BOXING is a young man’s sport. No right-minded person who has witnessed the comings and goings of fighters for many years would dispute that. So, as a rule, it’s advisable for any successful amateur with pro ambitions to make the move early or risk losing a slice of their prime to the unpaid ranks.
In recent years, though, we’ve seen a slew of amateur stars defy the rule by transitioning late yet still make the grade as pros. Most notably Gennady Golovkin switched codes at 24, Vasiliy Lomachenko at 25 and Oleksandr Usyk aged 26. More recently, Britain’s Joe Joyce made the switch at the ripe old age of 32. Some say he left it too late, but so far, so good. He’s now unbeaten in 12 paid jobs and in his last fight put the skids under rising star Daniel Dubois. But traditionally, late switch-overs were seldom seen and seldom worked. So, in 1960 when a 368-bout amateur called Johnny Cooke turned over at age 25, the move raised a few eyebrows.
Blonde, Bootle-born Cooke’s boyhood idol was fellow Merseysider Nel Tarleton, the legendary British featherweight champ who had two close battles for the world crown. Cooke got his first taste of boxing at Robert Modern Secondary before boxing for St Monica’s and finally the Maple Leaf. He won Army titles in 1953-55, reigned as Northern Counties champion from 1957 to ‘60 and boxed for England several times. He was an ABA lightweight finalist in 1958, losing to all-time great Dick McTaggart. The next year Cooke reached the final again, en route beating McTaggart and Maurice Cullen (later British champ as a pro). This time Cooke was stopped on a cut with half-a-minute to go against Paul Warwick of West Ham ABC. He tried again in 1960 but lost in the quarterfinal to that year’s titlist, McTaggart. “It was such a stinking decision,” Johnny said, “that I decided to try my luck as a professional. Also, I had my heart set on going to Rome for the  Olympic Games; I was bitterly disappointed as McTaggart went and not me.” Altogether, Johnny faced Dick six times, winning two.
Cooke turned pro with Birkenhead’s Johnny Campbell in June 1960 and had 22 bouts in his first two years. He outscored his cousin, Dave Coventry, to claim the Central Area lightweight crown in January 1962, and made a losing bid for British and Empire glory in July ‘64 against the brilliant Brian Curvis. Six months later, Johnny beat fellow Bootle man Tony Smith for the Central Area welter crown, and in February 1967 faced another Merseysider, Brian McCaffrey, for the titles vacated by Curvis.
McCaffrey and Cooke put up an astonishing battle waged at a frenetic pace. Anyone doubting the conditioning of boxers of that era should look at the fight on YouTube to see both men still going hell for leather in the 15th round. Their performances both deserved acclaim but Johnny was a worthy winner. Three months later he put a first notch on his Lonsdale Belt by beating Barnsley’s Shaun Doyle, and in August 1967 fought for the European crown, losing to Italy’s Carmelo Bossi in San Remo. Cooke lost his British and Empire titles to Ralph Charles over 15 close rounds in February 1968, a verdict he disputed. From then Johnny’s ambition was to get a return and win a Lonsdale Belt for keeps. It never happened but he fought on until 1971, retiring just before his 37th birthday.
Cooke packed 93 fights (52-34-7) into an 11-year pro career in which he travelled far and wide. He fought in Finland, Denmark, Sweden, France, Holland, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Guyana, Ghana and Canada. But as a visiting fighter it was often an uphill struggle to win a decision. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of his defeats came in overseas bouts.