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On This Day: Gallant Henry Cooper is left a bloody mess by Muhammad Ali

henry cooper
More than 40,000 Henry Cooper fans were left disappointed on May 21, 1966 as Muhammad Ali – or Cassius Clay as we still called him in this ringside report – retained his title in dramatic fashion

“CLAY STILL CHAMPION – COOPER STOPPED IN SIXTH ROUND” was the headline of our original ringside report back in 1966. Here, word-by-word, is how we reported Henry Cooper’s rematch with Muhammad Ali (or Casssius Clay, as we still called him then) – this time for the world heavyweight title.

BACK into the bank strong room went the Boxing News 1,000-guinea Gold Cup after Henry Cooper’s magnificent but unsuccessful attempt to wrest the world heavyweight title from Cassius Clay on Harry Levene’s promotion at the Arsenal Football Club ground.

The trophy, which is to be presented to the first British boxer to win the world heavyweight title, is the world’s most unique prize in that it has never been won.

It was purchased in 1937 when Welshman Tommy Farr challenged Joe Louis but Tommy lost on points and brought again in 1955 when Don Cockell took on Rocky Marciano. Don was stopped in nine rounds.

Next challenger was Brian London of Blackpool, who four years later was KO’d in 11 rounds by Floyd Patterson.

Although few of us expected Cooper to beat master boxer Clay, we must say that visions of a grand presentation were flashing through our minds as Cooper chased Clay around the Highbury ring for most of the fight.

The drama of the never-to-be-forgotten sixth round when Henry was suddenly changed from a dangerous challenger to a man fighting for survival, and eventually stopped, all in the space of a few seconds, brought us back to earth.

Until then, Cooper appeared to be ahead on points. Clay had hardly taken a forward step. He danced and back-pedalled swayed and prodded out the occasional jab. Anything to keep away from the Cooper left hook which nearly knocked him out when they met at Wembley three years ago.

The dramatic end was a tremendous disappointment to the estimated crowd of 46,000 who crammed into the Highbury ground.

Despite the fact that Clay had been quoted 8-1 on favourite to keep his crown, the crowd were Cooper crazy before the fight.

Little interest was shown in the preliminary bouts and when the time approached for the Big One, the ground bubbled over with excitement.

Those who were able to get to the gangways of the dressing rooms surged forward to get a glimpse of the two boxers and the M.C., Charlie Freen, had to appeal to them to keep the path clear.

“If you don’t move away the boxers will not be able to get through and the fight will be delayed,” he told them.

Cooper was first to leave and as he walked across the ground preceded by a floodlit Union Jack over 40,000 voices chanted “HEN-ER-EE, HEN-ER-EE, HEN-ER-EE.”

A fanfare of some sort was blaring out but it was completely drowned by the continuous chanting and when Cooper ducked under the ropes and waved to the crowd they went delirious.

Clay, who walked behind a flood-lit flag of the United States, met with a mixed reception, but he got a big hand when he entered the ring.

So did the personalities who were introduced from the ring during the preliminaries – Rocky Marciano, Karl Mildenberger (European champion and possibly Clay’s next title challenger), Ingemar Johansson, Larry Gains, Georges Carpentier, Terry Downes and Billy Walker.

Both national anthems were played and overseas visitors seemed deeply moved as the great crowd, like a massed choir, sang God Save The Queen.

Within seconds of the start of hostilities, the fans were again opening their lungs, this time roaring on a grimly determined and aggressive Cooper. As soon as they touched gloves, Clay, who at 14st 5lbs had almost a stone advantage over his 13st 6lbs opponent, backed away out of danger, a course he followed throughout most of the 16 minutes’ fighting.

He allowed Cooper to do all the forcing and seemed content merely to keep out of danger and let him tire himself out by missing.

And this Henry did on innumerable occasions as fairy feet Clay moved and swayed, almost with the wind.

But this did not deter Cooper, who maintained his persistent aggression, even though at times it seemed like he was chasing a shadow. Cass was that clever, he made the art of self defence look simple.

When Cooper crashed his way in too fast and Cass could not get out of the way, he revealed a remarkable lack of in-fighting know-how, and held and hugged quite crudely.

He grimaced with pain and looked alarmed when Cooper hooked him to the ribs in the first round. He tried to pull away but Henry had him tied up and Cooper went lumbering across the ring with him.

The British champion, urged on by his vast army of supporters, was still forcing the fight in the second and although Cass caused most of his hooks to whistle through the air, sometimes inches, sometimes a foot wide, Henry never stopped trying and a left to the body had Clay holding again.

Now and again Cass pulled away to poke a judicious jab at Cooper’s face to let him know who was the champion, but the punches had no sting.

When he had no room to move, Clay waited for Cooper to advance and as Henry threw the hook he grabbed him, which brought a warning from Scottish referee George Smith and a chorus of catcalls from the crowd.

“Follow up, get him,” they yelled as Cooper got home a good right to the jaw. Cass was rather shaken but as Henry stepped in he grabbed him round the waist and locked his arms.

In the third round the referee had occasion to warn both men for mauling and later again told Clay not to pull Cooper on to him as Henry pursued him.

Cooper realised that his only chance was in landing early and as each round wore on there was more urgency in his work.

He became so desperate that he tried a little too hard at times and was probably over tense. He even hit Cass on the break three times.

On the other hand, Clay, although probably surprised by the aggression and determination of the British boxer, and at times subjected to moments of extreme discomfort, soon regained his composure and continued to play a waiting game.

Cooper missed his great chance in the fourth round when he charged at Clay with a body punch. It must have bothered the champion, who, ignoring the golden rule of boxing that you must defend yourself at all times, dropped his hands and turned to the referee to complain.

Henry hesitated, uncertain what to do and the golden chance was lost. After a second or two he moved after Cass and caught him with a right to the jaw but by this time the American was back on the alert and was able to ride the punch.

Had he leapt in straight away and planted a left hook on to Clay’s unprotected jaw he might now have been heavyweight champion of the world.

It was unlike Cass to bellyache after taking so many foul punches without complaint from George Chuvalo in his Toronto title defence but Cass stated afterwards that he was in pain the day after the Chuvalo fight and he did not want to suffer any more after-fight pain through foul blows.

Once he realised that Clay had been hurt badly enough to squawk, Henry waded into Clay but Cass, although still on the retreat, shook Henry’s head back with a rapid double-jab to the head and another right on the nose kept the British champion at bay.

When Cooper retaliated with an accurate jab to the head, Clay slipped momentarily into a higher gear and we had a glimpse of the shape of things to come.

Instead of the dancing, swaying runner, we saw a fighting machine. Cass faced his challenger and sent in a stream of left leads in rapid succession. Cooper wanted just this and he fought back with him.

The crowd roared incessantly as they belted away at each other.

Apparently Clay was not quite ready to start the real job. He discovered that Cooper, although showing slight signs of tiredness after missing with so many hooks, still had plenty of fight left in him.

So Cass got back on his bike. Cooper steamed after him and during a ring centre clash Henry lost his gumshield. While keeping his eyes on Clay he kicked it to the ring apron.

Clay danced backwards gracefully but now began to use the jab more.

Cooper was still leading when they came up for the sixth and with the crowd still rooting for him, he went after Clay.

Cass swung at him with his right but missed. Henry went to throw a counter. And then came the dramatic transformation.

Clay shot out a left followed by a right to the head and Cooper held his head down, moved in to try to glide past Clay and as he extricated himself, his left eye was bleeding badly, very badly.

We were all shocked. We have rarely heard a roaring crowd silenced so suddenly.

Cooper moved round and as soon as referee Smith spotted the injury he jumped between them and inspected it.

Any other contest would have been stopped there and then. But this was the heavyweight championship of the world.

The biggest chance any British boxer had had for 58 years and after a second or so, the official decided to give Cooper a few more seconds.

This was the moment Cass waited for in their original encounter at Wembley. This was the moment he had been biding his time for now.

The bike he had been using to coast through the five previous rounds was changed for a vicious, deadly accurate fighting machine.

He fired in punches with both hands at a fantastic speed all around the head. He knew it was the end. We all knew it was the end. But Cooper did not give up without one last do-or-die effort.

Gritting his teeth, he turned into Clay and threw hooks madly, wildly, even forcing him towards the ropes. Clay’s handlers looked white and anxious as their man stood there trading punches with the hardest hooker in the business.

But Henry could not see where he was punching and missed badly. He was at Clay’s mercy and Mr. Smith did the only possible thing when he ordered Clay to his corner. The battle was all over. Our man was defeated.

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