de Wit, Cooper had overcome an early defeat to Reggie Gross (KO by 8) to put together a six-fight run highlighted by 12-round decision wins over the previously undefeated Henry Tillman (who defeated de Wit in the Olympic final) and future cruiserweight titlist Tyrone Booze. However, it was clear that Cooper was viewed as the “B-side” of the equation, for the fight was staged in Canada and de Wit was the subject of the only CBS pre-fight profile.
The opening bell sparked a mid-ring punching war as Cooper landed a straight right to the face while de Wit dug two hooks to the body and drove a straight right to the chin. The early action revealed Cooper had quicker hands and he soon proved they were heavier too.
Early on, Cooper – as well as CBS analyst Gil Clancy – spotted a fundamental flaw in de Wit’s technique: After throwing a jab de Wit dropped his left arm to chest level and brought it across his body before bringing it back to defensive position. Those extra steps created openings that Cooper exploited again and again.
Just 96 seconds into the fight a sneaky arcing right over the low left froze de Wit, then caused his body to shudder. Moments later a right to the forehead dropped de Wit for an eight-count, most of which he wisely took on one knee. After initially trading with Cooper, de Wit was content to run out the clock by clinching and walking him around until the referee separated them. Just when it appeared de Wit would last out the round disaster struck again.
A monstrous hook again plunged de Wit into freeze-and-wobble mode and another right to the forehead left him sprawled in the neutral corner. Up at five, the bell saved the regional hero from further damage.
De Wit opened round two furiously using the jab to keep Cooper away, then, as his confidence surged, firing both hands to the head and body. Meanwhile, Cooper was content to bide his time, a curious strategy given how badly hurt de Wit was at the end of round one.
The wisdom of Cooper’s patience manifested itself with 62 seconds remaining as a corking right put de Wit on his back for a five-count. A one-two to the face caused blood to gush from de Wit’s nose and as he retreated toward his own corner the enthusiastic cheers that greeted his ring walk now were nervous murmurs. They sensed the end might be near and Cooper made sure their fears turned into fact.
A 12-punch volley capped by a right to the temple forced de Wit to fall again. The bell sounded several seconds into the count but de Wit was still obligated to rise. He did so at nine but chief second Jackie McCoy nevertheless waved off the fight. (Click on the NEXT button at the bottom right corner of the page to read Nos. 9 through 1.)