Sir Henry Cooper: Enduring, endearing and still going at it hammer and tongue

Old boxing champion is looking forward to a night of knights. Alan Hubbard talks to a modest icon in an era of 'untouchable' stars
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It is 35 years since Henry Cooper slung his famous hook for the last time. Six years ago Our 'Enery became Sir Henry, Britain's first and only boxing knight. Since then a succession of British heavyweights have been and gone, the good, the bad and the plug-ugly. But none, with the possible exceptions of the world champions Frank Bruno and Lennox Lewis, have come close to touching Henry's hem in terms of public popularity. Can you name the current British heavyweight champion? Cooper couldn't. "Isn't it whatsisname?" he queried. Scott Gammer is the man. But does anyone really care?

They did in Henry's day, of course. Cooper remains a sporting personality held in the highest affection even to this day, and not just because 'Enery's 'Ammer so famously put the then Cassius Clay on his pants, only for him to be saved by the bell back in the spring of 1963. If Cooper had clouted him 10 seconds earlier it might have changed the course of boxing history.

It is also almost exactly 40 years since Cooper himself was last out for the count - against the late Floyd Patterson in September 1966. That is, until last week. The man who has been fighting fit all his life was dispatched to hospital with breathing difficulties and is now resting at his Kent home after having a pacemaker fitted.

It happened on the day of a Sir Henry Cooper Golfing Classic, an event he hosts annually for the boxing fraternity at London's Muswell Hill Golf Club. "I'm all right now," he says. "But a week ago I couldn't get my bleedin' breath. I had been feeling dodgy for a few weeks, slowing down a bit. I noticed that when I was playing nine holes and walking up hills I usually took in my stride, I was puffing and blowing.

"So I thought I had better get it checked out, and the next thing I knew is that they were putting this whatsisname in my chest. I have had a few sparring partners in my time, but I never thought I would need a pacemaker."

"You know Henry," adds his wife of 46 years, the lovely Lady Albina. "He's not a whinger. He keeps everything to himself. But he was just gutted, thinking he'd let everyone down."

At 72, Cooper remains as engaging and endearing as ever, if as unfamiliar with names as he ever was. In his years in the ring and out, he has never been touched by a whiff of scandal, and his lingering love affair with the public is reflected in the pages of his diary, which have rarely shown a blank date since he finished fighting following a still-debated loss as a 37-year-old to Joe Bugner back in March 1971. He had been British champion for the best part of 11 years.

Of course he has to take things a bit easier for a while, but one date he will be keeping is a unique charity dinner in the company of fellow sporting knights, including Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Roger Bannister and Sir Gary Sobers, at the Royal Lancaster Hotel on 7 September, when guests can share a table with their ennobled heroes in aid of the Prince's Trust on this "Night of Knights".

Cooper's own knighthood came for services to charity as well as boxing. "I'm a royalist [a large print of the Queen Mother hangs in the hall of his home, on an upmarket housing estate near Tonbridge] so it really was a fantastic honour. I only wish my dear old mum and dad and my manager, Jim Wicks, could have been there to see it. They would have been as proud as punch."

Or certainly as proud as they were of the one which, temporarily at least, buttoned the Louisville Lip. Cooper will always be remembered for his two fights with Muhammad Ali, both of which ended with lacerations to his vulnerable eyebrows. Subsequently Ali always spoke with more respect and affection for Cooper than any other of his opponents. "Say hello to Henry for me," were his usual parting words to British scribes.

Cooper himself was hardly a heavyweight - certainly not in terms of today's tonnage. He never weighed above 14st; his heaviest was 13st 13lb. "And I couldn't move. My best fighting weight was 13st 8lb, so I thought, 'Sod that' and went back to where I felt comfortable."

The second time he fought Ali, in 1966, he was even lighter - unofficially weighing well under 13st. "I must have been around 12st 10lb, but Jim [Wicks] had two lead soles made which I put in my boxing boots when I got on the scales, and he also slipped me a little lead weight which weighed three or four pounds. I had that in my hand and I weighed 13st 4lb."

The venerable Wicks, known as "The Bishop", did his best to protect Cooper from opponents he thought might do him damage, notably Sonny Liston. "I am not having him fight those maho-gany sideboards," he once said irreverently. And on another occasion, returning from a successful overseas defence of Cooper's European title, Wicks remarked: "We didn't have to do no villainy, we won on our merits." Those were halcyon days in the heavyweight game, when fighters were not simply podgy pieces of pasta in the alphabet soup.

"When you get someone like Danny Williams coming in at over 20st, it's ridiculous," Cooper says. "You can't move at that weight, and that [Matt] Skelton, he just touches with little punches, no power. I think that if he fights that Yunilev, or whatever his name is [Cooper means the Russian Nikolay Valuev], he will get beaten.

"The heavyweight division is the worst it has ever been. Look at America; they have got no one coming up. The big guys can do other things these days, and earn good money discus throwing or shot putting. So why get a punch on the nose? I look at things today and I think: 'Gawd blimey - what's 'appened? Oh dear, I dunno.' There's only one way of boxing now, bulking up to absorb punches. But it don't make for good boxing. Counter-punching is a dying art."

Cooper quit as a BBC pundit a decade ago, saying there was too much hype in the modern game: "I was disillusioned, to be honest. I was doing the Frank Bruno-Oliver McCall fight and I thought to myself: 'I'm not enjoying this.' I told them and they said: 'What's upset you?' I said: 'No one's upset me, boxing's upset me'.

"I couldn't sit there praising fighters when others around me were saying they were the best they had ever seen. I am thinking: 'Hold on, I saw fighters who would have eaten these guys for breakfast'. So I said: 'Drop me out'.

"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. Bleedin' hell, they have all got their own songs. When I was fighting, if you took five minutes to get there, you'd get a slow handclap."

Cooper is as devastating in his condemnation of most modern fighters as he was when he had his opponents at the end of the left hook which made him one of the most effective one-punch finishers in the business, though he is impressed with Amir Khan. "He is the best I have seen in about 30 years, but he has got to stop fighting dead bodies." (Actually, we can recall Henry himself dispatching a stiff or two in his early days.)

Although it is years since his own sweet smell of success and the great smell of Brut, people still stop and ask if he's still splashing it all over. Cooper continues to do the odd commercial but his time now, when not on the golf course, is spent after-dinner speaking. He has bookings well into next year.

"All I do is talk to them, I don't really make a speech. I tell them how I got into boxing, the fights I had and about my granddad, who was an old bare-knuckle fighter. They all sit and listen and give me a good clap at the end. I'm still opening fêtes and supermarkets. In fact I have to turn a lot down."

Cooper has lived in Kent for the past 12 years, moving there from Hendon after the Lloyds crash, when he lost most of the smallish fortune he had earned. His purses for meeting Ali, for instance, would have been less than a week's wages for many of today's Premiership stars. But he took it on the chin, as he did from a handful of world-class heavyweights, including Patterson, Ingemar Johansson and Zora Folley.

"We had to downsize a bit. Just as well, because when my two sons got married, me and Albina were rattling around in this big six-bedroom house. It's nice here and I'm happy where I am. I had a marvellous career, 17 years. I was the longest-reigning British champion and this, that and the other.

"If someone had told me when I was a kid they'd pay me to stay at the best hotels, have dinner, give my little speech and get well paid for it, I'd have said: 'Who you kidding?' No, I've no regrets at all."

It is easy to appreciate why Cooper remains such an icon. He embraces modesty, dignity and an unswerving naturalness that is alien to most of today's untouchable sporting mega-rich. It is good to know that he will soon be back on his feet, punching his weight as usual.

Life & Times

NAME: Sir Henry Cooper.

BORN: 3 May 1934, London.

FAMILY: Older than twin brother George (who fought as Jim) by 20 minutes. Married to Italian-born Albina, 1960. Two sons: Henry Marco, 46, and John Pietro, 38. Two grandchildren (12 and seven). Lives in Hildenborough, Kent.

CAREER: ABA light-heavyweight champion at 17. Went to 1952 Olympics. Turned pro 1954. Won British title 1959. Only boxer to win three Lonsdale belts outright. European champion 1958. RECORD: F55, W40 (27 KOs), L14, D1in 17-year career.

HIGHLIGHTS: Twice fought Muhammad Ali, in 1963 and '66. First to win BBC Sports Personality three times. Knighted in 2000.