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Sir Henry Cooper – An appreciation

Henry Cooper
Fifty years ago, England’s most beloved fighter scored his last ring triumph. Looking back on a meeting with a man whose name was synonymous with decency and courage. By Thomas Hauser

ON November 10, 1970, Henry Cooper knocked out Jose Manuel Urtain at Wembley Stadium in London to reclaim the European Boxing Union heavyweight crown. Cooper, as was often the case when he fought, was cut above his left eye and below the right one. But he won every round en route to a ninth-round stoppage. It was gratifying victory and also the last triumph in a long ring career that saw Cooper become arguably the most beloved fighter in the history of British boxing.

Cooper was born in Lambeth, London, on May 3, 1934. He represented Great Britain as a light-heavyweight at the 1952 Olympics and lost on points in the to eventual bronze medalist Anatoly Perov of the Soviet Unon. He turned pro at age 20 and was a small heavyweight, generally weighing in around 188 pounds. His most potent weapon was a devastating left hook, known as “’Enry’s ‘ammer.”

To be honest, Cooper acknowledged, “I couldn’t hurt a fly with my right hand.”

Cooper won the British and Commonwealth heavyweight titles in 1959 and held them for a record 10 years. His “Achilles heel” was the tendency to cut.

“If you gave Henry a rough towel, you needed a basin to catch the blood,” Hugh McIlvanney, Britain’s foremost sports journalist, said. “When he fought the serious Americans, you wouldn’t have bet him. But he was a good boxer. For a man of his weight, he was a wonderful puncher. He fought to the limit of his powers and never let anyone down. He was a marvelous presence for the game.”

Jerry Izenberg (McIlvanney’s American counterpart) added, “If Henry Cooper had a different facial bone structure, he would have been heavyweight champion of the world. He could punch. He could box. He came to fight. He always gave people trouble. But at the end of almost every fight, he was red with his own blood because those jagged edges betrayed him.”

On June 18, 1963, Cooper battled Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr (then 18-0) at Wembley Stadium in London. Clay entered the ring wearing a crown embedded with imitation precious stones and a red robe emblazoned with the words “Cassius the Greatest.” Prior to the bout, he’d predicted that he would knock Cooper out in the fifth round. Fifty-five thousand fans were on hand to see if “Our ‘Enry” could make the brash young American eat his words.

Muhammad Ali London football stadiums

The fight that followed secured Cooper’s place in boxing history and has been told and retold so many times that, for many in England, it has become the equivalent of religious lore.

For three rounds, two minutes, and 55 seconds, everything went as Clay had planned. From round one on, he was in control. By round three, Cooper was bleeding badly and it appeared as though the bout would end whenever Cassius wanted it to. But instead of taking care of business, Clay seemed intent on prolonging Cooper’s agony and making good on his prediction of a fifth round knockout. By round four, Henry was close to defenceless. Blood cascaded from a cut above his left eye. Meanwhile, Clay was dancing and mugging, periodically gazing toward the crowd.

Then, with five seconds left in the fourth round, Cooper landed that hellacious left hook. It was the most famous punch in British boxing history.

“It came from a long way back,” one ringside observer later wrote, “with Cooper lunging forward as hard as he could. It caught Clay on the side of the jaw, and Cassius went over backwards through the ropes. He rolled back into the ring and got dazedly to his feet, gazing off into the distance, starry-eyed. He wobbled forward, gloves low, and started to fall, but his handlers caught him. Wembley Stadium was in an uproar.”

There are two kinds of “hurt” in boxing. The first is when a fighter feels pain; most often from a body shot or blow to the ears, eyes, or nose. The second kind of hurt is when a fighter is dazed and loses control over his reflexes. At that point, Clay was feeling no pain. Only the bell had kept Cooper from finishing him off.

But the round was over. And thereafter, for British fans, a tale of woe unfolded.

Clay’s trainer, Angelo Dundee revived his fighter with the help of illegal smelling salts. Also, earlier in the fight, Dundee had noticed a split on one of Clay’s gloves on the seam near the thumb. Now, with his fighter in desperate straits, Dundee, in his own words, “helped the split a little, pulled it to the side, and made the referee aware that there was a torn glove.”

No back-up gloves were available. Unedited film footage from the BBC archives shows that Dundee’s maneuver earned his fighter a meager six extra seconds.

“If we hadn’t gotten the extra time,” Dundee said later, “I don’t know what would have happened. I think Cassius would have made it through, but we don’t have to answer that question.”

In round five, a barrage of punches from a fully-recovered Cassius Clay ripped open the skin around Cooper’s eyes and caused a torrential flow of blood. There was no alternative to referee Tommy Little stopping the fight. It ended, as Cassius had predicted, on a fifth-round knockout.

“At least we shut him up for a while,” Cooper said afterward.

Years later, I had occasion to talk with Henry over tea and crumpets for three hours.

“I was confident going into the fight,” Cooper told me. “Clay, which was his name then, had looked good against big guys, but small quick fighters like Doug Jones had given him trouble. And he was a novice inside fighter. He hadn’t learned how to defend himself in close. I only weighed thirteen-and-a-half stone [190 pounds], but I was messing him up inside. Then I knocked him down. And when I looked in his eyes, I knew he was gone. The eyes register everything.”

“And you know the rest,” Henry continued. “I was a bleeder. I’d come to expect cuts. They were part of every fight for me. It’s a shame, really. If I’d had flatter rounder features, who knows. But the worst cut I ever had was against Cassius Clay. I could feel the warm blood dripping on my chest. Of course, I think about the torn glove and the extra time it brought. There’s no bitterness; I’m content with the way my life has worked out. Still, I have to say, you expect to be disadvantaged like that when you’re abroad. I had a fight in Germany when I knocked my opponent down in the second round and they rang the bell a minute early. Then, when I knocked him out in the next round, I was disqualified. If Clay had been fighting a German in Germany, they would have let the fourth round go another ten seconds in the pandemonium after the knockdown and he would have been knocked out. I never asked for that. All I wanted was a level playing field. And to have it happen the way it happened in England was a bit hard.”

But Cooper also paid tribute to Ali, saying, “Even if I’d won, someday Ali would have become heavyweight champion. Joe Louis lost before he won the title. Jack Dempsey lost before he won the title. Ali was such a brilliant boxer, he was destined to become heavyweight champion of the world.”

Then a smile crossed Henry’s face. “The greatest heavyweight ever,” he said. “And I had him on his bum. It’s still vivid in my mind. I remember everything.”

There was a second fight between the two men in 1966, but it was little more than a postscript to the first. Cassius Clay had become Muhammad Ali by then and was heavyweight champion of the world.

“Ali was a quick learner,” Cooper recalled. “By the second time we fought, he’d learned how to defend himself inside. Whenever I got near him, he’d clamp down on me like I was in a vice, hold on until the referee made us break, and step back out of harm’s way.”
Henry fought valiantly, as he had three years earlier. But this time, there was no big left hook. Otherwise, things were pretty much the same. Ali stopped him on cuts in the sixth round.

Cooper retired from boxing in 1971 with a record of 40-14-1. Among the laurels he received, he’d been honoured twice by the BBC as its ‘Sports Personality of the Year’. During the course of his 17-year ring career, he had six opponents in common with Ali – Floyd Patterson, Zora Folley, Joe Bugner, Brian London, Karl Mildenberger, and Alex Miteff – and compiled a 6-3 record against them. In his older years, Cooper cut a striking figure. He stayed in shape and had a rugged but kind visage. There was an aura of integrity about him.

As chairman of the executive committee of The Variety Club in London, he supervised 30 golf tournaments that raised more than one million pounds for charity in a single year. He engaged in extensive fundraising to support a school for mentally handicapped children. And in 2000, he served as national spokesperson for a campaign encouraging people age 65 and older to get flu shots. Cooper’s message – “Get your jab in now!” – was in print ads and on television for weeks on end. Health care personnel later reported that many citizens coming into clinics said simply, “I want a Henry Cooper.”

Henry Cooper

“Henry really was the nicest man you could wish to meet,” Terry Baker (who arranged public speaking engagements for him) noted. “How he ever hit anybody is hard to imagine.”

Then came the ultimate tribute. In 2001, Cooper was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. “You think you’ve got all the honours you’re going to get,” Henry later reminisced with pride. “And then this letter arrived in the mail. I saw the return address, 10 Downing Street, which is the office of the Prime Minister. I opened it up, and the letter said, ‘You are under consideration for knighthood. Will you accept?’ I showed the missus. She couldn’t believe it. We were sworn to secrecy for seven weeks. Then we went for the big event. You’re allowed to bring three guests, so I took my wife, my youngest son, and my grandson, which was what my older son wanted. It was at Buckingham Palace, and no one does ceremony like the British. They tell you the etiquette before you go. You kneel before the Queen and she touches you with a sword on your shoulder. There’s a bit of small talk. The Queen said to me, ‘You had a long career, didn’t you, Mr. Cooper?’ I told her, ‘I did, ma’am; seventeen years.’ Then she shook hands with me. And according to the etiquette, when the Queen shakes hands with you, you know it’s over. You don’t keep talking to her. I was bursting with pride. Just wished my mum and dad and [manager] Jim Wicks had been there to share the moment. We were ordinary people. And here I was, kneeling before the Queen of England and being told, ‘Arise, Sir Henry.’”

Cooper’s “golden years” were truly golden. Then in 2008, his wife of 48 years, Albina Genepri Cooper, died from a sudden heart attack at age 71. “I am lost without her,” Cooper confided to biographer Norman Giller. “To be honest, I am really struggling. I’ve got a candle in front of my favorite photograph of her and I light it every night in her memory. I take her ashes in an urn with me if I am staying somewhere overnight. I know that sounds morbid, but it just sort of keeps me in touch. I don’t know how I’m going to manage without her. Life is just not the same anymore. Always thought I’d go first. I’m in shock. Just can’t take it in.”

Sir Henry Cooper died on May 1, 2011. To many, he’s part of the Muhammad Ali legend. But in many homes in England, it’s the other way around.

Thomas Hauser’s next book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – will be published by the University of Arkansas Press this autumn. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honoured Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.

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