The popular British boxer, who died on Sunday, was an icon for an era in sport — and society — that’s long since gone.
Henry Cooper, who died on Sunday aged 76, was an old-fashioned sporting hero. The former British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight boxing champion may not have been the most talented boxer produced by this country, but he was certainly one of the most popular. It would be tempting to suggest his death marked the end of an era, but it was an era – both in sport and society – that had long since gone.
Cooper was born in 1934 and grew up in the south-east London borough of Lewisham. He represented Great Britain at the 1952 Olympics, but lost in the second stage to a Soviet fighter thanks to the votes of two Eastern Bloc judges. After doing his national service (compulsory military call-up only ended in 1960), Cooper and his twin brother George turned professional. He won his first nine fights, but then failed in a series of challenges for titles until winning the British and Empire heavyweight titles by beating Brian London in 1959.
Cooper had a career unmatched by any British heavyweight until Frank Bruno won a version of the world championship in 1995. He eventually held the British, Commonwealth and European titles simultaneously. His record against British opponents in particular is unsurpassed. The Lonsdale belt is the trophy for British champions and a fighter can keep it if he defends his title successfully twice. Cooper is the only ever fighter to win three Lonsdale belts outright.
But for all those titles, his most famous fight was at Wembley in 1963 against an up-and-coming American heavyweight, Cassius Clay. In the third round, Cooper was badly cut and the fight could have been stopped, but he was allowed to carry on. At the end of the fouth round, Cooper connected with a vicious left hook - a punch he had so much success with during his career that he gave it a nickname: ‘Enry’s Ammer’. Clay was sprawled into the ropes and would surely have lost if not saved by the bell.
Henry Cooper knocks down Cassius Clay in 1963
Clay’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, undertook some classic boxing gamesmanship, reviving his fighter with smelling salts and engineering a problem with his gloves so that there was a short delay before the fight could restart. With his senses back, Clay got back to work on Cooper’s cuts and the fight was stopped in the fifth. It was a classic tale of the British sportsman robbed of glory by fate. To his credit, however, Cooper admitted he would have wanted his trainer to do the same if he had been in trouble.
Cooper would fight Clay – now called Muhammad Ali and the world champion – again in May 1966, but the fight was again stopped due to Cooper’s cuts. While Cooper could certainly punch, he could never match Ali’s defensive skills and punching speed. ‘For my money, he was the fastest heavyweight of all time, and a stone and a half heavier than me’, Cooper said later. ‘There was never a still target in front of you. He wasn’t a counter-puncher, nothing to compare with Floyd Patterson. Nor a puncher like Rocky Marciano. It was a flicker with the left, or a long-arm right that could drag and tear your skin.’
A bloodied Henry Cooper after his 1966 rematch with Muhammad Ali
These days, Cooper would probably never have fought for the heavyweight championship. Not through lack of talent, but because he was so much lighter than heavyweights today. Even at his heaviest, he was only 13 stone 13 pounds and would probably have fought in the division below heavyweight – cruiserweight – if he was boxing now. Even Britain’s current WBA heavyweight champion, David Haye, is something of a midget by modern standards, despite standing six feet three inches tall and weighing between 15 and 16 stone. Cooper himself became bored of this elevation of size over skill and was less than impressed when another Brit, the powerful but ponderous Frank Bruno, won a version of the world title in 1995.
Bruno’s win in many ways epitomised the decline of boxing, at least in the UK. When Cooper fought, British title fights were significant occasions in themselves and there was only one world champion in any weight division. Since then, there has been a proliferation of weight divisions and the creation of an ‘alphabet soup’ of different organisations claiming to recognise different boxers as world champions. With fights more infrequent, and with the more glamorous ones shunted off to pay-per-view, British boxers are rarely household names, even when they become world champions. The current British heavyweight champion is Derek Chisora, something only dedicated boxing fans are ever likely to know.
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Cooper may not have been world champion, but he was hugely popular with the British public. He was the first person to win the Sports Personality of the Year award twice (in 1967 and 1970) and became a regular fixture on television. When he retired in 1971, after losing his titles to a controversial decision, his opponent – Joe Bugner – became a hate figure for years after.
Cooper represented the other side of the Swinging Sixties. For all the social and cultural liberalisation that decade would bring, Britain was still a very conservative place by modern standards. The upright and modest Cooper fitted in with that view of the world perfectly, an old-fashioned London boy with a wife and kids who loved the queen and would never be seen dead falling out of a nightclub or being flash. Complaining about how hype seemed to have replaced substance, he complained: ‘I know I sound a right old misery, but all those ring walks drove me nuts. I’ve even seen them bring in fighters on Harley Davidsons and magic carpets, and some of them take 40 minutes to get into the ring.’ A famous advert for Brut 33 aftershave from the 1970s, with the nice but old-fashioned Cooper joshing around with the pretty and permed footballer, Kevin Keegan, neatly summed up a generational divide between the down-to-earth postwar generation and the new sporting celebrities.
His outlook on life didn’t fit in with the risk-averse culture of recent times, either. ‘If there is a danger in anything some people want to ban it – you mustn’t box, you mustn’t climb mountains, you mustn’t race fast cars’, he wrote in his autobiography, though this view didn’t apply when it came to women’s boxing – he thoroughly disapproved of it.
From all the tributes over the past day or two, it seems Cooper was a genuinely nice man, happy to have a joke and always with a word of encouragement for young boxers. I’m sure there’s plenty of other things I’d have disagreed with Cooper about. But for his defence of sporting standards, his good humour and his gracious manner in victory and defeat, he will be missed.
Has welfarism gone too far? Is it time to trim this massive machine? And more importantly, shouldn’t it be trimmed for the *right* reasons - that is, not in order to save the state money but as a way of protecting communities from the negative impact of constant welfarist intervention?
We’ll be debating these issues at the next session of our spiked drinks events at Portcullis House in London on Monday 3 June at 6.30pm. Find out more here.