Sir Henry Cooper: Boxer who was taken to the nation’s heart when he twice fought Muhammad Ali

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Our 'Enry was like the Queen Mother of sport, surviving the blitz, years of austerity and several chilling defeats to emerge balding, smiling and cracking jokes at his own expense. The memorable and slightly misleading images of Cooper's life inevitably involve his first bloody fight with Muhammad Ali, his only fight with Joe Bugner and his days as a happy growler spreading the word and splashing Brut all over during a lucrative retirement that the darling of British boxing inherited once the punches stopped.

There was, however, far more to Our 'Enry. His life, and that of his twin brother George, was hard from the start, with evacuation as children from Bellingham in south London to West Sussex, a stint in the army and then a professional boxing career at the age of 20. He was far from a star, far from the popular fighter that he became and it was the obscure and inauspicious start to his pro boxing life in 1954 that resonated so thoroughly with the men and women who would come to adore him.

Cooper won two Amateur Boxing Association light-heavyweight titles, went to the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 and turned professional as soon as his national service was over. George, who had to fight professionally as "Jim", was right next to him. The pair were managed by a legendary member of the fighting fancy, Jim "The Bishop" Wicks, a bookmaker. Wicks remained devoted to Cooper through his 55 fights as a professional and was ruthless in his dealings with the men who ran boxing in Britain as a personal fiefdom.

"I don't care who pays my 'Enry the cash," Wicks said, "[Harry] Levene or [Jack] Solomons. All I care is who pays the most! Me? I don't work for Solomons or Levene – I work for Cooper." It was a stance that infuriated the two leading promoters and the other men, like Mickey Duff and Jarvis Astaire, who worked closely and intimately with them.

Wicks, for all his commendable qualities at the negotiating table, also led Cooper in and out of some torrid fights during his first three years as a professional, when Cooper lost six times in 20 fights and was knocked out twice. There is simply no comparison in modern British boxing, but Cooper adored him: "Wicks played one against the other to get me the best deal. He used to drive the promoters crazy."

In 1958 Wicks refused Levene's attempt to import an American called Sonny Liston. "I don't want my 'Enry fighting that mahogany wardrobe," Wicks said after talking to Angelo Dundee's brother Chris about Liston. Levene delivered instead the world's No 2-ranked heavyweight Zora Folley for the Wembley fight. Cooper won – a victory that is too often overlooked – but he lost a rematch by knock-out in 1961.

In 1959 Cooper finally won a title when he outpointed Blackpool's stoic Brian London for the British and Commonwealth belts. Four years later, and after just five title fights, Cooper was being moved closer to the world heavyweight championship when he fell inside the whirlwind orbit of the man who would change his life forever: Muhammad Ali.

"I was getting stopped by people when I was out running," Cooper remembered, in a scene repeated a dozen years later in the Rocky movie. "They all wanted me to knock him out and shut him up." It is doubtful if the requests were quite so polite.

On the night at Wembley Stadium in 1963, Ali, who was still then Cassius Clay, entered the ring wearing a theatrical crown, which out of respect for Cooper he refused to put back on his head at the bloody conclusion. The fight is a glorious mixture of truths, lies and raw emotion. Cooper's short left hook connected with Ali near the end of the fourth. Ali beat the count, the bell went, and Dundee rushed in and helped Ali back to the corner. Dundee then manipulated a small tear in the left glove.

It is here that myth takes over, and Cooper in his later life as a cherished after-dinner speaker, would just shrug when asked about the "split glove", his quiet dignity only increasing the laughter that led to the inevitable standing ovation, a phenomenon that followed Cooper everywhere he went in life.

Dundee's work only gained Ali an extra six seconds; the fight was over in the next round when Cooper's cuts worsened. His moment had gone, his legend had been born. Ali's gloves left Wembley that night for the short journey to Soho. The torn glove was a fixture by noon the next day at the betting shop run by Albert Dimes, a pal of The Bishop. The gloves later went on an unofficial tour, including a spell inside the governor's office at Durham Prison. They now reside between a pair of Dame Margot Fonteyn's ballet shoes and a Marilyn Monroe teddy (the undergarment, not a bear) in a private collection in Birmingham where the owner, a boxing expert, handles the historic gloves with extreme and devotional care.

The pair met again at Highburyfor Ali's world title in 1966 and in front of 44,000 Cooper's weakness – accumulated scar tissue – ruined his dream and he was ruled out in a bloody rage in the sixth round. The cut needed 16 stitches, including four inside, to close. "I could hear him bleeding," Ali said. Their friendship was sealed.

In 1968 Cooper relinquished the British title when the British Boxing Board of Control refused to sanction a proposed world title fight against Jimmy Ellis, one of the men with a version of the world title that had been stripped from Ali. "I've made them enough money over the years," Cooper said, fuming at the Board's intransigence. Both he and Wicks were determined to be their own men – and that is never easy in boxing.

After his last fight, Cooper said, "I was 37 at the time, had recently had a cartilage out and was suffering from a dodgy left elbow." It was the bitterest possible end to a golden career. In March 1971, back at Wembley, Cooper lost the British, Commonwealth and European heavyweight titles to the blond upstart Joe Bugner. It was a tight decision but the stone-faced referee, Harry Gibbs, who had known Cooper for over 20 years, raised Bugner's hand after 15 rounds.

"I could tell by Bugner's face that he knew he'd lost and I turned to Gibbs, but he ignored my hand. I thought, 'Cor, stone me!'" Bugner, who went on to fight Ali for the world title and was a top-10 heavyweight for a decade, remains convinced that beating Cooper ruined his career – a belief he shared with Cooper when I made a film with the two gentle warriors in 2008. Cooper just shrugged: "It didn't do too much for me, either."

The pair later renewed their rivalry when they attempted to swim the channel. "I won that won without a referee," Cooper insisted.

In defeat and retirement Cooper flourished as the man with the body for Brut, a captain on A Question of Sport and an essential ingredient of any variety show during the 1970s. However, there remained a mostly concealed bitter side to Cooper during the last 20 years. He was critical of the modern boxing business, still resentful of Bugner and barely forgiving of Gibbs. He was also a passionate, old-school charity campaigner with worn golf clubs, patience for fans and a gentleman to the end.

In 2008 his beloved wife Albina died of a heart attack and last year George, his twin, died. Cooper, so people close to him said, was fading fast but still capable of a wave at the latest standing ovation. In the changing room after the Bugner defeat he whipped his thinning hair back over his reddened head and turned to the people he cared about. "Well, gentlemen, that's me lot." I would like to think he said something similar last Sunday at his son's house.

Henry Cooper, boxer: born London 3 May 1934; OBE 1969, Kt 2000; married 1960 Albina Genepri (died 2008; two sons); died Oxted, Surrey 1 May 2011.