THERE wasn’t another like him. Before the first fight, he was all mouthing and saying, “I’ll stop Cooper in five but if he gives me asthma I’ll stop him in four”, that kind of thing. It used to go in one ear and out the other! A lot of the Americans talked more to their opponent than the British fighters but I used to ignore them. He used to try and call me everything but I knew it was putting bums on seats. People would ask if he was upsetting me and I’d say, ‘let him carry on! I’m on a percentage as well!’
Everyone was buying seats. We’d read about him and seen him on film beforehand. He had fast hands and he was fast on his bleeding feet. He could move fast and in a lot of his fights he never knocked people out, what he did was hit them with a series of punches, six or seven punches at a time, all in about three or four seconds and the referee had to jump in and stop it because he didn’t want the opponents to be injured.
I was still confident and I thought I had the style, which I did, that he didn’t like. I didn’t stand off him, I took the fight to him and you had to because he was 6ft 3ins in them days and he had the long reach so if I stood off him and tried to box, he’d have poked my head off. So that’s why I had to trap him in corners and on the ropes to stop his mobility.
‘He was above any heavyweight. He did things that nobody else could do’Henry Cooper on Muhammad Ali
I knew that if I’d have hit him with that left hook that I hit him with 15 seconds earlier [in the fourth round], and he’d have been in the middle of the ring, he’d have gone down heavy. He’d have hit his head on [the canvas] and that would have knocked him a bit more silly. Unfortunately, the ropes let him down gently; he went from the top rope to the middle rope to the bottom. That’s just how it goes.
He always praised me [afterwards], and he never knocked me. He paid me the greatest compliment when he said, ‘That left hook that Cooper hit me with didn’t only shake me, it shook my relations in Africa.’ That’s a good line!
For the second fight we had the weigh-in at the Palladium and I was confident. For the first three or four rounds, I was a bit short in my punches and in the next round or so I started connecting and got my distance. I thought I was holding my own and I thought I was going to go and win. And then, suddenly, bosh, he’d cut me. Ali had this habit of knocking punches down. He’d see a punch coming and he’s gone to stop one of my punches and he’s chopped me right across the eye with his glove.
I always knew when I had a bad cut if it dripped and it was warm blood. I knew then I was in trouble. You then have to do things out of sequence that you wouldn’t do if you were not in trouble. I was gutted because I’d trained hard but, once again, it wasn’t to be. Them two cuts I had in the Ali fights were the two worst cuts I ever had in boxing. Ali wasn’t a puncher, he was a flicker and he dragged your skin with his gloves. I had 40 stitches in the eye with a plastic surgeon. They stitched the top of the cut and the inside of the cut.
You can’t knock him and he fought everyone he had to fight. He was always a bit controversial though. He said, ‘The Vietcong don’t call me n****r, I’ve nothing against them.’ So imagine in America at the time when people are getting killed he comes out and says that. He was banned and, in my eyes, he deserved it. I followed his career, of course I did. He had four fights he shouldn’t have had at the end and he had no need to have them. He fought Larry Holmes and Holmes gave him a systematic beating. Holmes said twice in that fight, ‘Ref, stop the fight.’ That fight tipped him over.
He’s got Parkinson’s and his doctor told me that it wasn’t Parkinson’s that I could get or you could get, it’s what they call Parkinson’s Syndrome and its been brought on by being hit in the back of the neck. Ali was very unorthodox in the ring. If I saw a punch coming I’d move to the side but when he saw a punch he’d move his head back, when another one came he’d move back further and when he couldn’t get back any further he would turn his head. He took a lot of punches on the back of the neck that killed off some brain cells – his doctor told me that himself. I sat down and had a chat with his doctor and he said that Ali had two or three too many fights at the end of his career. When I boxed him he was 6ft 3ins, he had the longest reach [78ins], he weighed over 200lbs, Christ he was marvellous. Then when I see him now [in 2011, when this interview was conducted], he’s all bent over and he has dark glasses on. They introduced me to him and I told him it was lovely to see him but he is so small now.
It’s a shame to see that when you think of what he was like. He was the fastest-moving heavyweight of all-time, no heavyweight moved like he did on their feet. He was above any heavyweight. He did things that nobody else could do, if I’d have done them I’d have got caught, but he got away with them because he was so good.