In Memoriam: Sir Henry Cooper, legendary British boxer, 76

OXTED, England – British boxing legend Sir Henry Cooper died at his son’s home on Sunday, May 1, 2011. He was 76.

The London-born heavyweight was known for a particularly effective left hook known as “Enery’s ‘Ammer” and his knockdown of the young Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay.

Cooper held the British and European heavyweight boxing titles, and, following his retirement from the sport, continued his career as a television and radio personality. In later years, he retired from commentary on boxing as he became “disillusioned with boxing,” wanting “straight, hard and fast boxing that he was used to from his times.”

Cooper received an OBE in 1969 and a knighthood in 2000. Enormously popular in Britain, he was the first (and is today one of only three people) to win the public vote twice for BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award.

As a youth during the Second World War, Cooper tried his hand at many jobs, including delivering newspapers and recycling golf balls at a local golf course. He started his boxing career in 1949 as an amateur with the Eltham Amateur Boxing Club, and won 73 of 84 contests. At the age of 17, he won the first of two ABA light-heavyweight titles, and before serving in the Army for his two years’ National Service, represented Britain in the 1952 Olympics.

Henry and his twin brother, George (boxing under the name Jim Cooper), turned professional together under the caring management of Jim Wicks, who was one of boxing’s great characters. Wicks, nicknamed “The Bishop” because of his benign nature, would never allow one of his boxers into the ring if he felt the contender was undermatched. When promoters were trying to match Henry with Sonny Liston, Wicks famously said: “I would not allow ‘Enery into the same room as him, let alone the same ring.”

Henry was at one time the British, European and Commonwealth heavyweight champion. His early title challenges were unsuccessful, losing to Joe Bygraves for the Commonwealth belt (KO 9), Ingemar Johansson for the European belt (KO 5) and Joe Erskine (PTS 15) for the British and Commonwealth. He then won on points over highly rated contender Zora Folley, and took the British and Commonwealth belts from new champion Brian London in a 15-round decision in January 1959. The winner of the fight was penciled in to get a shot at Floyd Patterson’s heavyweight title, but Cooper turned down the chance. Instead, London fought against Patterson in May 1959 and lost.

Cooper continued to defend his British and Commonwealth belts against all comers, including Dick Richardson (KO 5), Joe Erskine (TKO 5 and TKO 12), Johnny Prescott (TKO 10), and Brian London again (PTS 15), although he suffered a setback when losing a rematch with Folley by a second round KO.

Cooper twice fought Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay), firstly in a non-title fight in 1963 at Wembley Stadium. Cooper did not have a trainer at this time, and his self-styled regimen led to his losing weight. Cooper later claimed that lead was inserted in his boots for the weigh-in, and estimates he actually weighed 12 stone 12 lbs. (180 lbs.), making him 27 pounds lighter than Clay. Commentator Harry Carpenter remarked during the introductions on the difference in size between the boxers.

Clay’s defensive skills made him a frustrating opponent; some of Cooper’s work during the contest has been described as “very near the knuckle,” and Clay later complained about being repeatedly hit on the break. In the waning seconds of the fourth round, Cooper felled Clay with an upward angled version of his trademark left hook, “Enry’s ‘Ammer.” As luck would have it, his opponent’s armpit caught in the ropes going down, which prevented his head from striking the canvas covered boards which made up the floor of the ring (something that easily could have knocked Clay unconscious).

Clay stood up and started slowly toward his cornerman Angelo Dundee, who – in violation of the rules – guided the boxed into his corner. A still-dazed Clay got up off the stool after several seconds, but Dundee sat him back down and used smelling salts to help Clay recover (a serious violation of the rules). Dundee has since claimed that there was a small tear in one of Clay’s gloves and that he told the referee his fighter needed a new pair of gloves, thus delaying the start of the 5th round.

Cooper always insisted that this delay lasted anywhere from 3–5 minutes, thus denying him the chance to try to knock out Clay while he was still dazed. In tapes of the fight it seems Clay only received an extra six seconds (although there are still doubters who think a longer delay was edited out), and the gloves were not replaced.

When the 5th round started, Clay ferociously attacked Cooper’s cuts, leaving him streaming with blood. Referee Tommy Little was forced to stop the fight in Clay’s favor, even though Cooper was ahead on the scorecards.

After this fight, a spare pair of gloves was always required at ringside. What is certain however, is that Dundee held smelling salts under Clay’s nose in an effort to revive his man, which was illegal.

Clay was obviously impressed by the knockdown, and on the 40th anniversary of the bout, he telephoned Cooper to reminisce. Clay, who in 1964 had changed his name to Muhammad Ali, said on British television that Cooper had “hit [him] so hard that [his] ancestors in Africa felt it.”

In 1966 Cooper fought Ali, now world heavyweight champion, for a second time. However Ali was now alert to the danger posed by Cooper’s left and more cautious than he had been in the previous contest. Ali won by a TKO.

Alongside figures such as Frank Bruno, Joe Bugner, Tommy Farr and Lennox Lewis, Cooper is regarded as one of the all-time best British heavyweights. He was the only British boxer to win three Lonsdale Belts outright and the first boxer ever to be knighted.

In 1980, he wrote a book called The Great Heavyweights, in which he spoke of the men whom he considered the finest of all time. They are: Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali.

Cooper lived in Hildenborough, Kent, where he was chairman of Nizels Golf Club until his death.

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Auction Central News gratefully acknowledges for historical and biographical information used in the preparation of this article.