How does a fan tell Henry Cooper he’s rubbish?

By Phil Rowson on August 22, 2016
How does a fan tell Henry Cooper he’s rubbish?
Cooper was British heavyweight champion from ’59 and never lost a title fight until ’71.

There was never any chance of Henry climbing into the ring with Sonny Liston. “We don’t even want to meet him walking down the street…”

First of all let me remind everyone that Henry was British heavyweight champion from ’59 and never lost a title fight until ’71 when he was on the wrong end of a terrible decision against Joe Bugner. Along the way he also ‘lost’ against Ali after he decked the young upstart whilst he was showboating. Unfortunately it was at the end of the round and in the interval the tricky Angelo Dundee saved the day by unpicking the stitching on one of Ali’s gloves which meant it had to be changed.

Henry was already cut and the extra time in the corner was enough for Ali to recover, come out, and win on a TKO. The famous Thomas A Becket gym where Henry used to train was above a pub and by the bar downstairs hung Henry’s left glove with the sign, ‘The one that didn’t split.’

Angelo’s quick thinking saved a damaging blip in Ali’s career and cost Henry a fortune but that’s boxing. Henry’s left hook was a finisher and of his 40 wins 27 were by KO. He beat all comers in the UK and Europe over the years including three title wins over Brian London. Three successful title defenses meant you got to keep the Lonsdale Belt which was awarded to the champion. So according to Henry that meant he won London outright, though it was a joke, he was never a boastful man. In fact he was much loved and eventually knighted, becoming Sir Henry.

He got a return against Ali but once again he was cut and the fight was stopped. It was staged in the Arsenal football stadium with the ring in the center of the pitch. I was standing on the terraces at least 100 yards away and when Ali caught him with a left hand smack on the eyebrow the blood spurted out. Even from where I was it looked like a gusher and the fight was stopped immediately. Years later I saw Henry in a pub and told him the red blood against the black sky looked like a road accident but he was quick to reassure me, “Nah, don’t worry about it. No permanent damage.”

The only other British fighter who came close to Henry’s box office appeal was the Blond Bomber, Billy Walker who burst onto the scene in a televised amateur fight when he knocked out the top US heavy Cornelius Perry in the first round. Billy was on the way up with 20 wins when Henry stopped him in a title fight on a cut.

So Henry was a star in all kinds of ways. Such was his appeal that he was used, together with soccer star Kevin Keegan, to introduce Brits to the dangerous idea that it was okay for men to use body lotion. Suddenly sprays, deodorizers etc. took off and the world smelled better. Sometimes.

Throughout his career Henry was well managed by Jim Wickes, known as the Bishop, who looked after his man. There was never any chance of Henry climbing into the ring with Sonny Liston for example. “We don’t even want to meet him walking down the street,” was Jim’s verdict.

So how come there was a chance I might have to pass on a negative vibe to Henry? I was working with an advertising agency and the idea was that we would use Henry’s street cred and family man appeal to sell a supermarket and its offers. I wrote a radio script and Henry agreed so one morning in deepest Soho I was in a recording studio, face to face with the great man. It was only then it dawned on me that this could be a disaster and my name would be firmly attached to it. The client was demanding but I was no Angelo Dundee, ready with the wisdom. No way could I cold pour water all over him, he was wearing a good suit. Neither could I slap his face and shout in his ear.

There hadn’t been a test run, you don’t audition the heavyweight champion. The script wasn’t too demanding but it had to be done with conviction, he had to sound like he believed it.

Well, after take . . . . 4 – we had it! Henry did the business. I knew better than to go for take 5, although there were a couple of kinks that could be improved. Henry was very affable, willing to go again but then I thought . . . is that left hand starting to twitch a little? So I said, thanks a lot Henry, that was great, fantastic. Can you just autograph the script for me?

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muhammad ali vs henry cooper - wembley london june 18 1963



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  1. phil rowson 06:51am, 08/28/2016

    Jimmy Ellis fought on the undercard of the second Ali/Cooper fight and beat a Fiji fighter Leweni Waqa on a first round KO. Altogether he fought 3 times in the UK, losing to Bugner towards the end of his career, beating Johnny Halafihi much earlier on.

  2. nicolas 10:35am, 08/26/2016

    Eric: The reason the fight with Ellis never materialized was because the British Boxing Board of Control, would not allow it. The reason for that being, they recognized Joe Frazier as the world heavy weight champion. I actually wish we would have more commissions and national boxing organizations taking these kinds of stands today. Perhaps Cooper could have fought Ellis in a another country, though in his career Cooper only fought once in a another country, and that was against Johansen in Sweden. If he had, perhaps also he would not have been allowed to fight in England for a while. Out of protest, Cooper gave up his British title, a title he would regain from Jack Bodell. Of all the boxers that Ali fought, He seemed to be rather fond of Henry Cooper, wishing him a happy birthday on television from the US to British television. He even was nice enough to say that Cooper might have beaten Ellis. Watching Ali’s two fights with Cooper, I was struck by how competitive Cooper was in both fights, compared to other boxers at that time. Perhaps Ali fought him differently because of Coopers cutting problems, which proved to be Coopers downfall against Ali. But for me, before Joe Frazier, Cooper seemed to give Ali the most difficulties.

  3. Lucas McCain 11:58am, 08/24/2016

    Eric,  I have to agree with your call for Ellis over Cooper in the late 60s, especially when I think about the way Ellis was able to deck Bonavena with clean right hands, and recall how Cooper was stopped not only by Ingo, but by Floyd and by Zora Folley in their rematch.  A brave man with a bit of glass in his jaw.  But on the other hand, Cooper’s knockdown of Ali and his stirring win over Folley in their first bout tells me never to count our Enery out!

  4. Eric 07:56am, 08/24/2016

    Cooper had a proposed match against WBA champ, Jimmy Ellis, in the works during 1969. For some reason, the bout never took place, Ellis was surely a much easier opponent than Smokin’ Joe. I would still favor Ellis over an aging Cooper, but no way would Henry even have a remote shot at capturing Frazier’s belt. At least in Ellis, Cooper would be fighting a man similar in size & weight. However, Ellis might have caught Henry early or busted him up for a stoppage win. Definitely a fight that should have taken place.

  5. Lucas McCain 08:11am, 08/23/2016

    I was in England when Henry died, and I was impressed by the outpouring of affection for him.  Everyone who met him, it seemed, was impressed by his openness and generosity, the long drives he would take to participate in charity events.  Ingemar Johansson said he was too nice to be a fighter, though those who got cracked by him may have thought otherwise!  Henry wasn’t alone in his view of Liston; Ingo, who would promote Liston for a while after the Lewiston fiasco, was asked if he would come back to fight Sonny and supposedly answered “I like money, but not THAT much.”

  6. phil rowson 04:18am, 08/23/2016

    Thanks for the info Eric, hadn’t heard that story but I’m not surprised. Henry was not a big heavyweight. What he always did have going for him was that left hook.You’re right, Henry’s chance against Ali vanished in that interval. Against Frazier, who knows? Maybe he could catch him early, especially with Joe’s reputation as a slow starter. Brit fans never forgave Bugner for beating Henry and the story is that Henry never spoke to the ref again. I don’t think Bugner ever sold himself to the fans, I think he was seen as a fighter who never take a risk to win.

  7. Eric 08:12pm, 08/22/2016

    When Cooper fought Ali the first time, his announced weight was 13 stone 4lbs or 186lbs. Cooper said that he had 2lb weighted soles in his boxing shoes and was holding small weights in his hands and that his real weight was 12 stone 12lbs or 180lbs. Perhaps Cooper should have fought at light heavy, but nonetheless he still had a very successful career against the big boys. Liston would have murdered him had they fought and I can’t see Cooper getting past the much larger Chuvalo either. His knockout loss to Patterson was brutal. No idea why the Brits never warmed to Bugner, perhaps because he really wasn’t a true native of the United Kingdom. Until Lennox Lewis came along, I would rank Bugner as the best modern day British heavyweight, and it is debatable whether Lewis could legitimately be identified as a “British” fighter. Can you imagine Henry going the distance with Ali on two occasions and giving Frazier quite a 12 round tussle?

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