Brian Viner on Henry Cooper: 'Ali still had that cheek... he said I was getting old'

Henry Cooper, one of the greats of British boxing, passed away earlier this week. Brian Viner remembers one of the British public's most loved sportsmen

Sir Henry Cooper lived for 40 more years after his last fight, the heartbreaker and career-buster against Joe Bugner in the spring of 1971. That his enormous popularity endured for all four of those decades belied the fact that he was, at the highest level, a loser. He fought only once for the world title, against Muhammad Ali at Highbury in 1966, and lost. But he lost graciously, as he did even when Bugner was judged to have outpointed him, in one of boxing's more dubious decisions. Cooper exemplified the plucky Englishman, magnanimous in defeat, and the public's affection for him survived the arrival of a new breed of sporting hero: the Englishman as obsessive winner.

Nevertheless, it always slightly bugged him that he was better remembered for coming second – as he also did in 1963 when Ali was still Cassius Clay and a fight away from claiming Sonny Liston's world title – than for his many victories. After all, he remained the British and Commonwealth champion for the best part of 11 years, overcoming some formidable challengers along the way. But for the iffy calculation in Bugner's favour, he would have retired with his titles intact.

I interviewed him at his home in Kent eight years ago, when, though a little creaky, he still cut an imposing figure. On the wall there was a large print of the late Queen Mother, one of the few people whose popularity with Middle England exceeded "our 'Enry's". He was an unashamed traditionalist, and it was no surprise when he asserted that boxing wasn't what it had been. He loathed the proliferation of weights, and governing bodies. "There are 17 weights now and five governing bodies," he said. "What's five times 17? That's more than 80 world champions. I watch kids fighting for a version of the world title after 10 fights. Christ almighty. When I started it was a trade that had to be learnt. There were eight weights from flyweight to heavyweight and one governing body. At the end of my career there were two, the WBC and WBA, and that was all right. But when you've got bleedin' four or five..." He tailed off, overcome by indignation.

I asked where he placed Lennox Lewis, who was then on the brink of retirement, in the pantheon of heavyweight champs. "Well, he's fought dangerous men and beat them. But there aren't the fighters around that there used to be, so you can't make him one of the greats. Having said that, you can only be top man in your era. You can't do better than that. But I always thought he came in the ring too heavy. At 17st, 17st 2lb, he's the best-moving heavyweight in the world today, but you can't cart 19st around the ring for 12 rounds. They all do it. They all bulk up to absorb punches. But it don't make for good boxing. There's only one way of boxing now, going forward. Counter-punching is a dying art."

Cooper cited Ali, Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano as the three greatest heavyweights in history. "But I don't think Larry Holmes gets the credit he should," he added. "Because he beat the idol, Ali. That was the fight that tipped Ali over the top."

He told me that a few months earlier, on the 40th anniversary of the fight at Wembley in which he famously hit Ali/Clay so hard with his left hook that "it shook my ancestors in Africa", Cooper picked up the phone to hear a familiar soft mumble. "I had to keep saying, 'It's a bad line, Muhammad', because I could hardly hear him. But he's still got that cheeky sense of humour. He asked me how old I was and I said 69. He said, 'Man, you are getting old'."

Cooper was born to box. He told me proudly that his grandfather, George Cooper, had been a bareknuckle fighter. "He worked with horses, and where there were stables in them days, there was always bareknuckle fighting. He used to go 20 rounds. Grandad was sparring partner to the old British middleweight champion Ted Pritchard, who used to say that grandad could be better than him if he took it seriously. But he had other interests. He had a very good singing voice, by all accounts. He died before I was born. In fact, he died at a wedding reception, actually, while he was singing. Burst a blood vessel. The old bride wasn't too happy. Mind you, nor was grandad."

I didn't doubt the story but I knew it had gone the distance in countless after-dinner speeches, Cooper's principal source of income, and a much-needed one, after he had reportedly lost a small fortune as a Lloyd's Name, forcing him to sell his three Lonsdale belts.

He might have regretted those insurance liabilities, but in most other respects he remained the picture of contentment. I heard a few weeks ago that he probably didn't have much longer to live, and I'm assured, too, that Ali could soon be facing the final knockout. Which has made it all the more poignant these last couple of days to see clips of their fights.

"I was never big for a heavyweight," Cooper told me that afternoon in Kent. "If I was fighting now I'd be a cruiserweight. But I used to love fighting big guys because they were slower, with the exception of Ali. He was big but he moved like a middleweight. He and Floyd Patterson and Zora Folley were the best I fought. Floyd had hands just as fast as Ali and could punch harder. Zora Folley could knock you out. Ali couldn't. He relied on fantastic reflexes. And later, when his reflexes slowed down, he was clever. He'd let them punch his stomach, punch themselves out, like [George] Foreman, but if you watch you'll see his left hand around the back of their neck, pulling them forward on the balls of their feet, so they didn't get any leverage. Clever."

But not clever enough to avoid terrible damage. Cooper, on the other hand, retired when he said he would, and stayed retired. That was cleverer.

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