By Terence Dooley
Sir Henry Cooper passed away on Sunday at the grand old age of 76. Cooper won the British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight titles during his 17-year career; he also achieved the remarkable feat of netting three Lonsdale belts outright after a 12-year period of domestic dominance – with only the world crown eluding his grasp.
Cooper achieved lasting fame when clobbering Cassius Clay with his signature left hook, nicknamed 'Enry's Hammer, during their 1963 non-title showdown at Wembley Stadium. Cooper detonated the punch on the chin of the visiting American in round four.
Clay got up early only for the bell to signal the end of the session. Veteran trainer Angelo Dundee rinsed Clay off, freshened him up and then pointed out a tear in the right glove, which gained his man an extra minute of recovery time.
Although legend would later blow this period up from between two to five minutes, Clay looked sufficiently recovered to suggest that the episode had not robbed Cooper of victory, merely delaying the inevitable ending as ‘The Greatest’ had opened cuts on his opponent during the second and third rounds. Cooper's wicked left hook was one of the final acts of a losing fighter.
Still, Cooper, his manager, Jim Wicks, and the British public cried "foul", generating enough publicity, good will and pressure to force Clay, by then known worldwide as Muhammad Ali, to return to the UK three years later to defend his world crown against Cooper at Arsenal’s Highbury football ground. Many people hoped for a repeat of that huge left hook.
Sadly, Ali was an improved fighter, as Cooper would later note in his 1985 book Henry Cooper's Most Memorable Fights. Pointing out that the older, wiser Ali made sure that he used his inside strength to negate that left hook whilst pasting the Briton with a rapier jab to force another cut eye ending at 1:38 of the sixth stanza.
Cooper took on Floyd Patterson in his next fight in a bid to force another title tilt only to find Floyd too strong, too slick and too powerful – Cooper later noting that Floyd was the biggest puncher he met in his years as a heavyweight. Henry, though, was not done just yet, going onto defend the British, Commonwealth and European titles that he had made his own during a decade of domestic dominance.
A controversial point's defeat to bitter rival Joe Bugner in 1971 proved to be Cooper's last stand, losing his three titles by a slender margin. Wicks slammed the decision. Henry was gracious in defeat; he decided that it was time to call it a day. Leaving the sport behind with a 40-14-1 (27) slate. Cooper still had a huge amount of public goodwill from the two tussles with Ali and launched a successful media career, refusing to fall into the trap of coming back for one last push for titles.
Fittingly, former foe Ali led the tributes upon hearing of Cooper’s death. “I am at a loss for words over the death of my friend, Henry Cooper. Henry always had a smile for me; a warm and embracing smile. It was always a pleasure being in Henry’s company. I will miss my old friend. He was a great fighter and a gentleman,” observed Ali when speaking to the world's media.
Former featherweight world champion Barry McGuigan was equally as forthcoming in his praise when interviewed by Sky Sport's. “He was a larger than life character,” said McGuigan.
“There are certain people in the game that transcend the sport; there are lots of champions that are forgotten, but Cooper had such an impact on everybody and he was such a lovely man. You got what you saw. He was a honourable upstanding man, great dignity, a great presence. He always said the right thing, never criticised his opponents and always did his talking when the bell rang; a lot of young guys coming up could learn a lot from Henry Cooper. He was a wonderful, wonderful man and we'll never forget him.”
Amir Khan also paid his respects. “I was a young professional, eager to get to the world title fights so quickly but he told me to take my time and not to rush, to pick the right opponents. That advice meant a lot to me,” revealed Khan when speaking to Sky Sport’s News.
“He was a guy who never said no to autographs or pictures, he was such a nice guy. Inside the ring he was a great fighter, outside the ring he was a great person and held himself well. He taught me to stay humble and be a nice guy. He was an example of how boxers should be.”
A child of the eighties, my own experiences of Cooper came through his self-penned books, particularly Henry Cooper’s 100 Greatest Boxers, The Great Heavyweights, H For ‘Enry and Tackle Boxing With Henry Cooper.
The last listed title was my personal favourite, Cooper used stills of the likes of Ali, Hagler, Leonard, Louis, and Robinson, and of course his own left hook to explain the techniques, punches and tactics of boxing. These books, along with my grandfather’s collection of Jim Jacobs’ Greatest Fights compilation videos, defined my introduction to the sport.
In fact, I met Henry on a couple of occasions when attending black tie events. Twice shaking his hand and thanking him for “Those boxing instruction manuals.” His reply? “Blimey, I didn’t know they were still knocking about.”
They are out there somewhere, Henry, alongside your highlight reels, fights and, more importantly, a record that will always ring out loud in domestic and European circles as well as a left hook that famously, albeit briefly, once buttoned the ‘Louisville Lip’ and a 1976 Brut aftershave advert that helped make the cologne an unlikely hit on these shores.
Cooper’s other achievements include two ABA light-heavyweight championships, Sports Personality of the Year wins on 1967 and 1970, an OBE, his Knighthood and a spot in the 1952 Olympic Games. Not bad for a small heavyweight who was once dismissed as a “Brit with eggshell eyebrows” when discussed as a potential opponent for then-champion Sonny Liston.
Ironically, Cooper later went onto do something even the great Liston could not manage when lasting 11 rounds with a streaking Ali, ensuring that his name will forever be linked with ‘The Greatest’. You cannot ask for much more.
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